For many of us Bucs fans, the most memorable moment in franchise history was when they won their only Super Bowl. We all remember where we were and what we were doing when our Jon Gruden and Malcolm Glazer hoisted that Lombardi Trophy. That 2002 defense played a major part in getting them there and in winning it. It may sound a bit cliche’, but defense usually does win championships. Hell, it even got Trent Dilfer a ring with the Ravens. It was the case last year when the Eagles won it with a backup quarterback as well. Now the question for this Buccaneers team is, can this new look defense do the same thing?
I know what you’re thinking. It’s way too early for Super Bowl predictions, right? I agree. This isn’t a prediction as much as it is a comparison. I wanted to take a look back at the personnel on that 2002 championship team and see how this year’s team stacked up to them at each position. I feel as though this 2018 squad might be the most talented team that Tampa has ever fielded, but that’s only on paper. And we all saw how good the whole “paper/offseason champ” thing worked out last season. However if this team lives up to its expectations and plays up to its abilities, then there’s no telling what they can accomplish and a Super Bowl would not be so far fetched. So let’s take a look at these two teams.
It’s hard to beat the staff from that 2002 defense starting with their defensive coordinator and the innovator of the “Tampa 2” defense Monte Kiffin. I refuse to even compare Mike Smith or his scheme to old Monte and his system. In all fairness, that was a different league back then. These days, the “Tampa 2” is almost obsolete as offensive coordinators and head coaches have figured out ways to beat it. But what do you expect from a scheme that’s been around for 20 years? The rest of that 2002 defensive staff was comprised of guys that went on to have successful NFL careers like d-line coach Rod Marinelli, linebackers coach Joe Barry, defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin, defensive quality control coach Raheem Morris and special teams coach Rich Bisaccia. Although I am loving what new defensive line coach Brentson Buckner has brought to the team with his attitude and philosophy, this comp is a no contest since this 2018 team’s staff is still relatively unproven.
DEFENSIVE LINE DEPTH
I realize that the 2002 d-line had Hall of Famer Warren Sapp and future Hall of Famer Simeon Rice. However, it didn’t have much beyond them. The other two starting defensive linemen were Anthony “Booger” McFarland and Greg Spires who were decent starters but neither ever made a Pro Bowl during their careers. Unlike this current defense, Kiffin’s defense didn’t use much of a d-line rotation. They primarily played six players, the four starters along with Chuck Darby and Ellis Wyms. So when you compare the d-line depth from each team, it’s not even close. The 2018 d-line isn’t set in stone just yet but for the purpose of this article, we’ll make an educated guess at who’s going to make this roster. The starters should be Jason Pierre-Paul, Vinny Curry, Gerald McCoy and Beau Allen. The reserves should be Mitch Unrein, Vita Vea, Will Gholston, Noah Spence, Stevie Tu’ikolovatu and maybe Will Clarke. That’s a 10-man rotation versus a 6-man rotation. It’s obvious which team has the advantage here.
WINNER: 2018 (by a mile)
DEFENSIVE LINE STARTERS
The only way to really do this comparison is to go mano y mano. Sapp vs McCoy. Rice vs JPP. McFarland vs Allen. And Spires vs Curry. What better way to kick things off than a battle between Buccaneer royalty in Warren Sapp and the player some Bucs fans consider an “overpaid”, “underperforming” player in Gerald McCoy. No doubt that Sapp was one of the best to ever play at his position. He redefined his position. He revolutionized that position. In his five years in Tampa, he finished with 49 sacks and 222 tackles. He added another 19.5 sacks and 171 tackles in his four years with the Raiders. Unfortunately for McCoy, he always has been and always will be compared to Sapp by most Bucs fans and local media members in Tampa Bay. It’s not very fair to him. He’s one of the most dominant and disruptive interior defensive linemen in the game today. But because he’s only totaled 42.5 sacks and 269 tackles in his 8 seasons, some fans don’t think he’s good enough. Sapp gets the nod here, but we should be thankful that this team has a player like McCoy.
