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Buccaneers Countdown to Kickoff: 3 Weeks

With three weeks until the 2019 regular season kicks off, we look back at Tampa Bay’s 2003 season.

Sporting News Archive Photo by Bob Leverone/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images

We’re now halfway through the preseason, which means the 2019 regular season isn’t far off. Our countdown to kickoff is officially at THREE weeks. Yeah. Things really start to count in three Sundays, with the Buccaneers set to host the San Francisco 49ers at Raymond James Stadium.

Every Sunday leading up to kickoff of the new season, we’ll be taking a look back at old Bucs seasons, correlating with how many weeks are left in the countdown. Last week, we returned to the 2004 season. So, with three weeks to go now, we’re taking a look back at Tampa Bay’s 2003 season.

2003 Season in Review

Riding the high of winning the Lombardi Trophy for the first time ever, the Bucs came into the 2003 season looking for a repeat. That effort started on a high note with an opening day win over the Eagles, but inconsistency followed. The team alternated wins and losses for the first seven games of the season, getting out to a mediocre 4-3 start. From there, things went south.

Late, close losses became a theme for Tampa Bay throughout the season, as did injuries and off-field issues. Head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Rich McKay were at odds, which didn’t help matters. After that 4-3 start to the season, the Bucs lost three straight games to fall to 4-6. Drama surrounded the team in the form of Keyshawn Johnson, whose behavior and rocky relationship with Gruden led to him being benched for almost the entire second half of the season.

Despite Johnson’s absence and mounting injuries, the team did win three of its next four to enter the last two weeks with a 7-7 record, but they failed to finish strong. McKay ended up leaving the team before the end of the season and signed on as the president and general manager of the rival Atlanta Falcons. In the first game of his tenure in Atlanta, his Falcons eliminated the Bucs from playoff contention at Raymond James Stadium. Tampa Bay dropped its final game as well to finish 7-9, missing the playoffs just one season after winning the Super Bowl.

