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For the Bucs, one playoff game in Philadelphia changed everything

John Romano | A woebegone franchise put its past behind it when Ronde Barber intercepted a pass in the 2002 NFC Championship Game.
The most famous touchdown in Bucs history came against the Eagles in the playoffs. Ronde Barber's 92 yard interception return in the NFC Championship Game in 2002 sent Tampa Bay on its way to a Super Bowl title.
The most famous touchdown in Bucs history came against the Eagles in the playoffs. Ronde Barber's 92 yard interception return in the NFC Championship Game in 2002 sent Tampa Bay on its way to a Super Bowl title. [ JASON BEHNKEN | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Jan. 12

TAMPA — It isn’t all that complicated to tell the story of any franchise.

You look for the Lombardi trophies in the lobby, you count the busts in the Hall of Fame and you circle entries in the record book. Just like that, you have a measure of a team’s status in NFL circles.

But, of course, that’s only a superficial version of events. The real story is in the moments and memories. Those reminders of a team’s journey to find devotion and relevance.

And around here, one feat is more sacred than all the rest.

Run, Ronde, run.

The recounting of Ronde Barber’s 92-yard interception return for a touchdown against Philadelphia in the 2002 NFC Championship Game is like a coming-of-age tale for the Buccaneers as a franchise. It was the moment when Tampa Bay left a generation of heartbreak and ridicule behind.

And today, one week from the 19th anniversary, it is relevant once again as Tampa Bay prepares to face the Eagles in the playoffs for the fifth time in franchise history.

If you were not around back then, it’s hard to explain just how monumental that game was in this market. It wasn’t just that it sent the Bucs to the first Super Bowl in franchise history, but that it exorcised so many demons that had haunted Tampa Bay fans for so many years.

Ronde Barber, left, holds the George Halas Trophy as quarterback Brad Johnson, center, and owner Malcolm Glazer, right, watch in the locker room after the Bucs beat the Eagles 27-10 NFC title game.
Ronde Barber, left, holds the George Halas Trophy as quarterback Brad Johnson, center, and owner Malcolm Glazer, right, watch in the locker room after the Bucs beat the Eagles 27-10 NFC title game. [ CHRIS O'MEARA | Associated Press (2003) ]

Going into that game in Philadelphia, the Bucs were 0-6 all-time in playoff road games. They were also 1-21 in franchise history in games played below 40 degrees, and the temperature at kickoff was 26 with a wind chill of 16. The Bucs had lost four times to the Eagles in the previous three seasons, including ending the previous two years in the playoffs. And, topping it all off, it was to be the final game in the notoriously inhospitable Veterans Stadium.

“You all think we’re going to get beat. There’s nothing wrong with that, because none of you matter,” defensive tackle Warren Sapp said the week of the game. “It’s the 53 on their side and the 53 on our side that’s going to matter.”

Run, Ronde, run.

The game was 45 seconds old when Philadelphia took a 7-0 lead, but if the Bucs were shaken they never showed it. They had gone ahead by halftime and were leading 20-10 in the fourth quarter when Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb put together their longest drive of the game.

Philadelphia had a first and goal at the Tampa Bay 10 and the crowd was finally buzzing. As McNabb stood behind the center and appraised the defense, Barber took three quick steps toward the line of scrimmage between linemen Ellis Wyms and Simeon Rice as if he was going to blitz.

When the ball was snapped, McNabb immediately looked for slot receiver Antonio Freeman a few yards to his left. Barber, however, had anticipated this and stepped in front of the pass.

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“Whenever (defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin) got the sense that we were losing control on defense, he blitzed, and that was pretty well known,” Barber said Tuesday while taking a break from his role as tournament chair from the upcoming Valspar Championship.

“I took the initiative to throw myself in there like I was blitzing. All quarterbacks when they feel pressure … have a hot read. The hot read was right where I was supposed to be sitting in the Tampa Two (defense). He threw it right to me. All I had to do was catch it.

“It was a simple play that turned out to be a really big play.”

Run, Ronde, run.

Ronde Barber and Eagles cornerback Sheldon Brown lock up, struggling to break free to chase a fumble that the Bucs ultimately recovered in the third quarter.
Ronde Barber and Eagles cornerback Sheldon Brown lock up, struggling to break free to chase a fumble that the Bucs ultimately recovered in the third quarter. [ Times (2003) ]

It is the play everyone remembers, but it was hardly Barber’s only moment of the game. The Hall of Fame finalist also had three passes defense, three tackles, one sack and one forced fumble.

“I have seen some great defensive efforts in championship-type football games before but I have never seen anybody play better than Ronde Barber has today,” analyst Cris Collinsworth said on the Fox broadcast that day. “He’s anticipating, he’s reading routes, he’s reading Donovan McNabb’s eyes.

“He’s been a nightmare all day long for Donovan McNabb and the Eagles.”

Barber was already sprinting toward the end zone as he intercepted the pass, and most of the Eagles had given up the chase by midfield. It was as if the final 50 yards were a chance for Bucs fans to leave decades of ineptitude behind while Barber ran across the turf of a doomed stadium.

Just before he crossed the goal line, Barber lifted his left arm over his shoulder to point to his name on the back of his jersey.

“I had some interactions with some guys in that end zone prior to the game so we probably (shouldn’t) articulate what I was really (thinking),” Barber said. “But, yeah, it was a moment.”

A week later, the Bucs beat the Raiders in the Super Bowl and life was never the same again for a franchise that had set the standard for losing in professional sports.

Does it mean anything to the 2021 Bucs as they prepare to face the Eagles at Raymond James Stadium at 1 p.m. on Sunday? Nah, probably not a thing.

But for those who were around for the 26 consecutive losses in 1976-77, for those who endured 12 consecutive double-digit loss seasons from 1983-94, for those who had watched the previous two seasons end in that hellhole of a stadium, there will never be another memory like it.

Run, Ronde, run.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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