Next, we’ll look at the Simeon Rice vs Jason Pierre-Paul matchup. Rice was an absolute animal off the edge. In his first 7 years in the league, he totaled 91 sacks and 305 tackles hitting double-digit sacks in six of those seven seasons and only missing 5 games. The final two years of his career were plagued with injuries, but he did add 3 sacks to his total. JPP has totaled just 58 sacks in his 8 years with the Giants, but he did have 435 tackles showing that he’s better at stopping the run than Rice. Pierre-Paul is still one of the best defensive ends in football, but Simeon Rice was an athletic freak so he gets the nod from me here.
So far, the 2002 starters have a 2-0 lead, but here is where the 2018 squad could make their comeback. Before he came to Tampa in 2002, Greg Spires had played four years in the NFL (three with the Patriots and one with the Browns) where he totaled 13.5 sacks and 77 tackles in 58 games. He spent 6 seasons with the Buccaneers where he was much more productive playing alongside Sapp and Rice totaling 26 sacks and 256 tackles and missing only 7 games in that span. Vinny Curry spent 5 full seasons in Philadelphia, missing just 2 games and totaling 22 sacks and 121 tackles. The question is, will playing next to McCoy and JPP help Curry continue to improve? I think so. And as much as I liked Spires when he was here, I think Curry is a better pass rusher and better against the run so he gets the edge here.
Last but not least is the matchup between Anthony McFarland and Beau Allen. I’m going with him as the 2018 starter for now even though there’s an outside chance that Vita Vea could end up as the eventual starter. McFarland was a first-round pick for the Bucs back in 1999 and spent seven injury-plagued seasons here totaling 20 sacks and 213 tackles while missing nearly 30 games. He was a pretty decent DT when he was healthy, but that was the problem. Allen on the other hand spent his first four seasons with the Eagles and only missed one game in that span totaling just 2 sacks and 87 tackles. He wasn’t as productive as “Booger” getting to the quarterback, but that hasn’t necessarily been his job in Philly. He was asked to be a run stopper, be disruptive and collapses the pocket and he was good at doing his job. In fact, he was ranked as one of the top run stuffers in the league last season. Even though McFarland might have been more talented, it doesn’t matter when you’re not on the football field. Allen gets the edge here.
WINNER: 2002 (simply because Sapp and Rice were so good)
I’m going to start this group off with what could be the most argued matchup in this whole comparison…Derrick Brooks vs Lavonte David. I realize that Brooks is one of the greats, not only in Buccaneers history but in the entire NFL. However, David has shown that he’s got the talent to be great too. After being selected in the second round of the 2012 Draft, David has spent the last 6 seasons in Tampa where he’s totaled 764 tackles, 17 sacks, 10 interceptions, 17 forced fumbles and 34 passes defensed while missing just 5 games. There’s no denying his production so far and if he can continue to stay healthy, then he could challenge Brooks for the best LB in team history. Brooks was quite the “ironman” himself missing just one game in 10 seasons with Tampa. He accumulated 1,199 tackles, 11 sacks, 21 interceptions, 10 forced fumbles and 49 passes defensed over his career. However, David’s stats are just as good, if not better than his first six seasons (771 tackles, 8 sacks, 16 interceptions, 5 forced fumbles, 26 passes defensed). Even though I think David has the talent to be the best Buccaneer LB ever, I just can’t rule against the Hall of Famer here. I’ll call this one a draw.
