January 26th, 2003.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers hoisted the Lombardi Trophy after a dominant 48-21 victory over the Oakland Raiders. It was the culmination of a golden age in Bucs history, capping off an arduous journey for the franchise that lost its first 26 games.
The turnaround began in the mid-1990s, when the Bucs laid the groundwork for their eventual success with vital leaders like head coach Tony Dungy, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, general manager Rich McKay, and linebacker Hardy Nickerson. They added to it in the 1995 draft, when they used their two first-round selections on a pair of future Hall of Famers - linebacker Derrick Brooks and defensive tackle Warren Sapp.
Add should-be Hall of Famers Rondé Barber, John Lynch and Simeon Rice, and Tampa Bay was ready to establish itself as perennial playoff participants and legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
They did more than contend in 2002, riding one of the most dominant defenses in NFL history to their magical Super Bowl season.
How did the Bucs make the turnaround happen?
"Man, those were good times," says Barber, a five-time Pro Bowler, five-time All-Pro, and member of both the Bucs' Ring of Honor and the NFL's All-Decade Team for the 2000s. "I’d say there was an expectation of success from our fans because we had a lot of good players. And I feel like when you can identify with the guys you’re watching on the field, you’re going to rally around them. I mean, we were fun to watch play, but we worked at it. We chased perfection daily in practice, challenged each other and were accountable to the job."
Those Bucs teams made believers out of their fan base as they built toward that Super Bowl run. From 1997 through 2002, Tampa Bay made the playoffs five times in six seasons, after making just three trips to the postseason in their previous two decades as a franchise. They won 10 or more games in four of those six seasons, taking home two division titles.
After the 2002 season, Bucs fans had finally seen the pro football mountaintop for the first time. But they also found out just how difficult it can be to stay there.
The Bucs haven't won a playoff game since that glorious January evening in San Diego, making the postseason just once in the last 17 seasons.
You know who has won a few since then? Their new quarterback, Tom Brady.
A six-time Super Bowl champion, four-time Super Bowl MVP and three-time NFL MVP, Brady left the New England Patriots after a legendary 20-year career. His arrival in Tampa Bay already has people talking about the Bucs contending for Super Bowls. At the very least, he's selling season tickets during a difficult economic time.
But can one man, even the greatest quarterback of all time, make that kind of impact? For a franchise that's had as many winning seasons as fired head coaches since winning that Super Bowl?
He can, and not just because he knows what it takes to get there, though that definitely helps.
"I expect Tom’s work ethic and demands for precision to be his biggest asset," says Barber. "Winning will bring the fans back, but it definitely helps when you have a guy that has this much credibility."
It takes more than one player to change a culture, but when it's someone like Brady, who has proven he can maintain a level of excellence on a season-by-season basis for two decades, that mindset can be contagious.
"Culture is collective," Barber says. "One guy won’t change that by himself. It will be interesting to see how many guys gravitate towards his leadership style. From what I know, he is a pro. He goes to work to work and treats his pursuit of perfection with the seriousness it deserves. That will evident quickly if guys react to that. Hardy (Nickerson) brought that to our defense, and it was there many years after he had left."
Thankfully for Brady, the Bucs already have the makings of a playoff team on both sides of the ball.
On offense, it starts with two Pro Bowl wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, who no doubt contributed a great deal to Brady's interest in playing for the Bucs. O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate also give Tampa Bay one of the league's best tight end tandems, and the offensive line is better than the box scores might suggest. Help is needed at right tackle and running back, but the core is there.
On defense, the Bucs have the perfect blend of quality veterans and promising youth. NFL sack leader Shaq Barrett and vocal leader Jason Pierre-Paul are back, as is stalwart linebacker Lavonte David.
Last year's reliance on a truckload of rookies and second-year players should also pay huge dividends. Linebacker Devin White looks every bit worthy of his top-five draft slot from a year ago, Vita Vea has quickly become one of the league's best nose tackles, and last year's rookie tandem of Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting combine with third-year man Carlton Davis III to give the Bucs a corner trio with tons of upside. Injuries have challenged their safety depth, but the talent is there.
Oh, and the coaching? Try finding a more experienced offense/defense tandem than Bruce Arians and Todd Bowles.
The stars are aligning for the Bucs.
Can a 43-year-old quarterback be the savior for a team that only has one winning season in the last decade? Maybe not.
But can the most accomplished quarterback in history be exactly what this Bucs team needs, at exactly the right time, to make a championship run?