When choosing the most important team in Tampa Bay Buccaneer franchise history, it is easy to go with the 2002 team that owns the Buc's first and only Super Bowl title. However, I have always been a fan of foundation. I am enthralled by the team that establishes the path of which future generations take advantage.
With that said, I have always been fascinated by the Buccaneer team of 1997.
It had been a trying time for loyal Buccaneer fans to say the least. The team had not reached the playoffs in 15 years and was only a few years removed from a legitimate threat of leaving Tampa for Baltimore. Now owned and operated by the Glazer family and led by Head Coach Tony Dungy, a change of mentality was drastically needed to keep supporters interested.
What the city of Tampa got in 1997 was a surprising dose of team swagger that likely had not been seen since Doug Williams and Lee Roy Selmon prowled Tampa Stadium in 1979. From the debut of the red and pewter uniforms to the freshly arrogant style that the Bucs now played with, everything suddenly seemed different around the franchise.
The team that once hung their heads and mumbled through post-game interviews now danced on the sidelines, had flashy player introductions, and used the press as an avenue of promotion.
No faction of the team embraced this swagger quite like the defense. Led vocally by Warren Sapp and Brad Culpepper and strategically by Derrick Brooks and John Lynch, the Buc's defense initiated a style of play that would follow the franchise for years to come. "Buc Ball" was based around hard-nosed, aggressive defense and Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin thrived off of it, making his Tampa 2 concept the envy of the league.
Starting the season with a 5-0 record, the Buccaneers conquered the city of Tampa, sending residents into "Pewter Power" hysteria. The popular slogan that year was "We Believe" and it adorned nearly everything around town: restaurant signs, car windows, billboards, articles of clothing, you name it. Just one year after basking in complete obscurity, the Bucs were small-market rock stars.
Their frantically hot start did not completely hold up but by season's end they were 10-6 and qualified for a spot as an NFC Wild Card. A home playoff game against the Detroit Lions was on the horizon and Tampa played along with a playoff fever that had not been experienced in far too long.
Set to be the probable final hour for Tampa Stadium, which had now been renamed Houlihan's Stadium due to the Glazer family's ventures into the restaurant business, the environment at that Wild Card game was something that I'll never forget. While not a thrilling contest (the Bucs won 20-10), the game entranced the city of Tampa and all of those in attendance into a childish euphoria. I do not remember ever sitting down during the game but I do thoroughly remember the deafening noise and extreme joy and nostalgia that filled us all as we walked down that exit ramp for the final time.
The Buccaneers would go on to lose the following week at Lambeau Field in the Divisional Round, but the impact of the 1997 team would be felt far beyond that afternoon. The Bucs would move into the sparkling new Raymond James Stadium the following season and embark on a five year journey that resulted in 2002's Super Bowl victory over the Raiders.
That incredible mini-era for Tampa Bay fans began in 1997 with a team that surprised America by simply being relevant. Their shadow still reigns over the franchise as it has changed what it means to be a Buccaneer for many years to come.