Next is the middle linebacker matchup between Shelton Quarles and Kwon Alexander. This comp was a little more difficult because Quarles didn’t start right away in the same way that Alexander did with the Bucs. Shelton went undrafted in 1994, was eventually signed and then released by the Dolphins, then played in Canada for two years before signing with the Buccaneers in 1997. He was a special teams standout before becoming the starting SAM linebacker in 1999 and then the starting MIKE linebacker for the Super Bowl season. He ended up playing in 148 games over 10 seasons in Tampa totaling 682 tackles, 13 sacks, 4 interceptions and 8 forced fumbles. Unfortunately, Kwon hasn’t been so fortunate with injuries over his short career missing 8 games in his first 3 seasons. Despite missing that time, he’s still managed to total 335 tackles, 6 sacks, 6 interceptions and 4 forced fumbles in just 40 games. “LiTiRilla” is well on his way to being the greatest middle linebacker in Bucs history. That is if the team can figure out a way to re-sign him. As great as Shelton was for the Buccaneers, I have to give this one to the youngster.
The debate at SAM linebacker is a hard one because the player in that position for the 2018 defense is only going into his second season. However, Kendell Beckwith’s rookie year showed some real promise. He had 73 tackles and 1 sack which were better numbers than Al Singleton ever had over his 10-year career. Singleton played in 87 games over 6 years in Tampa where he totaled 147 tackles and 2.5 sacks. He went on to play another 4 seasons with the Cowboys. Even though Singleton was a decent compliment to Quarles and Brooks, Beckwith’s potential is through the roof so he gets the clear win here.
As far as the rest of the LB groups go, I’ll call it a draw. The 2002 squad consisted of Jack Golden, Ryan Nece and Nate Webster who were all fairly versatile and good contributors on special teams. The 2018 group is still undecided, but if I had to make an educated guess as to who’s going to make the roster I’d say it’ll be Adarius Taylor, Devante Bond, and either Cam Lynch or Riley Bullough. Either way, it’s a draw in my opinion.
As legendary as Derrick Brooks is in Tampa Bay, there’s just too much athleticism and talent in the rest of this year’s LB group. Kwon is better than Shelton. Kendell is better than Al. And the others are a draw even though this year’s group might be more talented.
WINNER: 2018 (no contest)
This is a tough bunch to evaluate because the 2018 players are all so young with the exception of Brent Grimes. Despite their youth, there’s a bunch of talent and a ton of potential there. Vernon Hargreaves is getting better each year. Carlton Davis and MJ Stewart are showing they were totally worth those second-round selections. Ryan Smith and Javien Elliott are both early in their careers as well and have shown flashes. This comparison has to be based purely on the potential of this 2018 group rather than on their stats or accomplishments.
The one player vs player comparison I will make in this group is Buccaneer legend Ronde Barber vs Brent Grimes. Barber’s amazing 16-year career in Tampa began when he was selected by the Bucs in the third round of the 1997 Draft. He only played in one game as a rookie and didn’t become a full-time starter until 1999, but he proceeded to start every game for the remaining 14 years of his career and was a five-time Pro Bowler. In 241 games, he totaled 1,231 tackles, 28 sacks, 47 interceptions, 8 touchdowns, 166 passes defensed and 15 forced fumbles. While Ronde spent his entire career in Tampa, the Bucs are Brent’s third team. He was signed by the Falcons as an undrafted free agent in 2006 but was waived/injured during training camp. Atlanta re-signed him in 2007 and sent him to play in NFL Europe where he helped the Hamburg Sea Devils win World Bowl XV. He ended up on the Falcons practice squad but was promoted to the active roster later in the 2007 season. He became a full-time starter in 2008, playing in 57 games, totaling 242 tackles, 13 interceptions and 56 passes defensed and made a Pro Bowl before suffering a season-ending Achilles tear in the first game of the 2012 season. After the injury, Atlanta decided not to re-sign him and he ended up signing with the Dolphins as a free agent. There he spent 3 seasons, making the Pro Bowl in each of them while totaling 167 tackles, another 13 interceptions and 43 passes defensed while missing just one game. In his two seasons in Tampa, he totaled 106 tackles, 7 interceptions and 35 passes defensed in 29 games. In his 135 career games, Grimes has 527 tackles, 33 interceptions and 134 passes defensed while being selected to four Pro Bowls. Even though Grimes has been one of the best corners in football over the last 10 years, it’s hard to rule against Barber in this one.
