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Ranking the first four Super Bowls staged in Tampa

The city has produced snoozers, spectacles and one glorious soundtrack in its limited run as host.
Santonio Holmes makes the game-winning catch to give the Steelers a 27-23 win over the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl 43 in 2009 in Tampa.
Santonio Holmes makes the game-winning catch to give the Steelers a 27-23 win over the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl 43 in 2009 in Tampa.
Published Dec. 6, 2020
Updated Dec. 6, 2020

Though the bay area has hosted only four of the 54 Super Bowls staged to date, don’t let the modest sample size fool you.

We’ve pretty much seen it all.

Nail-biters and no-contests. Controversy (Ray Lewis) and clutch plays (Santonio Holmes). Improvisational pizzazz (Marcus Allen) and scripted power (Ottis Anderson).

Even the game’s most famous missed field goal was lofted toward the south Tampa sky. As were the exquisite notes of its most memorable national anthem rendition.

So what will our fifth Super Bowl bring? Impossible to say, though it likely won’t be the most boring or breathtaking contest staged in our city. Those spots are pretty secure.

We see the 55th version of the NFL’s global spectacle falling somewhere in the middle of this ranking of the best bay area Super Bowls. Our list is based primarily on entertainment value and historical significance.

4. Super Bowl 35

Ravens 34, Giants 7

Jan. 28, 2001, Raymond James Stadium

Ravens quarterback Trent Dilfer, left, and linebacker Ray Lewis, right, celebrate their Super Bowl 35 triumph. The Ravens defeated the Giants, 34-7 at Raymond James Stadium.
Ravens quarterback Trent Dilfer, left, and linebacker Ray Lewis, right, celebrate their Super Bowl 35 triumph. The Ravens defeated the Giants, 34-7 at Raymond James Stadium. [ JIM REED | Tampa Bay Times ]

No Tampa-staged Super Bowl possessed more compelling personal story lines. Among them: the controversial homecoming of Baltimore linebacker (and former Lakeland Kathleen star) Ray Lewis less than a year after his arrest on charges of double murder (though the case against him ultimately crumbled); and Ravens quarterback Trent Dilfer attempting to win the big game on the very field where he mostly languished as a Buccaneer.

The game itself, however, was a dud, as evidenced by the teams combining for a Super Bowl-record 21 punts and 396 yards (a Super Bowl low). The Ravens defense staked its claim to being the best in league history, intercepting Kerry Collins four times and holding the Giants to 152 total yards.

The most dazzling sequence was compressed into 36 seconds late in the third quarter: Ravens cornerback Duane Starks’ 49-yard pick-six, followed immediately by Ron Dixon’s 97-yard touchdown on a kick return, followed by Jermaine Lewis’ 84-yard return, giving Baltimore a 24-7 lead.

Otherwise, this one had the casual fans reaching for the remote. In the end, though, Lewis hoisted the game MVP trophy and Dilfer hoisted the Lombardi one.

Halftime performer(s): Aerosmith, NSYNC, Britney Spears, Mary J. Blige, Nelly

Fun fact: Greg Gumbel, who did play-by-play for CBS, became the first African-American to call a major sports championship on network TV.

3. Super Bowl 18

Raiders 38, Washington 9

Jan. 22, 1984, Tampa Stadium

Los Angeles Raiders tailback Marcus Allen runs 74 yards for a touchdown in the Raiders' 38-9 win against Washington in Super Bowl 18 at Tampa Stadium, 1984.
Los Angeles Raiders tailback Marcus Allen runs 74 yards for a touchdown in the Raiders' 38-9 win against Washington in Super Bowl 18 at Tampa Stadium, 1984. [ HO | Times files ]

In terms of dramatic effect, the first Super Bowl staged in Tampa fizzled.

Washington (14-2), the reigning world champion, had scored a then-NFL record 541 points in the regular season and appeared destined for dynasty status. Only the Raiders — a vintage Al Davis assemblage of castoffs (quarterback Jim Plunkett), characters (cornerback Lester Hayes) and controversial anti-heroes (defensive end Lyle Alzado) — stood in their way.

