LB Derrick Brooks and the Buccaneers have fond memories of San Diego, but they date back farther than the Super Bowl
This weekend, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are headed to San Diego, site of one of the most significant games in franchise history.
You might even remember the date: November 17, 1996.
Ah…perhaps you were thinking of a different game. Sure, the Buccaneers also played a little thing called Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego, whipping Oakland 48-21 in the process, but they might never have climbed that mountain if they hadn't taken the first step six years and two months earlier.
The 1996 season was the 14th – and, significantly, last – season in an unbroken string of losing campaigns. At the time of their trip to San Diego, the Bucs were 2-8, having beaten Oakland the week before in overtime for their second win. They hadn't won a road game since playing the expansion Carolina Panthers 13 months earlier, and they hadn't won a game on the West Coast since 1980 and they had never beaten the Chargers.
Streaks like that were all over the books for the Buccaneers in 1996. That's why it wasn't unusual for ESPN's Chris Berman, who is actually a closet Buccaneer fan, to refer to Tampa Bay's team as the 'Yuks' on SportsCenter. The evening of Saturday, November 16, however, might have been the first time young Buccaneers like Derrick Brooks heard the term.
They did not like it.
Right then and there, the team's young nucleus decided it was time for a change. Brooks, in his second year, wanted to be one of the players who led the franchise out of its dark times, not just another good player toiling in obscurity for a bad team. The team had new ownership committed to winning and the time was right to turn it around.
And 11 minutes into the game the next day, the Buccaneers were losing 14-0.
Perhaps it all turned around with one 72-yard march in the second quarter, in which QB Trent Dilfer converted two long third downs and FB Mike Alstott finished the drive with a four-yard touchdown run. Behind a 327-yard passing performance by Dilfer, the Bucs rallied for a 25-17 win. They would take five of their last seven games in 1996, then win five in a row to start 1997 and begin a streak of five playoff seasons in six years.
They were the Yuks no more, though perhaps only those in the Tampa Bay locker room knew it at the time. Six years and two months later, they were World Champions.
Head Coach Jon Gruden was not with the team for that signpost '96 game, but he was at the helm when the team went back to San Diego for all the marbles. Though he doesn't dwell on them much, Gruden acknowledges the return to Qualcomm Stadium brings up special memories for his team.
"You cannot help that," said Gruden. "Every time you watch San Diego on tape and see that scoreboard you remember playing in that stadium a couple of years ago."
Only four Buc players, in fact, remain from that 1996 team, along with defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. Brooks and Alstott are two of the four, along with TE Dave Moore and DT Chidi Ahanotu, who both left the team before returning this season.
The Bucs are a wholly different team in 2004, as would be any squad eight years down the road, but they are in a similar position. At 5-7, they could use a win in San Diego to really turn things around. The difference this time is that a playoff spot still hangs in the balance. The Bucs are no longer trying to rebound from their sad history of the '80s and early '90s; they simply need to overcome an 0-4 start to this season.
"I feel like we have squandered some games," said Gruden. "As a coach, I have to take responsibility for that, but you have to continue to move forward. We're confident in our abilities to compete and play with anyone. We beat a good team yesterday. We'll see where we go this week with San Diego."
The Chargers, of course, are a completely different team than that 1996 crew. That team was 6-4 and was working on a fifth straight season at .500 or better. However, the loss to the Bucs started a 2-4 slide to finish that season, and the Chargers went on to lose double-digit games in five of the next seven seasons. As recently as this past April, they exercised the top pick in the NFL Draft.
So the Chargers have had to deal with their own lengthy lull. That is clearly over now. With do-everything RB LaDainian Tomlinson, reborn QB Drew Brees and emerging star TE Antonio Gates leading the way, San Diego is in first place in the always bitterly-contested AFC West and is closing in on its first playoff spot since 1995. The Chargers rank ninth in the league in offense and 11th in defense – one of only four teams in the top 11 in both – and they are scoring points and creating turnovers by the bushel-load. San Diego is fourth in the league with 28.3 points per game and has a very telling plus-12 turnover ratio.
"They weren't far away last year," said Gruden. "They have the best running back in football, you could argue that. You might say they have the best tight end in football. One of the key acquisitions they made was Wade Philips. He is a great coach, a great defensive coach. That changes your speed completely, which suits him. He made a couple free agent acquisitions in their linebacking core that has worked out for them. He is a great defensive coach that gives people problems. Not a lot of teams run the 3-4 defenses. The teams that do, Pittsburgh and San Diego, are giving people problems right now.
"They are clearly on a roll, these guys are good, well coached and playing with great confidence."
And there's also the matter of that San Diego location. As much as the Bucs enjoy their memories of the place, and the area's unfailingly beautiful weather, it's still all the way across the country. The Bucs were in California for six days before having to play the Super Bowl, but most of their shorter trips to the West Coast haven't worked out that well. The last two jumps out West resulted in a 24-7 loss at San Francisco last year and a 30-20 defeat at Oakland this year. Those were two rare losses of the past two years in which the Bucs were fairly thoroughly beaten.
"All I know is that we have to play a hell of a lot better across the country than we have the last two times since I have been in Tampa," said Gruden, who has been in the habit of taking his team out to the West Coast a day early. "It is a long trip. We have not played well on the West Coast. We have to play better across the country."
Thus, Gruden has shortened the trip and will take his team out to San Diego on Saturday morning. The Bucs are giving up the extra night to become accustomed to the time zone change but also reducing greatly the amount of down time the team spends in the hotel on the road.
"All the time you get to get acclimated to the time zone clearly did not work. We have not lost a lot of games by more than seven or eight points that I can remember here. San Francisco beat us soundly and I felt Oakland probably played the best game in the season against us. We are going to change it up a little bit and hopefully that will stimulate our guys somewhat and we will see what happens."
The change in travel plans could very well make a difference. However, it is a probably a bit down the list in terms of deciding factors in Sunday's game. The Bucs know their bigger worries are with Tomlinson, Brees and a young, aggressive defense that has picked off 14 passes and allowed only 79 rushing yards per game. In a larger sense, Tampa Bay's worries are with its tenuous spot in the NFC playoff race. It may take a 9-7 record to get that last Wild Card spot, which would mean the Bucs would have to win out. If so, playing in San Diego is a tough way to start the stretch run.
On the other hand, the team's confidence is probably at its highest point of the season following the Atlanta game. Perhaps, several years down the road, Sunday's game in San Diego will be seen as yet another turning point in franchise history.
"[We] have hung in there together," said Gruden. "Like I said, we feel pretty good about the last two months of the season. We'll see what happens."