The Tampa Bay Buccaneers started the fourth quarter of the 2008 season with at least a puncher's chance of being the first NFL team to play in a Super Bowl on its home field. As late as Dec. 7, the Bucs were a surprising 9-3 and atop the tough NFC South division.
Despite the record, it was hard to find anyone who genuinely thought that Tampa Bay was Super Bowl-bound. The success seemed to be built like a house of cards: based on a combination of bad opponents (sometimes forcing the Bucs to mount major comebacks), lucky breaks and timely, miraculous plays.
Still, there was hope. The Bucs had not lost in Raymond James Stadium, and if they could just get home field advantage in the playoffs ...
To quote Jim Mora, "Playoffs?! Don't talk about — playoffs?!?" It turned out that Bucs playoff talk was premature. The collapse started with a proper drubbing by the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte, followed by a close loss to the Falcons in Atlanta. OK, those were road games in the division that had been all but unbeatable at home. Then the avalanche: A 41-24 embarrassment at home at the hands of the San Diego Chargers. And then — needing help from other teams to make the postseason — a humiliating home loss to the 4-11 Oakland Raiders.
The Bucs historic fold-up act rested mostly on the poor play of the highly regarded defense. To this day, no one can really say why, although, circumstantially, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin's ill-timed announcement that he would join his son Lane next year at University of Tennessee seemed part of it.
No team owns up to the term "rebuilding" anymore, but that's sure what it looks like with the Bucs. Owners the Glazer family fired general manager Bruce Allen and coach Jon Gruden, replacing them with team insiders: director of player personnel Mark Dominick (a first-time GM) and 32-year-old Raheem Morris, a first-time head coach who in '08 was in charge of Bucs' defensive backs. The Tampa Bay team possesses no superstars and average overall talent. It has major question marks at quarterback, running back and wide receiver, and too many of their defensive stalwarts are long in the tooth. Now the players are faced with adapting to new coaches and learning new systems.
Still, the Bucs posted a respectable 9-7 record, just enough to earn them the lackluster 20th spot in the NFL draft, where finding a true impact player is more a matter of good fortune than expert talent evaluation.
Who knows when the Super Bowl will come back to Tampa? But if the Bucs want to play on their home field, they have mountains of work to do.