The epic showdown, however, never materialized. The Raiders held Joe Gibbs’ team to three first-half points, taking a 21-3 halftime lead on Jack Squirek’s 5-yard interception return of a Joe Theismann screen pass seven seconds before intermission. Game MVP Marcus Allen sealed things on the third quarter’s final play, sweeping left after a Jim Plunkett handoff, reversing his field upon seeing traffic, then dashing through a seam up the middle for a 74-yard TD. Iconic NFL Films voice John Facenda nailed the moment with his poetic narration: “As Washington’s hopes faded into the dying daylight, on came Marcus Allen, running with the night.” It would be the last game voiced by Facenda, who died eight months later.

Halftime performer(s): University of Florida and FSU marching bands

Fun fact: Plunkett (Stanford) won the 1970 Heisman Trophy; Theismann (Notre Dame) was runner-up.

2. Super Bowl 43

Steelers 27, Cardinals 23

Feb. 1, 2009, Raymond James Stadium

Steelers linebacker James Harrison runs back an interception against the Arizona Cardinals during the second quarter of Super Bowl 43 at Raymond James Stadium.
Steelers linebacker James Harrison runs back an interception against the Arizona Cardinals during the second quarter of Super Bowl 43 at Raymond James Stadium. [ SCOTT ISKOWITZ | Tampa Bay Times ]

In terms of sheer on-field exhilaration, this one’s firmly embedded in the greatest-Super-Bowl argument.

The Steelers appeared on their way to an NFL-record sixth world title before the game segued to an ebb-and-flow spectacle. Outspoken Steelers linebacker James Harrison gave Pittsburgh a 17-7 lead when he intercepted a Kurt Warner throw in his own end zone, churned down the right sideline, picked up some critical blocks and rambled for a 100-yard touchdown on the first half’s final play.

The Steelers’ lead would increase to 20-7 before Arizona scored 16 unanswered points. The Cardinals took a 23-20 lead with 2:37 to play when Warner found Larry Fitzgerald (seven catches, 127 yards, two TDs) over the middle and Fitzgerald outran the Steelers defenders for a 64-yard score. From there, Ben Roethlisberger executed the drive that would forever cement his Steel City legacy, completing five of seven passes for 83 yards. The last one: a high throw in the back right corner of the end zone to Santonio Holmes, who was triple-covered. Holmes fully stretched his arms to pull down the ball and somehow kept his toes inbounds while landing on the turf for the winning 6-yard touchdown with 35 seconds to play.

Halftime performer(s): Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band

Fun fact: Gen. David Petraeus, who later made sensational headlines while head of the CIA, oversaw the pregame coin toss.

1. Super Bowl 25

Giants 20, Bills 19

Jan. 27, 1991, Tampa Stadium

A New York Giants player celebrates after Buffalo Bills kicker Scott Norwood (11) misses a 47-yard field goal with four seconds remaining in Super Bowl 25 at Tampa Stadium. The miss preserved a 20-19 Giants victory.
A New York Giants player celebrates after Buffalo Bills kicker Scott Norwood (11) misses a 47-yard field goal with four seconds remaining in Super Bowl 25 at Tampa Stadium. The miss preserved a 20-19 Giants victory. [ Times files ]

Combine the Gulf War backdrop, the Bill Parcells factor, a goose bump-spawning soundtrack (see Houston, Whitney) and a dramatic finish, and this Silver Anniversary Super Bowl could reign as the greatest one ever staged in Tampa for at least another century.

Less than two weeks earlier, President George Bush had announced the launch of Operation Desert Storm, where a U.S.-led military operation ultimately drove occupying Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. With security forces atop the Tampa Stadium skyboxes and a Blackhawk helicopter circling the stadium, the Bills and Giants provided a glorious three-hour diversion.

To neutralize Buffalo’s potent no-huddle offense, Parcells employed a ball-control power run game to keep Jim Kelly and Co. off the field. It worked brilliantly; the Giants set a Super Bowl record for time of possession (40:33). The Bills still racked up 371 yards, taking a 19-17 lead early in the fourth on Thurman Thomas’ 31-yard scoring run. The Giants re-took the lead with a short field goal, using 14 plays and consuming 7½ minutes. After the teams traded punts, the Bills got the ball back with 2:16 to play and drove to the Giants 29, where Scott Norwood lined up for a 47-yard try with eight seconds to play. Thirty years later, it remains the most famous wide right in NFL history.

Halftime performer(s): New Kids on the Block, Disney characters

Fun fact: This was the first Super Bowl in which neither team committed a turnover.