The Legacy of the Position: Buccaneers, Quarterback
While the needs vary each year, the NFL Draft brings hope and optimism to every single franchise. Many view this hope as being for the fortunes of the franchise and in a lot of ways they are correct. New faces to the organization can spark championship dreams. But there is another kind of hope that needs to be discussed. The hope is that player lives up to the standards set before him by those who once stood in his shoes for the franchise. According to numerous reports, including Pro Football Focus, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers need a quarterback after the retirement of Tom Brady. Let's take a look at their not-so-illustrious history of the position and the standards that have already been set.
From the very beginning, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were historically bad, losing their first 26 games before they could enjoy victory even once. During that period of dreadfulness, they were led by quarterbacks Steve Spurrier and Gar Huff, men who stood no chance given the lack of talent that they were supposed to lead each Sunday. There was no question that the team needed a real quarterback.
They found one in the 1978 NFL Draft when they took Grambling University's Doug Williams. From a purely physical point, he was special. He was built perfectly with the lean, chiseled physique that often draws a crowd in or out of the arena. He had the mechanics to back up his looks, with a laser for an arm that must have had scouts drooling.
The team built a contender around him in a flurry and in just his second year, Doug Williams had led the Bucs to the NFC Championship Game. Unfortunately, this is where his career took a tragic turn in Tampa Bay. Early in the game, he tore his tricep and could only watch on the sideline as his teammates lost 9-0. Oh, what could have been?!
Williams came back stronger and by 1981 had led his team back to the playoffs where they lost to the Cowboys in the Divisional Round. It would be his best season as a Buc, having passed for 3,563 yards, 19 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. His wife tragically passed away in the 1982 offseason from a brain aneurysm and he stepped away from the game for the next year to take care of their infant daughter.
By the time he returned, contract talks with ownership became contentious and, soon, he was out of the league. Even though he would resurface years later and lead the Redskins to a Super Bowl triumph, this episode with the Bucs would forever shape him, making him the champion and the icon that he would become.
After Doug Williams left, the organization fell into a funk, constantly searching for the man that would lead them to success for years to come. Through the mid-1980s, they gave Steve DeBerg a try but knew that he was just a bridge to Steve Young, their major acquisition in the 1984 offseason. Neither quarterback survived under the weight of poor play from their teammates and by 1987, the Buccaneers were looking for someone to replace Steve Young, their hotshot quarterback from just a couple of years ago.
Luckily, they had the first pick in the Draft and chose Miami's Vinny Testaverde. He had had enormous success in Miami and had led the Hurricanes to an unbeaten regular season just the year before. Surely, he would be the Guy?!
Not so much. He led the league in interceptions in 1988 and 1989, coughing up an obscene 35 in 1988 alone. By 1994, the team found their next "savior", Trent Dilfer. Taken with the sixth pick in the NFL Draft out of Fresno State, he seemed to have everything necessary to win at the highest level. Unfortunately, the team wasn't ready to start winning just yet and Dilfer soon paid the price in sacks from burly defenses and booes from his own fans.
The organization began to make changes in 1996 when it hired coach Tony Dungy. The calm, unassuming man had a keen intellect and began transforming the team in his image with a great defense and a somewhat-dependable offense predicated on the ground. The Bucs made it to the playoffs the next year and Trent Dilfer made his first and only Pro Bowl after throwing for 2,555 yards and 21 touchdowns. The Bucs became a regular participant in the postseason, something completely unheard of in Tampa Bay.
By 1999, Tampa Bay was ready to make a deep run in the playoffs. But they would have to do so without Dilfer, who was hurt against the Seahawks late in the year, forcing the team to turn to rookie Shaun King. In previous years, the team would have been doomed. But Dungy and his staff had spent a lot of time cultivating and molding this team into a force to be reckoned with.
The team carried its young signal-caller all the way to the NFC Championship Game where it lost to the Rams 11-6. Shaun King looked good in his stint as the team's starter and was given the starting spot the next year. He struggled that year, throwing 13 touchdown passes against 18 interceptions. It would be his only full year as the starter.
The following year, the team signed free-agent journeyman Brad Johnson. Like Doug Williams, he was built perfectly with a big physique and good arm strength. But Dungy's style of football was starting to wane on a team that had suffered a few too many playoff heartbreaks and he was fired after the 2001 season.
The Bucs traded for Jon Gruden to take Dungy's place and the effect in the locker room was immediate. In that magical season, Brad Johnson earned a Pro Bowl invitation after passing for 3,049 yards and 22 touchdowns against just six interceptions. What's more, he led the team to a place that they had only heard of: the Super Bowl. Under the sunny San Diego sky, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers cemented their status as one of the greatest defenses of all time, nearly outscoring Oakland all by themselves. Of course, Johnson's 215 yards and two touchdowns through the air didn't hurt either as the Buccaneers won handily, 48-21.
After that season, there was much speculation that Tampa Bay was on the verge of a dynasty. However, many of their greatest stars had been there too long to keep up the momentum for much longer and their bodies began to fail them at unfortunate times in the game. With the team struggling to stay in the playoff race, Brad Johnson was forced to pass more than he ever had before, leading the league with 570 attempts. While his 3,811 yards and 26 touchdowns were impressive, his 21 interceptions were not and further hampered Tampa Bay's playoff hopes.
After Johnson left in 2004, the team turned to various journeymen such as Brian Griese, Chris Simms and Bruce Gradkowski. They did luck into one though. Jeff Garcia led the team to the playoffs in 2007 after passing for 2,440 yards, 13 touchdowns and just four interceptions, earning his final Pro Bowl invitation. That 2007 season would end in another playoff heartbreak, losing to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants.
After that one last good season, Jon Gruden's time in Tampa Bay quickly came to a close and by the end of 2008, he had been fired. The Bucs went through the NFL's version of the Wilderness of Despair for the next dozen years mainly because they couldn't find a quarterback. They experimented with promising passers such as Josh Freeman and Jameis Winston, but after Winston became the first in league history to throw 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in 2019, management decided that it had had enough.
In the quietly chaotic time of the 2020 offseason with the COVID-19 virus swirling all around them, Tampa Bay signed free-agent Tom Brady. Having spent the past 18 years winning Super Bowls in chilly New England, no one knew for certain just how he would gel with coach Bruce Arians and his high-flying offense. While the Bucs had some bumps early on, they got hot when it counted most, just like the Patriots of the past two decades.
Brady led the Bucs on a magical run deep in the playoffs, beating Washington, New Orleans and Green Bay in successive weeks to reach the big game which happened to be in their home stadium. With COVID-19 protocols still very much in effect, the atmosphere was completely different than other Super Bowls, but Brady had his teammates ready from the start, throwing four touchdown passes and earning his fifth Super Bowl MVP. At last, the Bucs had found the savior they had longed for.
While the Bucs never again reached the Super Bowl, the next two years were magical. With Brady under center, the team won their division twice and came close to hosting the NFC Championship Game in 2021, but were bounced from the playoffs by the red-hot Rams. After being embarrassed by the Cowboys in the 2022 Wild Card Round, Tom Brady retired for the second time in a year, leaving a void in the organization that has yet to be filled.
Here is where we stand. After Tom Brady's sudden retirement this offseason, the Bucs are left with a void in the locker room that can only be filled with the lone seven-time Super Bowl champion in NFL history. No rookie will ever replace Tom Brady. But the team should still look for a new quarterback with only Baker Mayfield and Kyle Trask on the roster. Who will they pick? Will they draft Florida's Anthony Richardson? Or will they go with Kentucky's Will Levis? We shall find out this weekend.