TAMPA – It’s not that hard to tell the story of a franchise.
You look for the Lombardi trophies in the lobby, you count the busts in the Hall of Fame and you circle the entries in the record book. Just like that, you have a measure of a team’s status in NFL circles.
But, of course, this is only a superficial version of events. The real story is in the moments and the memories. These reminders of a team’s journey to finding dedication and relevance.
And here, one feat is more sacred than all the others.
Run, Round, run.
The tale of Ronde Barber’s 92-yard intercept return for a touchdown against Philadelphia in the 2002 NFC Championship game is like a coming-of-age tale for the Buccaneers as a franchise. It was the moment when Tampa Bay left behind a generation of sorrow and ridicule.
And today, one week away from the 19th anniversary, it’s all topical again as Tampa Bay prepares to face the Eagles in the playoffs for the fifth time in franchise history.
If you weren’t there at the time, it’s hard to explain how monumental this game was in this market. It wasn’t just that he sent the Bucs to the first Super Bowl in franchise history, but that he exorcised so many demons that had haunted Tampa Bay fans for so many years.
Prior to that game in Philadelphia, the Bucs were 0-6 all-time in road playoff games. They were also 1-21 in franchise history in games played below 40 degrees, and the temperature at kickoff was 26 with a wind chill of 16. The Bucs had lost to the Eagles four times. over the previous three seasons, including the end of the previous two. years in the playoffs. And, to top it off, it had to be the last game in the notoriously inhospitable veterans stadium.
“You all think we’re going to get beaten up. There’s nothing wrong with that because neither of you matters, ”defensive tackle Warren Sapp said on match week. “It’s the 53 on their side and the 53 on our side that will count.”
Run, Round, run.
The game was 45 seconds old when Philadelphia took a 7-0 lead, but if the Bucs were shaken, they never showed it. They had taken the lead at halftime and were leading 20-10 in the fourth quarter when Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb completed his longest practice of the game.
Philadelphia scored a first and a goal at Tampa Bay 10 and the crowd was finally humming. As McNabb stood behind center and assessed the defense, Barber took three quick steps towards the line of scrimmage between linemen Ellis Wyms and Simeon Rice as if about to start a blitz.
When the ball was broken, McNabb immediately looked for receiver Antonio Freeman a few yards to his left. Barber, however, had anticipated this and stepped in front of the pass.
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“Anytime (defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin) felt like we were losing control of the defense, he would blitz, and that was pretty well known,” Barber said Tuesday while taking a break from his role as chairman of the tournament of the next Valspar championship.
“I took the initiative to throw myself in there like I was doing a blitz. All shifts when they feel pressure… have a hot reading. The hot reading was exactly where I was supposed to be sitting in the Tampa Two (defense). He threw it straight to me. All I had to do was grab it.
“It was a simple room that turned out to be a really big room.”
Run, Round, run.
It’s the game everyone remembers, but it wasn’t the only moment of the game for Barber. The Hall of Fame runner-up also had three defensive passes, three tackles, a sack and a forced fumble.
“I’ve seen great defensive efforts in championship style football before, but I’ve never seen anyone play better than Ronde Barber today,” analyst Cris Collinsworth said on Fox. That day. “He anticipates, he reads the routes, he reads Donovan McNabb’s eyes.
“It’s been a nightmare all day for Donovan McNabb and the Eagles.”
Barber was already sprinting towards the end zone as he intercepted the pass, and most of the Eagles had given up on the pursuit in midfield. It was as if the last 50 yards were a chance for Bucs fans to leave decades of incompetence behind as Barber raced across the turf of a doomed stadium.
Just before crossing the goal line, Barber raised his left arm over his shoulder to show his name on the back of his shirt.
“I had a few interactions with guys in that end zone before the game, so we (shouldn’t) probably be expressing what I was really thinking,” Barber said. “But, yes, that was a while.”
A week later, the Bucs beat the Raiders in the Super Bowl and life was never the same again for a franchise that had set the standard for losing in professional sports.
Does that mean anything for the 2021 Bucs as they prepare to face the Eagles at Raymond James Stadium at 1 p.m. Sunday? No, probably not a thing.
But for those who were there for the 26 straight losses in 1976-77, for those who endured 12 straight seasons of double-digit losses from 1983-94, for those who had seen the previous two seasons end in this hell of a a stadium there will never be another memory like this.
Run, Round, run.
John Romano can be contacted at [email protected]. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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