TAMPA — Anthony Knight wants some keepers for a change.
The 46-year-old Buccaneers fan has seen players come and go during a disappointing decade since Tampa Bay reigned as Super Bowl champions, a moment of glory that prompted then-coach Jon Gruden to proclaim in the afterglow: “You ain’t seen nothing yet, Tampa.’’
But what followed that January 2003 triumph were 10 years of frustration for a fan base used to celebrating victories at Raymond James Stadium on fall Sundays.
“I’ll tell you what the last 10 years have been like — bad,’’ said Knight, a Tampa resident who attended a recent practice at One Buc Place. “I’m tired of being let down. Then I’ve got people calling me from out of state, talking trash about my football team. I’m tired of buying different jerseys and then getting rid of them because the guy isn’t here anymore. It’s been a total letdown.’’
Tampa Bay’s 69-91 record since the start of the 2003 season spans three head coaches, two general managers and 10 starting quarterbacks. The team’s .431 winning percentage in the past decade ranks 23rd in the 32-team NFL, 12th in the 16-team NFC.
The Bucs and Detroit Lions are the only NFC teams that haven’t won a playoff game in the past 10 years.
Yet, after 10 seasons of mediocrity, Bucs management believes the franchise is now stocked with enough young talent to emulate the success of the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Tampa Bay reached the playoffs five times in a six-year span.
“We had the right kind of guys with the right attitude and we’d always dealt with adversity well,’’ said former Bucs defensive back Ronde Barber, who was the final link to the Super Bowl team before retiring in May. “Eventually, we didn’t and we just kind of imploded.
“After we got into that losing mentality, it was really hard to get out of it. There were some good years, but they were surrounded by a bunch of expectations that were never met.’’
As the losses mounted, attendance plunged.
The Bucs suffered 19 television blackouts among 23 regular-season games at Raymond James Stadium the past three seasons as tickets sales failed to meet NFL requirements for sellouts. The first preseason game of 2013 against the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens was not shown live on local television, with announced attendance of 47,599 at the 65,000-seat stadium.
For a second season, Tampa Bay will take advantage this year of an NFL rule permitting teams to reduce the sellout threshold to 85 percent of non-premium seats. Bucs co-chairman Bryan Glazer has vowed there will be fewer blackouts this fall, giving Bucs fans more exposure to a roster stocked with eight players who have made the Pro Bowl in their careers.
“We’ve just got better players now,’’ said former Bucs guard Ian Beckles, co-host of a morning sports talk radio show on WDAE, 620 AM. “It seemed for about a five-year span, the Glazers were trying to save money. If you don’t have a good football team and you’re $80 million under the salary cap, go spend some money.’’
Two years ago, the Bucs led all teams with more than $29 million in salary cap room. Tampa Bay entered free agency in 2008 with $44 million in cap space and their most notable signing was center Jeff Faine.
After years of avoiding high-profile free agents, Tampa Bay signed guard Carl Nicks, wide receiver Vincent Jackson and safety Dashon Goldson to lucrative contracts in the past two offseasons. In April, the Bucs traded for Jets Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis, who will make $16 million this year.
“I’m excited where we are today,’’ said Mark Dominik, 24-40 in four years as Tampa Bay’s general manager. “It’s been a process. You can feel the excitement among fans that this team is coming together. I get a lot of positive energy about this football team when I’m out in the community.’’
Dominik’s first priority when he was promoted in 2009 — one day after Gruden and GM Bruce Allen were fired — was to strip the roster and start all over again. Derrick Brooks, an 11-time Pro Bowl linebacker, was jettisoned in a veteran purge and the Bucs initiated a rebuilding program around quarterback Josh Freeman.
Starting in 2010, Dominik’s drafts have been particularly productive, adding impact players such as defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, wide receiver Mike Williams, linebacker Lavonte David and running back Doug Martin, who finished third in the league in total yards from scrimmage as a rookie last year. McCoy and Martin went to the Pro Bowl last season.
In 2012, Greg Schiano’s first season as head coach, Tampa Bay was 6-4 before losing five of its last six games to finish in the NFC South basement for the fourth time in seven years.
