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For Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is history beginning to repeat?

The Bucs’ John Lynch, left, and Demetrius DuBose celebrate Lynch’s interception late in an upset of the Chargers. That win gave the struggling ’96 Bucs confidence, former coach Tony Dungy says.

Associated Press (1996)

The Bucs’ John Lynch, left, and Demetrius DuBose celebrate Lynch’s interception late in an upset of the Chargers. That win gave the struggling ’96 Bucs confidence, former coach Tony Dungy says.

It starts with a tardy player being reprimanded.

It starts with a chip-shot field goal by an opponent spinning crazily off-line to keep hope alive.

It starts with an underdog coming from behind on the road to win a game no one realistically expected it to win.

As he watched in the middle of a crowded television studio, Tony Dungy felt as if he had seen it all before. Long ago, he had witnessed another disappointing Bucs team win a memorable game. Once before, he had seen a team measure its improvement with a victory. Back then, he watched that team use its victory as a springboard to redefining its image.

As Dungy sat in the studio of NBC's Football Night in America, where he works as an analyst, the images on the television screen in front of him felt oddly familiar.

It was last week, and the Bucs were about to upset the Saints.

In a way, however, it seemed like 1996 to Dungy, and the Bucs were about to upset the Chargers.

"That was the first thing I thought," Dungy said. "A couple of days later, I was at a function in Atlanta with (Bucs linebacker) Barrett Ruud, and I told him that. I told him how I remembered walking on the field in San Diego and telling John Lynch that this might be the game that showed us how … to get mentally over the hump.

"We were out in San Diego in a place we hadn't done real well. We got behind 14-0 really quickly. We hadn't won on the West Coast, and we hadn't come from behind. And we did. … It was definitely the turnaround game for us. We'll see if that's the case with this team."

Dungy knows a little something about turnarounds. Back in '96, his team got off to a perfectly dreadful start. It lost eight of its first nine games, several of them close. But it finished strong, winning five of its last seven, and along the way, it seemed to figure out how to win.

Has this Bucs team made a similar turnaround?

"We'll see," Dungy said.

First things first. As the season ends, the '09 Bucs team isn't as good as that '96 team was. That team had Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp and John Lynch. It had Hardy Nickerson and Brad Culpepper and Donnie Abraham. In other words, the nucleus of a great defense was in place. By January, that team was playing as well as some playoff teams.

The '09 Bucs defense still has a lot of holes. By this January, the team is good enough to make you think it might have won six games if everything fell right.

Still, there is no doubt these Bucs are much better now than at the start of the season, when they looked like a team that had fallen out of an airplane. Don't judge the improvement just by the victories. Judge it by the play of the team.

Consider: Since Raheem Morris took over the defense five games ago, the Bucs have been the 13th best defense in the NFL. After allowing 34 touchdowns by opposing offenses in their first 10 games, they have allowed eight in their past five. After giving up 378.3 yards per game, they have cut that to 333.8. Instead of 29.4 points allowed per game, they're down to 17.2.

Consider: Since Josh Freeman took over at quarterback, the Bucs have the 24th offense (up from 28th). They have 39 more yards and scored 3.3 more points per game. Freeman has struggled at times with his accuracy, but he has shown the ability to lead his team from behind. Four times — 11 against Green Bay, 13 against Miami, 10 against Atlanta and 17 against New Orleans — Freeman has helped the Bucs come back from double-digit deficits to take the lead.

During the past eight weeks, the Bucs are 3-5 with two last-minute losses. Certainly, if the Bucs beat Atlanta today, it will be the best in-season turnaround since that '96 season. That may not be much, but when a team starts 0-7, it beats having nothing at all.

"I think this is the most important game of all of their careers," said Culpepper, a defensive tackle from that '96 season. "If they win today, a lot of jobs are going to be saved. Not just players, but coaches. If the Bucs finish by winning their last three, it will be a like a mini '96."

How does a team stop a free fall? How do players in the middle of losing streaks learn how to win? How does a coach change a culture? For any losing team, those are the challenges.

"A team has to learn how to win," Nickerson said. "Players have to learn how to do the fundamental things the coaches are telling them, and they have to learn to trust their teammates to do the same things. You have to learn to operate as if you have one mind."

Looking back, Dungy said the key moment in the '96 turnaround came in a team meeting after defensive end Regan Upshaw and running back Errict Rhett showed up late for an autograph signing and an elementary school meeting on a day off.

"I went into the meeting room the next day and said, 'We aren't even going to talk about the Raiders or what we need to do offensively or defensively. It doesn't matter until we get this fixed.' It was probably the only time I raised my voice in a team meeting. And then I left. I don't know what else happened after that.

"To me, that was what we had to understand. Somehow, we got the message across that the little details were important. If it was a public relations director telling a guy he had to be somewhere at 10 o'clock, it's the same as if (Monte Kiffin) was telling a linebacker he had to be 21/2 yards deep on the guard."

The following Sunday, the Bucs won after the Raiders missed an easy field goal in the final seconds of regulation. Tampa Bay won on a field goal in overtime. Sound familiar?

Think of that, and then think of Geno Hayes being late last week. Think of the Bucs coming from behind to beat the Saints. Yes, there are similar obstacles in the way of victory.

"The difference between being very good and not is small," Dungy said. "That's what people don't understand. So often, it's just learning. It's a couple of details. It's not beating yourself. That's probably the hardest thing to figure out. It's a long journey, but it's a short distance."

The '96 team had some advantages. Dungy had been ready to be a head coach for years. Sapp and Brooks had won national championships in college. Nickerson had been to the Pro Bowl. This team had a lot of people learning while on the job, including Morris as head coach.

Even now, no one should think of these Bucs as a finished product. If they were, no one would be debating whether the coach should come back. There are still holes to fill, still teaching to do, before you can imagine the Bucs becoming an elite team again.

But, yeah, this team is better than it was.

"We had a bunch of guys who are arguably Hall of Famers," Lynch said. "What this team has, and I mean no disrespect to our guy (Trent Dilfer), is Josh Freeman. I think they've got a special quarterback for years to come, and that may be the hardest thing to find in football. He has to grow, but that's something we never had — a true franchise quarterback. It's a lot easier to build around that."

When it comes to building, Culpepper likes the idea of drafting Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh as much as anyone. He says a disrupter in the middle is the key element to the Tampa 2 — a force dominant enough to make every player on the line better. Still, he says winning is more important.

"Management would have to figure out how to get him with four victories," Culpepper said. "Winning is more important than a draft pick. It's a philosophy. This team has learned how to lose. Now it has to continue to learn how to win."

Once, that happened. Once, in the middle of a bad season, the Bucs figured it out. They cut down on the turnovers. They stopped looking toward the end zone. They managed to win the essential plays. They grew up.

Is it happening again?

We'll see.

For Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is history beginning to repeat? 01/02/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 2, 2010 3:46pm]
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