Warrick Dunn never wanted to jump. And yet, at the critical moment on one of the most exciting nights in Tampa Bay Buccaneers history, he made the leap when he had no other choice.
That was fitting, because on this evening the entire Buccaneers team had to rise to the challenge to beat an archrival at its own game.
The date was December 18, 2000, and the Buccaneers were playing the high-powered St. Louis Rams, who 11 months earlier had narrowly knocked them out of the 1999 NFC Championship Game. The Monday Night Football crew was in Tampa and the Buccaneers had more than revenge on their mind, though that was a very prominent backdrop to this clash of two Super Bowl-hungry teams. The winner would clinch a playoff spot; the loser would be in danger of spending January at home.
Most Buccaneer fans of a certain age will remember the outcome: The Buccaneers, a team driven by defense, prevailed in a wild shootout against Kurt Warner and one of the best offenses in NFL history. Dunn's third touchdown of the game would provide the final points in a 38-35 decision that went down to the game's final minute. The play-by-play lists that touchdown as a one-yard run, but on the play Dunn took a pitch from Shaun King deep in the backfield, moved left until he found a crease and then leapt from beyond the three-yard line to clear three Rams defenders and land on his head in the end zone.
"It was never my intention to ever jump," said Dunn. "I know I jumped at the end of this game, but I was too small. They could just knock me back. I was light. I never wanted to leave my feet because my power was in my legs, so I wanted to make sure I was always down using my power.
But jump, he did, as a matter of instinct.
"I had no idea where I took off from, no idea," he said. "I just knew, man, 'I've got to get into this end zone by any means necessary.' I'm not a guy who likes to jump, but I just got chills watching the play. So many memories just going in…I fell on my head…man, it was just a crazy, crazy feeling. Remember, I told you, I don't want to leave my feet at all. But I didn't have a seam where I could put my head down and run through, so I took the path less traveled."
Dunn played 12 years in the NFL, split exactly in half between the Buccaneers and the Falcons, and he is one of only two players in league history to record at least 7,500 yards from scrimmage for two different teams. Yet there is little doubt he remembers this one particular play vividly. Recently, he got to relive that moment, and the rest of that memorable contest, during a watch party he shared with me. You can hear everything he had to say by watching the video below.
Dunn's winning touchdown capped a 13-play, 80-yard, do-or-die drive that featured many other memorable moments. It might never have happened if he and King hadn't collaborated on perhaps the best bit of improvisation in four decades of Buccaneers football. King, Jacquez Green, Reidel Anthony and Dave Moore all turned in big plays on the drive as well. Other Buccaneer stars had their moments throughout the night during what many consider the greatest regular-season game in team history.
As the videotape of the game sparked more memories of the night for Dunn, that was one of his key memories: The Buccaneers knew they had to take their game to another level to run with the Rams, and they needed everybody to step up.
That started with a Tampa Bay defense that had held that high-scoring offense to 11 points in the aforementioned NFC Championship Game, six of them coming late in the fourth quarter to overcome a 6-5 Bucs lead. Ronde Barber set up the game's first points – and the eventual winning margin – with an interception on the Rams' first possession and John Lynch ended the final St. Louis drive with another pick. That defense helped Tampa Bay take a 24-14 lead late into the third quarter before Warner and company mounted a furious rally. Most of the damage was done by running back Marshall Faulk, who scored four times and, coincidentally is the only other player in league history with 7,500-plus yards for two different teams.
"There was a lot of pressure on our defense to shut down a powerful, explosive offense," said Dunn. "It was a challenge for them, but they rose to the challenge. Even though they got scored on they just kept fighting and fighting. They kept us in it.
"They were explosive. Standing on the sideline, you want to see a great team play. There was no sitting on the bench, it was standing up trying to watch. We were fans as well because it was just a great offense that they ran we knew our defense was up against the wall. But we also believed that we could stop them, as well."
The Bucs forced the Rams to play their kind of game the previous January but saw the game slip away at the end. This time, Tampa Bay had to match Faulk and friends shot for shot and they came out on top. The Bucs actually out-gained the Rams in total yardage, 446-388. Dennis Miller and the MNF broadcasting crew repeatedly expressed surprise at how explosive the other offense was on this evening.
"Sometimes you can hit people by surprise; they get lax," said Dunn. "And they weren't a great defensive team. They were really good offensively. So we just needed to play our game, and we actually played at a high level that night. We'd always been a defensive team so we knew for us we just needed to do our part, keep those guys off the field. I just remember playing against them in St. Louis and losing that game, so we had a lot of revenge on our minds."
After taking a 10-7 lead on the first of Dunn's three touchdowns in the first quarter, the Bucs never trailed again until deep in the final period. With six-and-a-half minutes left in the game at Raymond James Stadium, the home team had a 31-28 lead and a first down at the Rams' one-yard line after a 21-yard Dunn run.
And then adversity hit and suddenly it was the Buccaneers who had their backs against the wall. After two plays failed to get the ball into the end zone, King tried to throw a jump ball to Keyshawn Johnson – who also scored twice in a huge outing for him – but the ball was tipped and then intercepted by Dexter McCleon. Two plays later, Warner hit Torry Holt on a 72-yard catch-and-run touchdown. The Bucs were suddenly down four with the clock winding down. After a failed fourth-down attempt and a Rams punt, the Buccaneers got the ball back at their own 80 with just over two minutes to play and no timeouts in their pocket.
"We were all in shock, quiet," said Dunn of the Bucs' sideline after Holt's go-ahead score. "You think, 'Man, somebody's got to make a play. Somebody has to make a play.' But we were still confident. I think when we ran out, we still felt like we could move the football because we'd been doing it all game long. It was just a matter of thinking, 'Hey, we've got to take it one play at a time.' But we did have confidence. Nobody was doubting in the huddle. We just knew we had to execute."
The biggest play leading up to Dunn's final leap started with a lateral wide to the right to Dunn, a play that had worked to great effect throughout the night. This time, though, defensive end Kevin Carter read the play and caught Dunn deep in the backfield. As Carter was trying to spin Dunn to the ground, the Bucs back spotted King heading his way and just got a pitch off to his quarterback before he was dragged down. King faked out several Rams defenders, ran around the right end and gained 15 yards. A personal foul tacked on the end added 15 more. Had Dunn just gone down, the Bucs would have faced a third-and-very-long deep in their own territory. Instead, they had a first down at the Rams 35. The rest is history.
The Bucs' sellout crowd was in full throat at that moment, as they had been throughout the night.
"Just thinking back on the night, it was electric for Tampa," said Dunn. "The fans were just crazy; they went bananas."
And after Dunn's last touchdown jump completed the Bucs' rise to the challenge, the players could join their fans in the celebration.
"You can just see us, like, 'Man, we did everything we could to win this football game, to get to the playoffs.' That was the most important thing. We had to win this game to get to the playoffs. It was a great feeling, a great night. The atmosphere was electric, the crowd was really into it and it was just a perfect night for football in Tampa."