“The key to getting out of a rebuilding plan quickly is getting younger, better players,’’ former NFL executive Bill Polian said. “That’s No. 1. Second, I think you have to know how you want to play, and I think Greg Schiano does know that and is implementing that.’’
Schiano also weeded out anyone who doesn’t measure up to his standard of a “Buccaneer Man,’’ players who love football and represent the franchise in a positive light.
“We have the right attitude, the right group of guys and the right coaches to be a very special team,’’ said guard Davin Joseph, a former first-round draft pick entering his eighth season with Tampa Bay. “It’s exciting to have a coach who really is all about Buc football and it’s good to see us making moves to get the players we really want here. I don’t mind it at all. That’s how the game’s supposed to be. We have a chance to put together 53 guys that really care about Buc football.’’
Convincing a disillusioned fan base to care about Buc football remains a challenge for the club’s marketing department.
Despite the franchise’s current five-year stretch without raising ticket prices, there are skeptics who remain unconvinced these Bucs are different. According to Las Vegas oddsmakers, the over-under win projection for Tampa Bay is 7.5.
“They’re spending money smartly,’’ ex-Bucs tight end Anthony Becht said. “Anything less than 10 wins would be a disappointment.’’
The NFC South is an ultra-competitive division and Freeman, 25, has yet to prove himself as a quarterback capable of ending Tampa Bay’s five-year playoff drought.
“We have an offense that can keep up with anyone in the league,’’ Glazer said. “That has not been seen in Tampa in a long time. As owners, we have a commitment to winning, but there also has to be patience. You have to put together the right team that is going to win, year in and year out. The team we have today is built to continue to win for years to come.’’
In 2002, the team mortgaged its future for the present. Tampa Bay sent first-round drafts picks in 2002 and 2003, second-round picks in 2002 and 2004, plus $8 million in cash to Oakland in exchange for Gruden, a rare NFL trade involving a head coach. The Bucs won the Super Bowl in Gruden’s first season.
Tampa Bay captured division titles in 2005 and 2007 under Gruden, as well, but lost in the opening round of the playoffs both seasons. Poor drafts caught up to a franchise that had reeled off a stretch of five postseason appearances in a six-year span, beginning in 1997.
Gruden was fired in January 2009 after seven seasons and a 57-55 record.
He was replaced by Raheem Morris, a first-time head coach who went 17-31 in three seasons with an inexperienced roster.
“You’ve got to remember how it all started,’’ Beckles said. “We sold our soul by trading those draft picks and cash to Oakland for Gruden and we won the Super Bowl. It’s worth it, because I saw the Bucs win it all. What followed was a lot of bad football, boring football. I see it turning right now, but that doesn’t take away from what’s happened here in Tampa in the last decade.’’
All of those losses, however, haven’t hurt the bottom line.
In 2003, eight years after family patriarch Malcolm Glazer paid $192 million for the Bucs, Forbes magazine estimated the franchise’s worth at $671 million. In its latest list ranking the value of NFL clubs, Forbes said the Bucs are worth $1.076 billion, 17th of 32 franchises.
“We’re the blackout capital of the NFL … and we paid for the stadium,’’ said Knight, the fan who has been a Bucs season-ticket holder for three years. “We did what the Florida Marlins did, we cut all the good players. Guys like Derrick Brooks and John Lynch had more left in them. Now, things are changing. If we stay healthy and get these plays down, I can see us making the playoffs.’’
For left tackle Donald Penn, this year’s vibe feels different.
“The culture’s changing, man,’’ Penn said. “Now it’s our job to turn it into wins. We’ve put a lot of pieces in place and I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people, but I’m tired of talking about it. On paper, it looks good.’’
It’s about time.
“Over the last 10 years, a lot of people have become indifferent,’’ former Bucs quarterback Shaun King said. “When your fan base gets the feeling ownership doesn’t care, why should they?’’
Bucs supporters have seen their annual hopes dashed throughout a lost decade. Now working from the broadcast booth, a veteran voice is eager to witness a return to relevance.