The other three cornerbacks from the 2002 team were Brian Kelly, Dwight Smith and Corey Ivy. Kelly was the other starting CB opposite Barber and had himself an impressive 10-year career in Tampa as well finishing with 387 tackles, 22 interceptions and 75 passes defensed in 130 games. The problem is that I don’t really have anyone to compare him to on this 2018 team. This is a tough one. This position group requires me to compare long, productive careers to young, talented potential and I’m not sure what the right choice is here. My heart says to give it to Ronde and those boys, but my mind really likes what it sees in this current group of young corners. I’m going with potential over production here.
WINNER: 2018 (but barely)
Again, similar to the cornerbacks, this group is a bit difficult to evaluate due to their youth and inexperience. However, the talent of the young members in this group is undeniable in Justin Evans and Jordan Whitehead. The vets in this group, Chris Conte, and Keith Tandy, are both solid players but neither of them are a Pro Bowler like John Lynch or a Super Bowl MVP like Dexter Jackson. I’m going to start this position group debate out with the matchup between John Lynch and Chris Conte. Not just because Conte is the veteran of this group, but because I think it would be fun to see the Conte haters heads explode seeing me compare him to a Bucs legend. Like Lynch, Conte was selected in the third round of the draft. Over the next four seasons with the Bears, he played in 57 games totaling 231 tackles, 9 interceptions and 21 passes defensed. In the last three years with the Bucs, he’s played in 44 games totaling 218 tackles, 5 interceptions and 19 passes defensed. In his short 7-year career, Conte has 449 tackles, 14 interceptions, 40 passes defensed and 7 forced fumbles in 101 games. Over his long 15 year career, Lynch had 1,054 tackles, 26 interceptions, 51 passes defensed and 16 forced fumbles. He played eleven of those seasons here in Tampa before finishing up his last four years in Denver. He made the Pro Bowl nine times and was twice a First Team All-Pro. Conte isn’t as bad as some fans make him out to be, but in no way, shape or form is he in the same class as Lynch. Then again, very few are. John Lynch takes this one.
I suppose we could compare Dexter Jackson and Keith Tandy for the sake of this exercise even though Justin Evans is the likely starter this season at free safety. Jackson spent six of his ten NFL seasons in Tampa and Tandy has been here for six seasons since the Bucs selected him in the sixth round of the 2012 Draft. Jackson appeared in 73 games as a Buc totaling 219 tackles, 8 interceptions, 19 passes defensed, 3 sacks and 3 forced fumbles. Tandy has played in 84 games totaling 156 tackles, 8 interceptions, 14 passes defensed, a sack and a forced fumble. I’ll give the slight edge to Jackson here simply because he does have a Super Bowl MVP trophy sitting on his mantle.
The rest of the 2002 safety group also included Jermaine Phillips and John Howell. Both guys were serviceable but in no way stack up to the talent and versatility of Justin Evans and Jordan Whitehead from the 2018 squad. The potential of these youngsters balances out with the greatness of John Lynch here, so I’ll call this one even.
CONCLUSION: 2018 WINS
The 2002 defense that won the Super Bowl had five Pro Bowlers in Sapp, Brooks, Rice, Quarles and Lynch while Barber made First Team All-Pro. This 2018 team has a lot to prove and a lot to live up to. Am I saying they’re as good as the Super Bowl defense? No, of course not. This team hasn’t done anything yet. They haven’t even played a meaningful snap of real football together yet. But when you look at the talent and the potential of this group, it looks promising. It looks exciting. It looks like there are better days ahead in Tampa Bay. And it looks like opposing offenses will have their hands full for the next few years.
Until then, as always…GO BUCS!!!