When the Bucs took the field for Super Bowl XXXVII after the 2002 season, they lined up with a defensive front that would make even the stoutest offensive line sweat.
There was defensive tackle Warren Sapp, a player who redefined the position and one day will have a bust in Canton. To his right was defensive end Simeon Rice, who ranks third on the team's sack list with 691/2 and 13th in league history with 122. Former first-round pick Anthony McFarland was on injured reserve, but the Bucs had underrated defensive end Greg Spires, one of the nastiest and fiercest players you never want to meet.
In his own way, each added to the Buccaneers' legacy of dominant defensive linemen, a reputation that no longer seems applicable as opponents have managed to gash Tampa Bay in the running game and quarterbacks have had their way in the pocket.
Coach Raheem Morris was a low-level assistant on that team but remembers that 2002 unit well. He and his staff know such a cast takes time to develop and/or assemble. But with the Bucs' current group of defensive linemen, Morris is willing to wait because he thinks the end result might well be worth it.
No one associated with the Bucs is predicting today's young defensive linemen will ever reach the level of that championship-winning unit, but the cupboard is far from bare.
The additions of first-round pick Gerald McCoy and second-round pick Brian Price coupled with the return of second-year linemen Roy Miller and Kyle Moore have Morris excited about the future.
"You look at it and you have Roy, you have Kyle Moore, you have Brian Price and you have Gerald McCoy," Morris said. "I'm not saying those are the only guys who are going to play, but that's a nice core group of guys who can grow together."
With the Bucs reporting for training camp Friday, the hope is that these linemen are mature enough to push each other and shorten their learning curves at a position that requires patience. Morris said he saw evidence of that in Miller and Moore last season as rookies.
"Kyle Moore had some growth and development to do," Morris said. "His background and his serious demeanor coming from a winning program (USC), all those things kicked in, and you saw it at the end of last year and going into this offseason. Hopefully it keeps going on that upward (trend) for these guys because, you know as well as I know, not too many D-linemen come in this league and right off the bat become immediate contributors.
"But both of those guys can say they contributed last year."
Miller, in particular, was productive in 2009. He finished with 33 tackles and two sacks despite being a part-time defensive tackle. He and Price are expected to rotate opposite McCoy.
Morris believes the handful of veterans on the line will play an important role in helping this unit meet its once-lofty standards.
"You have Stylez White, you know what he can do," Morris said of a player who has compiled 19 combined sacks in the past three seasons. "He's a pass rusher who's going to give you everything he's got on third down and be somewhat of a pass-rush threat when you need him. You have Ryan Sims, who is going to give you some significant snaps and some run stopping.
"You have Dre Moore, who was kind of in that phase where he had to grow up. Now he's getting better. When I walk in (the practice facility) on July 13 and see Dre Moore in here on back-to-back days, on his own, running with Dakoda Watson, then that's a sign. I don't know what he's going to do in training camp, but just to see that is where you want to go as a program."
Perhaps it's a sign that this is a group of linemen who are taking their mission to heart. That's good, because anyone who has witnessed the nonexistent pass rush the past several seasons probably agrees it's time things change.
For that reason, Morris had better hope his hunch is right and this group gets it done — finally.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected]