Tampa Bay, for so long, has relied upon itself and its surrounds to thrive.
A region on the west coast of Florida including multiple bay areas, Tampa Bay has often refused the help from other American towns. When native Americans first settled into the bay area, they became one of the few cultures who didn’t need to farm – the massive waterway teeming with aquatic wildlife created an easily sustained community.
Tampa Bay has never been a popular American town. For nearly 200 years it was uninhabited as the Spanish colonised the region and then abandoned the region. When reinstated by Americans in the 1800s, the waterways and its animal life were soon destroyed. Poor sewerage and water maintenance nearly ruined the town.
But years of intense change to the water treatment of the massive bay and its inlets cleared the damage and allowed the marine life to thrive. Since the turn of the century, Tampa Bay has returned to its prominent best. Now, their premier football team in the Buccaneers have resumed their role as America’s best football side after a wonderful Super Bowl victory.
Inserted into the NFL as a fresh expansion team alongside Seattle in 1976, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers struggled for success in their opening seasons. Following 26 consecutive losses in their first two seasons, Tampa Bay reverted their laughing-stock status with a play-offs run in 1979. Many in the town thought it was a sign of the area improving, both socially and environmentally. But it was a false dawn; the Buccaneers slipped back to their losing ways, and recorded losing seasons from 1983 to 1996.
As Tampa Bay’s many neighbourhoods worked to fix their greatest resource provider, their football team did everything possible to produce wins. It took until the turn of the century for Tampa Bay to realise a defining fact; unlike their approach to cleaning up their waterways, their Buccaneers required intervention from other American states to overcome their losing record. But before the extra help could arrive, a landmark change had to occur at the top of the Tampa Bay tree.
Introducing the Glazers
The Buccaneers were always a poor side on the field. The entire NFL had waved off one of its expansion teams as a waste; just another team to make up the numbers in the NFC South. The only success that came to a Buccaneer was when they fled to other teams, as experienced by championship quarterbacks Bo Jackson, Steve Young and Trent Dilfer.
But the early 1990s also revealed that Tampa Bay had off-field problems. When longstanding owner Hugh Culverhouse passed away in 1994, secrets came out surrounding the Buccaneers and their brush with bankruptcy. To save the Bucs, they had to find a suitable new owner.
Dicing with extinction, Tampa Bay fielded offers from around the country. The owners of the New York Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles both put in offers, but they were finally outbid by local real estate personality Malcolm Glazer. His $192 million bid became the largest for a professional sports franchise at that stage in history. Eyebrows were raised. People sneered at the Glazer family. Why would they pay so much for a lowly NFL franchise seemingly on its last legs?
Instating his three sons to the financial side of the franchise, Glazer went to work on growing the Buccaneers. His first plan was to acquire the funding from local governments to build a brand new stadium. It was a success. As the century ticked over, Raymond James Stadium began its construction phase. 20 years into the 2000s it would host the first ever non-neutral Super Bowl. It’s crazy how quickly change can happen when the stars align. It would take only a handful of seasons for the management turnover to impact on-field performance.
2002/03 and the Gruden Bowl
When the Glazers assumed control in 1994, they had other projects to work on. Two years into their tenement, they appointed Tony Dungy as head coach.
The move would have its impacts – after a slow start, the Buccaneers returned to the play-offs fold. On the back of a tough defence that employed famous zone tactics and crushed sides into submission, Tampa Bay were expected to challenge for a title. But 2000 and 2001 both ended in wildcard weekend losses to Philadelphia. By then, Glazer and his team had had enough of the frustrating near-misses.
What came next was startling. Dungy was sacked. Many replacement candidates were sized up. While plenty offered to lead the side, Glazer had his target in mind. It took a media tango and a variety of cover-ups, but Tampa Bay eventually landed Oakland coach Jon Gruden for the 2002/03 season.
Already a controversy, the media hype surrounding the coaching poach was intensified when the Bucs, clearly an improved side offensively, strode into a Super Bowl. Of course, they were set to face the Raiders – Gruden’s old team.
The 2003 Super Bowl was quickly labelled the Gruden Bowl – plenty of people in both camps held bitter feelings. Having found form in a fairy tale play-off run, Tampa Bay had a formidable foe to overcome. The Bucs had the number one ranked defence, while Oakland were the undisputed best offensive unit in the NFL. The trend continued – the best defensive unit shut down the offensive juggernaut on Super Bowl Sunday, and Tampa Bay strode away with their first title in a landslide 48-21 victory. In under a decade, the Glazers had built a brand-spanking new stadium that could hold a Lombardi Trophy.
