Monday, December 24, 2007

Buccaneers Turn A Corner, 8/31/97

As the Tampa Bay Buccaneers prepare to face the San Francisco 49ers this Sunday, one can't help but marvel on how far the Bucs have come since a pivotal meeting between these teams 10 years ago. Once upon a time, the Buccaneers were considered the laughingstock of pro football. From 1983-96, the Bucs endured 14 straight losing seasons – including 13 with 10 or more losses.

By 1997, however, Bucs fans finally had reason for wary optimism. Tony Dungy, then entering his second season as head coach, led Tampa Bay to a 6-10 record in 1996, but more importantly instilled a new attitude in the locker room, inspiring loyalty and devotion from his players. Tampa Bay finished the 1996 season on a hot streak, wining five of its last seven games, and hoped to carry that momentum into the next year’s season opener at home against the San Francisco 49ers.

On Aug. 31, 1997, the Bucs were starkly different than the 49ers. As the “Team of the Eighties,” the 49ers won four Super Bowls in that decade, and were only a season removed from a fifth championship in 1995. While the Bucs struggled, the 49ers made the playoffs in 14 of 16 years with only one losing season.

From 1983-94, San Francisco defeated Tampa Bay in nine consecutive meetings by an average more than two touchdowns. In the face of history and a formidable 49ers roster, even the most optimistic of Bucs fans could not have expected much against San Francisco.

But the 49ers found out on their first offensive possession that they were not facing the same old Bucs. Just as Tampa Bay finally shed its orange and white colors for a more modern red and pewter design, so too it shed a longstanding reputation as a pushover.

On the game’s first series, defensive tackle Warren Sapp set the tone by sacking future Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young for an 11-yard loss. Young suffered a concussion when linebacker Hardy Nickerson’s knee struck his head at the end of the play, knocking off his block figuratively and his helmet literally. The 62,000-strong crowd rocked Houlihan’s Stadium, appreciating the rare opportunity to witness its team push around the 49ers for once.

Things got worse for San Francisco in the second quarter, when a Sapp hit forced Jerry Rice, arguably the greatest receiver of all time, to exit the game with a serious knee injury. While Sapp’s dominant 11-tackle, 2½-sack performance signaled a new era in Bucs defense, the all-around effort of Mike Alstott helped forge a new identity for Tampa Bay’s offense.

The second-year fullback out of Purdue burst onto the scene in 1996 as a punishing runner whose quick moves and knack for catching passes out of the backfield made him a weapon unlike any in Tampa Bay history. Against the 49ers, Alstott amassed 119 all-purpose yards and played a significant role in a second-half Bucs comeback. Alstott’s bruising running style resonated with Bucs fans, who for too long saw their team get flattened by the opposition. With Alstott, Tampa Bay finally had someone to run through and over the opposition.

It was a physical, low-scoring game filled with mistakes and miscues by both teams. In the end, the Bucs proved to be the clutch team that day, overcoming a six-point fourth-quarter deficit. They took the lead on a 1-yard touchdown pass from Trent Dilfer to tight end Dave Moore. An interception on the 49ers’ ensuing series set up Tampa Bay’s final points of the game, a 34-yard field goal by Michael Husted for a winning score of 13-6.

As the final seconds ticked off the clock, Bucs fans reacted with a mixture of exuberance and confusion at what they had witnessed. Never before had the Buccaneers defeated the 49ers in Tampa Bay. Never before had the Buccaneers dominated an opponent with a pedigree like the 49ers. Not since a 10-3 loss in 1991 to New Orleans Saints had the 49ers been held without a touchdown. Quite simply, it was one of the most unexpected, yet satisfying victories in franchise history.

Today, that game is remembered as a landmark for an organization entering its greatest era of prosperity. In 1997, the Bucs raced to a 5-0 start, finishing with a 10-6 record and a playoff berth. Tampa Bay capped one of the most successful seasons in franchise history with a first-round victory over Detroit in the final game at Houlihan’s Stadium.

Even though the Bucs fell a week later in Green Bay, the once-laughable organization had clearly turned the corner. Between 1997 and 2002, the hard-nosed Bucs enjoyed five playoff appearances, two division titles and a Super Bowl championship to finally shed their laughingstock label once and for all.

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