Frankly, Bucs deserve to be higher than 10th all-time

by Gary Shelton on June 28, 2017 · 2 comments

in general

Wednesday, 4 a.m.

Their trophy used to be shinier. Their memories used to be crisper. The regard used to be higher.

The years have not been kind to the Tampa Bay Bucs, one of the finest defenses the NFL has ever seen.

No one fears Simeon Rice anymore. No one is afraid to throw the ball near Derrick Brooks. Warren Sapp still snarls, but offensive guards don't go weak in the knees when his name is mentioned.

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These days, those Bucs' defenses are still thought of as very good.

They're no longer the fearsome force they once were.

Pro Football Focus did a list of the all-time top 30 defenses. The Bucs of 2002 came in 10th. Not bad, but not as high as those of us who were around the Bucs remember them to be. We remember a team that smothered quarterbacks, that blunted running backs and who dragged their own offense behind them all the way to the Super Bowl.

Toss in that no one seems to remember how the Bucs dominated a very good Raiders' offense in the Super Bowl. Most Super Bowl rankings have the Bucs in the middle of the pack of champions. Funny, but the night they won it -- overwhelming league MVP Rich Gannon -- everyone wrote about the Bucs' domination. But that domination didn't last, and therefore, to a lot of people, it isn't lasting.

So the question is this: Is it enough that the Bucs are remembered as a good defense.

Or do you wonder why they are not remembered as a great one.

Back in 2003, I did a 10-year comparison to the Bucs and the other great defenses that the league had seen. I crunched every number you can imagine — from average yards per rush to average yards per reception, from turnovers forced to first downs allowed, from the opposing quarterback rating to the number of sacks. And, yes, the Bucs defense ranked very well. Only the Pittsburgh Steelers' great run (which included four Super Bowls) was clearly better.

In the 2002 season (2003 Super Bowl), the Bucs were dominant. Sure, you can argue that teams like the 1985 Bears and the 2000 Ravens had better single seasons. Not better decades, but better single seasons.

But 10th?


Oh, there are reasons outsiders don't seem to remember the Bucs as clearly as we do. For one thing, the Bucs have done an awful job of maintaining their excellence. They kept losing greatness (John Lynch, Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks) without a hint of replacing any of it. It's been a long time since that team rode roughshod over the league. A lot of journalists hadn't turned on their laptops yet.

Then, there is this: That Bucs team was built on speed. It wasn't the biggest, and it wasn't the baddest team in the world. It didn't turn out the lights like the Bears or the Ravens. Yes, it gave up 21 points in its Super Bowl win, but don't forget, 18 of those came after the game was decided.

Hey, you notice the mountain nearest your window, right? And so I admit that I'm biased. I covered that Bucs' team. But as objective as I can be, I put them fourth on the single-season list (you could argue as low as sixth, but no lower).

The Bucs forced more fumbles than any of the nine teams ahead of them, and they caused more turnovers (61). The Bucs had more interceptions than all but two of the teams ahead of them (in a pass-happy league). They held opposing quarterbacks to a lower rating than six of the teams. Four of the teams ahead of them weren't first in either points or yardage allowed (the '86 Giants didn't lead the league in either).

Only the 2000 Ravens won more than the Bucs' three playoff games (as many as the 2013 Seahawks, the 1986 Giants, the 1969 Chiefs and the 1985 Bears). The '62 Lions and the 1991 Eagles failed to make the playoffs, and the 1976 Steelers won but one game.

Pro Football Focus puts them behind, among others, the 1962 Lions, who won diddly (which is a huge part of the equation. It's what you play for.) The Lions were second in the league (ahead of 12 teams) in scoring. They gave up 3.9 yards per rush.

In eighth place, the website had the 2013 Seattle Seahawks, the team that would shred the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. That team, however, allowed quarterbacks a 63.4 rating, the highest rating of any team in its top 10.

Seventh place is a mystery. The 1991 Eagles got a lot of sacks, but they were fifth in points allowed, the highest finish of any top 10 team in points and yardage.

In sixth place is the 1986 Giants, a wonderful team. But the Giants are the only team in the top 10 that didn't lead in either yardage or points against. If you don't lead the league, should you be among the all-time greats?

In fifth place were the old Purple People Eaters, which have an argument on days that weren't Super Bowl Sunday, days they spent chasing other teams around.

Now, I've always picked on the 1969 Chiefs, who have crammed into the Hall of Fame as if they were Steelers. They won one Super Bowl, and they didn't even win their division that year. But, yeah, they were pretty darned good.

After that come the unchallenged threesome of the 2000 Ravens, the 1976 Steelers and the 1985 Bears. No arguments here on any of them, although the '76 Steelers weren't one of the four championships of the era. (They are placed here to represent all the other great Steeler teams; but if a team represents more than one year, aren't we into multiple seasons here.) Again, none of them put together a decade like Tampa Bay's, but if your debate is one-year-wonders, you can't go wrong with any of them.

Look, no one is saying that any of the top 10 teams (or several of those behind the Bucs) were bad teams. They weren't. If you want to put together an all-star team from these defenses, teams might never gain an inch.

Over time, however, I think people have forgotten how nasty Sapp could be, and how fast Brooks could cover ground, and how quickly Simeon Rice turned the corner, and what instincts Ronde Barber had, or how John Lynch filled the box, or how Shelton Quarles dropped. It was a rare defense, and it rode herd on the NFL for a long time. It was great enough, in fact, to cover up for the fact it had a perfectly dreadful offense.

Someone ought to remember.

Someone ought to write it down.

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