A horrid drought fixed by some inter-state aid
If the 2003 victory was meant to be the start of a Tampa Bay era of dominance, then the NFL gods sadly didn’t read the script. Jon Gruden was a hero; his side now a force across the country. But continual injuries and inconsistencies meant they never won another play-off game.
By 2008 the Gruden run was over, and new players and staff swapped on heavy rotation. Many young draft picks were brought in, only to flop or flock to another, more popular side. Tampa Bay, as quickly as they had risen to NFL prominence, were now collapsing back into the wayside of lowly NFL franchises.
The 2019 season changed nothing. By now, Jameis Winston was the quarterback of a side that held plenty of potential. Winston had recorded over 30 touchdowns and receptions in a season, an indication of the Bucs’ inconsistencies. With Malcolm Glazer having recently passed away and the sons holding ownership, they threw their eggs into a trustworthy basket. In a move that belied the Tampa Bay way, they looked out of Florida for a tonic.
Tom Brady, arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history, had just thrown an interception in a horror loss to the Tennessee Titans as his Patriots fell out of the play-offs early. Clearly beleaguered and out of touch with his New England system, Tampa Bay bounced.
It was the biggest news story in the NFL off-season – Brady, after 20 years of winning involvements with the Patriots, moved down to Florida and coaxed former flame Rob Gronkowski out of retirement to join him. New England would acquire the inconsistent Cam Newton from Carolina to replace Brady. But by the end of the season, all eyes would be on Brady and his Bucs.
Turning the ship around
Brady’s time at the helm of the Buccaneers started off shaky. It took half a season for him to gel with a bunch of young offensive weapons. Following a tight loss to the dominant Kansas City Chiefs, who had just come off a sterling Super Bowl win the previous season, Tampa Bay trailed off into the back. At 7-5, they couldn’t afford many more losses if they were to fulfil their potential and reach the play-offs.
They didn’t lose another game. Gronkowski got himself fit and joined the newly recruited Antonio Brown in shoring up Tampa’s offensive stocks. The defence clicked. Brady found his feet and began to influence games. The Bucs reached the wildcard weekend.
From there, the rest is history. They held off Washington 31-23 at home to progress. Having to travel for the remainder of their games, coach Bruce Arians guided his talented roster through superbly. If they were to reach the prize of a home Super Bowl, Brady would have to be at his best to beat two of the league’s best quarterbacks.
His first mission was against Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints. In a topsy-turvy game, Brady and his offence fired well to edge past the Saints 30-20. With barely any crowds allowed into the games, playing away soon became easier than it ever had before. Lambeau Fields still boasted an angry support base, but they were left silent as the Bucs’ defence ripped soon-to-be MVP Aaron Rodgers to shreds. In three quick weeks, Tampa Bay had gone from making up the numbers to reaching a Super Bowl in front of a home crowd.
But the job wasn’t done. If the Bucs were to cap off a crazy season with a title, they had to beat their most recent vanquishers in Pat Mahomes and the Chiefs. Kansas City had been the clear best side all year, with the strongest record and a dynamic offence. In a Super Bowl for the ages, Mahomes would have to beat his older opponent in Brady if he was to continue a wonderful legacy.
It wasn’t to be. Brady and Arians were both veterans with enough tact to plan for Mahomes. Instead of neutralising his many receiving options, Tampa Bay’s defensive unit worked on relentlessly pressuring Mahomes before he could cause damage with his throws. It was the best idea they could’ve implemented.
In a high-pressure situation, Mahomes never got a chance to settle. His receivers never got free. The Chiefs would only put up 9 points in a humiliating 31-9 trouncing. Brady would weather the storm well enough to guide his team home, and pick up a seventh ring. A fifth Super Bowl MVP solidified his decision to move to Tampa Bay.
As the Glazer family received another Lombardi Trophy, Tampa Bay’s football team had reached its water treatment moment. It took a guiding hand from the sport’s greatest ever player, but, much like its bay, the Bucs had survived to come good. Now, a remarkable sporting story could guide Tampa Bay towards a rosy future.
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