In 1997, Tony Dungy’s second year with the Buccaneers, the team made the playoffs for the first time in 16 years. That 1982 appearance was the result of a strike-shortened season and the team would make a quick exit after losing to the Dallas Cowboys 30-17.
Back to the Future
In 1999 the Buccaneers were 11-5. Second seed to the St. Louis Rams who were the first seed. For Tampa, there was a bi-week and a home game on the way.
After the Washington Redskins beat the Detroit Lions, Buccaneers fans knew the Redskins were coming.
The Buccaneers were down 13-0 in the second half and Washington was driving, John Lynch would pick off Brad Johnson at the 28-yard line. The team would drive the field and score on a Mike Alstott two-yard run. 7-13.
Next, defensive lineman Steve White would force a Johnson fumble and Warren Sapp would recover it at the 32. Shaun King would have a 17-yard pass to Bert Emanuel and a 13-yard pass to Warrick Dunn. Add a five-yard run by the A-Train and the Buccaneers would eventually score on a King touchdown pass. Tampa up 14-13.
Washington would have a last-second chance to win on a 52-yard field goal. The attempt would be no good. Shaun King became the first rookie to lead his team to a playoff victory since Pat Hayden in 1976.
With the Rams defeat of the Minnesota Vikings the following day, the life was cast. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers would play the St. Louis Rams in the 1999 NFC Championship game.
Meet Me in St. Louis
The Buccaneers had not been to the championship game since 1980. This was the Rams’ first time in the playoffs since moving to St. Louis. It was the high octane Rams offense against the suffocating Buccaneers defense.
With both teams managing a field goal in the first quarter. A shotgun snap over King’s head would go out of the back of the end zone for a safety. The score was 5-3 Rams, and remain that way at the half.
The game was following the script the Buccaneers had used all season. The team had stymied the high octane Rams offense. Also, the Buccaneers’ offense was having trouble finding any rhythm.
Coming out of halftime the Buccaneers would add a Martin Gramatica field goal to take a 6-5 lead. Rams quarterback Kurt Warner would be intercepted by Tampa’s defense twice in the second half. The most costly being a Hardy Nickerson pick off at the Tampa Bay three-yard line.
Late in the fourth quarter, Dre Bly would intercept a Shaun King pass and set the Rams up at the Buccaneer 49 yard line. A few plays and a 30-yard touchdown pass to Rams’ receiver Ricky Proehl and the Rams would go up 11-6. Failing to convert a two-point conversion that would have given them a seven-point lead.
Goin According to Script
As previously pointed out, this was the Tony Dungy/ Buccaneer script. Stay close, score late, and rely on the defense to hold serve.
Driving deep into St. Louis territory late with 1:25 left, a 22-yard pass to Karl “the truth” Williams would give the team 1st and 10 at the Rams 22. On the next play, King was sacked for a loss of 12 yards back to the Rams 35.
Fate was getting close. The entire season the Buccaneers’ offense would dink and dunk and take what the defense would give them. With 3rd and 25, it was two down territory, but the team was looking to get a chunk on the next play.
When Shaun King threw an 11-yard pass to a diving Bert Emanuel, it was 3rd and 12. Because the clock was running out, the Buccaneers called a timeout. It was during that timeout that Jerry Markbreit, the review official on-site, would take the extra time to look at the pass, and call down to the field for a booth review.
It was the first season with a review being used. The technology was ready but surely in its infancy. Even with Emanuel controlling the ball all the way through, even with the original call being a completion, the call would be overturned. Instead of 3rd and 12, the Buccaneers were looking at 3rd and 23. With everyone on the Buccaneers sideline in disbelief, as well as every Buccaneers’ fan watching on TV everywhere, King would go on to throw two incompletions and the Buccaneers would turn it over on downs.
The NFL would eventually change the rule to say that if possession is maintained and the ground doesn’t assist with the catch, then it is a completion. Known as the “Bert Emanuel rule”. The catch or overturned catch did not cost the team the game. It did change momentum and took the Buccaneers off of their tried and true recipe for success that season. The Rams would go on to beat the Tennessee Titans in the Super Bowl that year.
The next several years the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would be the toast of the town and become one of the most feared defenses in the NFL. Pandora’s box had been opened. Buccaneers’ fans had started to realize that this was a very special time in team history.
Bert Emanuel would go on to answer so many inquiries about a play he got right, that the officials got wrong, and some would say cost the team the game. Which in reality, just isn’t true.
As stated in part one of this series, to dismiss the 1999 Buccaneers’ season as an NFC Championship game and a blown review on the Bert Emanuel catch would be a crime, it was the start of something special. A rising tide that would carry the Buccaneers’ ship to the Super Bowl Championship two years later. A defense that will forever stand among the best the game has ever seen. It was something special.