From The Yucks To The Bucs and Back Again: How Tampa Bay Lost Its Way

Kenny SteinCorrespondent IOctober 28, 2009

TAMPA, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Defensive end Julius Peppers #90 of the Carolina Panthers tackles quarterback Josh Johnson #11 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the game at Raymond James Stadium on October 18, 2009 in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

If defense wins championships, then there was no team that could have ever stopped the 2002 Buccaneers.

The team featured five pro bowlers on that side of the ball, and that's not including Ronde Barber, Brian Kelly, Anthony McFarland, Dexter Jackson, and Dwight Smith.

The Steel Curtain, Da Bears, The Bucs. They'll easily go down amongst the best of all-time, with a handful of Hall of Famers.

However, seven years later and they have made the playoffs just twice (0 wins) and won more than nine games just once. And while it seemed the light at the end of the tunnel was always near for Tampa, with four top five finishes on defense in six years, the wheels have finally fallen off.

The Bucs have as many losses this year (seven) as they did last year, and it only took them seven games to get there. And while their offense is bad as usual (28th in the league), their defense has finally caught up (27th in the league.)

So how did the Bucs go back to being the Yucks?

Following that Super Bowl victory, the Bucs turned their attention to an offense that ranked 18th in the league. Brad Johnson was an efficient, but not spectacular, quarterback. Their leading rusher Michael Pittman gained just 718 yards on the ground and leading receiver Keyshawn Johnson managed 1088 yards through the air.

Take an all-time great defense and improve your offense and you've got the makings for one of the great teams ever, right?

Four of the Bucs next five top picks after their Super Bowl victory were spent on offensive players. But whether it was because they failed to live up to early signs of promise (Michael Clayton) or were devastated by injury (Cadillac Williams) the players that the Bucs chose were never able to sustain any kind of success in the NFL.

This is part of the reason the Bucs have not had any kind of stability or consistency on offense.

Over the last seven seasons, including this season, six different quarterbacks have led the team in passing. Only Jeff Garcia managed to hold onto a job for more than one season.

Four different running backs have led the team in rushing over the last six seasons. And five different wide receivers have led the team in yards since 2003.

Legendary players like Bruce Gradkowski, Chris Simms, Earnest Graham, and Michael Clayton have been focal points of this offense.

That's not a good sign.

But it was okay because the defense was always solid. Even last year the Bucs finished 9th in the league in yards allowed and at one point were 9-3 before losing their last four games and falling short of the playoffs.

But years of losing players to free agency and retirement and not replacing them will eventually catch up with you.

When the Bucs sent five players to the pro bowl after becoming world champions, the average age of those players was 29.8. After 2003, Warren Sapp and John Lynch were released and left to go try and help other franchises. Pro Bowl linebacker Shelton Quarles never made another pro bowl roster and retired after the 2006 season. Defensive End Simeon Rice hasn't played in the NFL since 2007 and is now playing in the UFL. Future Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks decided last season would be his final season. (EDIT: Bucs fans really want me to point out that Brooks did not "decide" anything.  He was kicked out.  The fact still remains, he isn't there and he should be happy he got kicked out.)

Maybe he was onto something.

Those legendary names of 2002 have been replaced by names like Sabby Piscitelli, Geno Hayes, Jimmy Wilkerson, and Quincy Black. Ronde Barber still remains, but at 34 he is the oldest player on the team.

All that time spent on trying to improve the offense, meant that they were losing ground on defense.

Their top pick in 2007, defensive end Gaines Adams, was traded away after two disappointing seasons. Currently their defensive is set to build around linebacker Barrett Ruud and cornerback Aqib Talib. But its slim pickings after those two.

On offense, Cadillac Williams tries to revive a once-promising career. However its one thing to lead your team in rushing yards and its another thing when that total is only 305 yards in seven games.

Also on offense, Kellen Winslow Jr. has been a great pickup for a team in need of a player that can actually make catches. Winslow has been the only bright spot on offense though.

The team dropped Byron Leftwich after week three and decided to go with unknown Josh Johnson at quarterback after the team gained a total of 86 yards against the Giants. The response? The Bucs have averaged 254.25 yards per game, 2.5 turnovers, and 14 first downs with Johnson at QB. In the three games that Leftwich started at QB, including the 86 yard debacle in which they totaled 5 first downs, the Bucs averaged 296.3 yards, 1 turnover, and 16.6 first downs.

They haven't even come close to the 450 yards they gained in week one or the 353 yards they gained in week two.

I suppose people in Tampa are so used to the Bucs being a great defensive team that they ignored the 450 yards per game and the 33.5 points per game that they gave up in those first two weeks.

Not that Leftwich got completely screwed by that organization. But let's point the finger where it right belongs.

Ownership had blamed Gruden, Garcia, Keyshawn Johnson, and anyone else they could for not winning a playoff game in five years. But they were the ones that made the hires, the fires, the signings, the releases, and the picks.

They were the ones who drafted Cadillac Williams, even though he had two season-ending injuries at Auburn.

They drafted Gaines Adams over Adrian Peterson.

They release Lynch and Sapp.

Former GM Bruce Allen is former for a reason.

And while new GM Mark Dominik might be doing a lot of things right, his first season is looking very wrong. And it starts with releasing Leftwich and not having a viable backup plan.

QB Josh Freeman was their first round pick this season. But unlike Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan, and Mark Sanchez, he hasn't shown the ability to start in his first year.

This is hurting the Bucs and perhaps could be a reason to worry for the future. What if Freeman won't be ready until the players around him are also ready? What wide receivers does he have to throw to? What running back can he rely on? How many lineman can be relied upon to protect him?

Josh Johnson is completing fewer passes for less yards, less touchdowns, and more interceptions than what Leftwich was doing. The real question is: How can 17th overall pick Josh Freeman do any worse?

Johnson is 23-years-old. Is he supposed to be a wise sage compared to the 21-year-old Freeman? Or is that management knows they've really not built a foundation to build a house on?

I've always believed that you've got to build an offense from the outside-in. Surround the quarterback position with talent and fill that gap in last. The Bucs have instead seen an empire crumble and thrown unproven and far-from-ready men in the fire, waiting to get eaten alive.

This franchise may only get worse before it gets any better. The defense is awful and the offense is worse. The stars are gone and the remaining ones may want to leave while they still have a chance.

Yes, the Yucks are here to stay. Again.


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