2003 Notes and Highlights

  • Less than a year after shutting down Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia with an NFC Championship win over the Eagles, the Bucs helped open Lincoln Financial Field with a 17-0 win over the home team in Week 1 on Monday Night Football. Joe Jurevicius caught two touchdowns and Booger McFarland intercepted Donovan McNabb in the win.
  • Tampa Bay’s first home game after its Super Bowl win was a letdown. Trailing the Panthers 9-3 late, the Bucs looked to have the game won. Brad Johnson found Keenan McCardell for a six-yard touchdown with five seconds left, but Martin Gramatica’s extra point attempt was blocked. It was the first missed PAT of his career and the third blocked kick of the day for Carolina. In the overtime period, a big punt return by Steve Smith led to a game-winning field goal for John Kasay.
  • With Michael Vick out in Week 3, the Bucs rolled over the Falcons in Atlanta by a score of 31-10. Brad Johnson threw two touchdowns, with one going to Michael Pittman and the other going to Warren Sapp. Yes, Warren Sapp.
  • Mike Alstott also found the end zone twice, while the defense picked off Atlanta quarterbacks four times. Dwight Smith grabbed two, Ryan Nece had one and John Lynch came up with the other.
  • After a bye week in Week 4, the Bucs returned home to host the Colts on Monday Night Football. The game was Tony Dungy’s first in Tampa since he was fired. It started well for the home team, however, with Brad Johnson throwing three touchdowns to get the Bucs out to a 28-7 lead after three quarters. The lead was 35-14 with less than five minutes left in the game. But then...
  • Indianapolis scored three touchdowns from the 4:15 mark on, forcing overtime. Mike Vanderjagt missed a 40-yard field goal with less than four minutes left in the extra frame, but Simeon Rice was flagged for “leaping.” When the ball was moved up, Vanderjagt converted to complete the comeback and stun the Bucs.
  • Before the team’s Week 6 game against the Redskins, Warren Sapp bumped into a referee while skipping around the field. That drew a fine. Tampa Bay rolled nonetheless, winning 35-13 in Washington. Brad Johnson threw for four touchdowns, hitting Todd Yoder twice, Will Heller once and Keyshawn Johnson once. Derrick Brooks but the exclamation point on the win with a pick six. Simeon Rice totaled four sacks on the afternoon.
  • The Bucs fell 24-7 to the 49ers in San Francisco in Week 7.
  • Tampa Bay improved to 4-3 in Week 8 with a 16-0 home win over Dallas. In the shutout win over Bill Parcells — who had backed out on becoming their coach twice in the past — and the 5-1 Cowboys, the Bucs returned to their classic style. The defense was dominant, totaling four sacks, two interceptions (Ronde Barber and Jermaine Phillips) and a fumble recovery (Shelton Quarles).
  • The Bucs lost their next three games, with the first two coming to the Saints (on a late field goal) and the Panthers (on a late touchdown). After a loss to the Packers, the Bucs were 4-6 and in trouble.
  • After the loss to Green Bay, Keyshawn Johnson was deactivated from the roster for the rest of the season. He had become a growing problem for Tampa Bay throughout the year, as it was clear he wanted out. The Bucs decided to move on with the rest of the season without him. Here’s what Rich McKay and Jon Gruden had to say about it.
  • Tampa Bay was on Monday Night Football for the third time in the 2003 season in Week 12, this time beating the New York Giants by a score of 19-13. The victory finished off a season sweep of NFC East opponents for the Bucs.
  • The Bucs lost to the 2-9 Jaguars on Sunday Night Football in Week 13.
  • The Tampa Bay defense carried the team to a victory in Week 14, holding New Orleans to seven points in a 14-7 win. Simeon Rice racked up three sacks, while Derrick Brooks, Booger McFarland and Greg Spires each got one of their own. McFarland, Chartric Darby and Jermaine Phillips all recovered fumbles in the win. Both of the Bucs’ touchdowns were scored inside the two-minute warning in the first half, with one coming on another Warren Sapp touchdown catch.
  • The Bucs kept their playoff hopes alive in Week 15 with a 16-3 win over the Texans at Raymond James Stadium. Even without an injured Warren Sapp, the Tampa Bay defense allowed just 107 yards. (Fun fact: this was my first Bucs game.)
  • With Rich McKay suddenly on their side, the Falcons jumped all over the Bucs in Week 16. Tampa Bay trailed 27-7 at halftime, but staged a late comeback. Trailing 30-13 to start the fourth, Brad Johnson tried to bring the Bucs back. He threw touchdowns to Charles Lee and Keenan McCardell, then a two-point conversion to Karl “The Truth” Williams. Atlanta’s lead was down to 30-22 with 2:30 to go. Johnson found Jameel Cook for a score with less than one minute to go, but the two-point conversion was no good. With the loss, the defending Super Bowl champions were eliminated from playoff contention.
  • The 2003 season was the first time the Bucs had missed the playoffs since 1998.
  • Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice and Keenan McCardell were all Pro Bowl selections for Tampa Bay. Brooks and Rice were both second-team All-Pros.

2003 Buccaneers Player of the Year

Keenan McCardell would be a fine choice here. He caught 84 passes for 1,174 yards and eight touchdowns on the year, going to a Pro Bowl to cap off his fantastic season. Especially with the drama surrounding Keyshawn Johnson, McCardell’s play was clutch. He helped keep the offense afloat at times, putting up four 100-yard games.

Despite McCardell’s merits, though, the top Buccaneer in 2003 had to be Simeon Rice. The man continued to be a problem for opposing quarterbacks, putting up double-digit sacks for the third straight season. He would go on to do that the two years after that, extending his streak to five straight seasons of double-digit sacks. But back to 2003. Rice finished the year with 50 tackles, 15 sacks, six forced fumbles, a recovery, two interceptions and eight passes defended. He had that iconic four-sack game against Washington, then had a three-sack day later in the year against New Orleans. He was just a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks.

It was yet another monumental season for him in a strong streak of them. Hall of Fame, please. Ring of Honor next year? Let’s get it going.

Overall, the 2003 season was a pretty dysfunctional mess for the Buccaneers. Their Super Bowl defense saw them miss the playoffs completely. But the year wasn’t without its memorable moments and performances. McCardell and Rice were excellent, as were Brooks and Sapp. Ronde Barber and Michael Pittman had nice years too. Sapp caught two touchdowns. The season didn’t lack excitement, but the close losses ultimately spelled trouble for the Bucs. Of their nine losses, seven were by one possession.

We’re three weeks away from kickoff, Bucs fans. Stay tuned to this rewind series every Sunday until Week 1 of the 2019 season.