Tampa Bay Buccaneers History: From 0-14 Expansion Team to 2002 Super Bowl Champs

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have come a long way from their disastrous first season in the NFL with a 0-14 record. The Bucs struggled with only two winning seasons in the first 21 years in the league. But the Bucs finally won their first and only Super Bowl in 2002 under Jon Gruden, and they were led by two Hall of Fame defensive superstars in Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks.

Tampa Bay Bucs Buccaneers History Super Bowl 2002 Jon Gruden
Head coach Jon Gruden celebrates the Tampa Bay Bucs clinching a victory in Super Bowl XXXVII. (Image: Rod Millington/Tampa Bay Bucs)

Tampa originally joined the NFL as an AFC West team before moving to the NFC Central in 1977. When the NFL realigned division in 2002, Tampa became a part of the newly formed NFC South. The Bucs won three NFC Central divisional titles in 1971, 1981, and 1999. They won three NFC South titles in 2002, 2005, and 2007.

In the 2020 season, the Tom Brady-led Bucs went 11-5 and finished in second place in the division behind Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints. The Bucs went on the road to win three straight playoff game, including the NFC Championship against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field.

The Tampa Bay Bucs made only one other appearance in the Super Bowl during the 2002 season. Gruden and the Bucs won Super Bowl XXXVII and defeated the Oakland Raiders.

Tampa Head Coaches: McKay to Dungy to Chucky to Arians

Considering how many losing seasons Tampa experience since 1976, they did not churn through as many coaches as you’d think. Tampa gave new head coaches a chance to turn around the team.

Not many coaches, but they definitely had several legendary coaches and wild characters including John McKay, Ray Perkins, Leeman Bennet, Richard Williamson, Sam Wyche, Tony Dungy, Jon Gruden, Raheem Morris, Greg Schiano, Lovie Smith, Dirk Koetter, and Bruce Arians.

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Tampa Bay Bucs QB Steve Spurrier during the winless 0-14 team from 1976.

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers QB Steve Spurrier during the winless 0-14 team from 1976.

The Dark Ages: Winless First Season, 0-26 Start

The NFL added two new expansion teams in 1976 with the Seattle Seahawks and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Hugh Culverhouse missed out on a chance to buy the LA Rams. He turned down Seattle and bought the Bucs instead because he lived in Jacksonville, Florida.

Culverhouse was a tight wad and didn’t spend on payroll. The Bucs were so bad in the 1970s and 1980s because they were the lowest paid team in the league that did not attract free agents. Things got so bad that quarterback Doug Williams left the NFL to accept a much-more lucrative contract to play in the USFL.

When the Bucs joined the league, they were known for two things: 1) they sucked, and 2) the team wore creamsicle-orange colored uniforms.

In 1976, the NFL season was 14 games long and the Bucs lost every game in their inaugural year. They dropped the first 12 games in their second season before finally winning their first game after an ugly 0-26 start.

During their first 11 seasons in the NFL, the Tampa Bucs won two or few gams five times including their winless season in 1976.

The Bucs posted only two winning seasons in first 21 years of existence. Since 1976, the Bucs suffered double-digit losses 17 times. In franchise history, the Bucs had only 13 winning seasons including 2020.

The Bucs initially drafted Heisman Trophy winner and two-sport athlete Bo Jackson. But Jackson refused to play for Culverhouse, so he went to play pro baseball instead.

During Culverhouse’s ownership, the Bucs went 81-194 with a 1-3 record in the postseason. After his death, his children put the team up for sale.

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Tampa Golden Years: 1997 to 2002

The peak years of the Buccaneers occurred during a six-year stretch between 1997 and 2002 when Tampa Bay went 60-36 that resulted in a Super Bowl victory. The revitalization of the franchise coincided with the change of ownership. The miserly Culverhouse days were dunzo and the Bucs had a new owner with a strong commitment to win.

Real estate mogul Malcolm Glazer beat out two MLB owners to win a bid for the Bucs. Pete Angelos from the Baltimore Orioles wanted to buy the team and move it to Baltimore during an era before the Ravens joined the NFL. New York Yankees owner and Tampa resident George Steinbrenner almost bought the team, but the Boss got outbid by Glazer.

Glazer took a huge step in changing the culture of the franchise by hiring Tony Dungy. Dungy took the Bucs to the playoffs four times, but he couldn’t get them past the NFC Championship game. After a 9-7 season in 2001, Jon Gruden replaced Dungy. The 2002 Bucs went 12-4 and won the division. Gruden’s Bucs ran the table in the postseason and won the NFC Championship and the Super Bowl.

Tight defense, anchored by Hall of Famers Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp, helped the Bucs win the Super Bowl during a 48-21 blowout against the Oakland Raiders. The Bucs picked off Oakland’s Rich Gannon five times including three Pick-6 touchdowns. Dexter Jackson won the MVP, which was a rare nod to a defensive player, especially a safety.

And yes, the Bucs really on a Super Bowl with Brad Johnson.

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The Lean Years: 2002 to 2019

The Tampa Bay Bucs did not only have a Super Bowl hangover, they sucked for nearly two decades. They made only two playoff appearances during a lean 17-year stretch. The Bucs had only 5 winning seasons between 2003 and 2019, but also suffered through nine seasons with double digit losses.

After Gruden burned out, the Bucs promoted defensive coordinator Raheem Morris as the new head coach. In 2010, Morris went 10-6 in his second season and bubbled the playoffs. After a 17-31 stint, the Bucs fired Morris and hired Greg Schiano. After a 11-21 record including 4-12 in 2013, the Bucs punted on Schiano.

Lovie Smith took a crack at the Bucs. He went 2-14 in his first season and 6-10 in his second season. He did not get a third season and the Bucs fired him after an 8-24 run. Dirk Koetter lasted three seasons. He posted a winning season with a 9-7 clip in 2016, but bubbled the playoffs. After back-to-back 5-11 seasons, the Bucs moved on from the Koetter regime.

That’s when general manager Jason Licht lured Bruce Arians out of retirement. The two were close friends and colleague with the Arizona Cardinals. Arians went 7-9 in his first season, but added New York Jets ex-head coach Todd Bowles as the defensive coordinator. Bowles switched up the Bucs’ philosophy from a 4-3 D to an aggressive 3-4 scheme.

The defense meshed in 2020 and the Bucs emerged as a fierce unit. The Bucs were ranked #2 in overall DVOA, with #3 in offensive DVOA and #5 in defensive DVOA. Under Arians and Brady, the Bucs finally ended a 13-season postseason drought.

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