“It’s really about the kind of guys you have,’’ said Barber, now an NFL analyst for Fox Sports after 16 seasons with Tampa Bay. “There was a certain type of player with a certain type of character that they wanted in the building under Tony Dungy. He had ‘Buccaneer Men,’ too. I see the same thing going on right now in Tampa.
“They have the right nucleus and they should be on their way.’’
TOP TO BOTTOM
In the past 10 seasons, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ record of 69-91 in the regular-season games puts them 23rd in the 32-team NFL with a winning percentage of .431. Here is a look at the performance of all 32 teams since the start of the 2003 season, ranked according to regular-season winning percentage.
Rank/Team W-L-T-Pct. Div. titles/Playoff app./Postseason W-L
1. Patriots 126-34-0-.788 9/9/14-7
2. Colts 112-48-0-.700 7/9/9-8
3. Steelers 103-57-0-.644 4/6/10-4
4. Packers 98-62-0-.613 5/7/7-6
5. Ravens 97-63-0-.606 4/7/9-6
6. Chargers 95-65-0-.594 5/5/3-5
7. Eagles 91-68-1-.572 4/6/6-6
8. Falcons 91-69-0-.569 3/5/2-5
9. Broncos 90-70-0-.563 3/5/2-5
10. Cowboys 89-71-0-.556 2/4/1-4
T11. Bears 88-72-0-.550 3/3/3-3
T11. Saints 88-72-0-.550 3/4/5-3
13. Giants 87-73-0-.544 3/5/8-3
14. Seahawks 85-75-0-.531 5/7/6-7
T15. Titans 81-79-0-.506 1/3/1-3
T15. Vikings 81-79-0-.506 2/4/2-4
17. Bengals 79-80-1-.497 2/4/0-4
18. Panthers 79-81-0-.494 2/3/5-3
19. Jets 77-83-0-.481 0/4/5-4
20. Texans 73-87-0-.456 2/2/2-2
21. Jaguars 72-88-0-.450 0/2/1-2
22. 49ers 70-89-1-.441 2/2/3-2
23. Buccaneers 69-91-0-.431 2/2/0-2
T24. Chiefs 68-92-0-.425 2/3/0-3
T24. Dolphins 68-92-0-.425 1/1/0-1
T24. Redskins 68-92-0-.425 1/3/1-3
27. Cardinals 65-95-0-.406 2/2/4-2
28. Bills 63-97-0-.394 0/0/0-0
29. Rams 56-103-1-.353 1/2/1-2
30. Browns 52-108-0-.325 0/0/0-0
31. Raiders 49-111-0-.306 0/0/0-0
32. Lions 48-112-0-.300 0/1/0-1
BREAKING DOWN A DECADE
How the Buccaneers have fared in the 10 seasons since winning the Super Bowl:
Season Coach Rec. (NFC South) Avg. att.* Starting quarterbacks
2003 Jon Gruden 7-9 (2-4, third) 65,544 Brad Johnson (7-9)
2004 Jon Gruden 5-11 (2-4, fourth) 65,340 Brian Griese (4-6), Brad Johnson (0-4), Chris Simms (1-1)
2005 Jon Gruden 11-5 (5-1, first) 65,218 Brian Griese (5-1), Chris Simms (6-4)
2006 Jon Gruden 4-12 (0-6, fourth) 65,583 Bruce Gradkowski (3-8), Tim Rattay (1-1), Chris Simms (0-3)
2007 Jon Gruden 9-7 (5-1, first) 65,316 Jeff Garcia (8-5), Luke McCown (1-2)
2008 Jon Gruden 9-7 (3-3, third) 64,511 Jeff Garcia (6-5), Brian Griese (3-2)
2009 Raheem Morris 3-13 (1-5, fourth) 62,991 Byron Leftwich (0-3), Josh Johnson (0-4), Josh Freeman (3-6)
2010 Raheem Morris 10-6 (3-3, third) 49,314 Josh Freeman (10-6)
2011 Raheem Morris 4-12 (2-4, fourth) 56,614 Josh Freeman (4-11), Josh Johnson (0-1)
2012 Greg Schiano 7-9 (3-3, fourth) 55,102 Josh Freeman (7-9)
*—Announced attendance at Raymond James Stadium; source: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Compiled by Ira Kaufman