Fennelly: World of 'what ifs' as Rich McKay beats Bucs back to Super Bowl

Rich McKay beats his old team, his once-beloved Bucs, back to the Super Bowl, this time with Atlanta.
Rich McKay beats his old team, his once-beloved Bucs, back to the Super Bowl, this time with Atlanta.
Published Jan. 24, 2017

Jan. 26, 2003. Super Bowl night. The Bucs had been world champions for a few hours. Some media made their way to the team's San Diego hotel. There were few players left in the party ballroom. Jon Gruden was long gone. But there on the dance floor, about the only one left out there, jacket off, was the team's general manager. Rich McKay. He had been there from the beginning, through all the awful, and now he was twirling to the music. His dance partner: the Lombardi Trophy.

McKay has beaten the Bucs back to the Super Bowl. The Atlanta Falcons will play the New England Patriots. McKay hasn't been the general manager of Falcons football operations in eight years, though he helped negotiate Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan's contract and led the search that ended with the hiring of Falcons coach Dan Quinn before the 2015 season.

Most of McKay's energies as team CEO and president poured into securing a new stadium for the Falcons. That bewildering $1.2 billion structure is set to open next season. McKay is still a builder. Even behind the scenes, as chair of the NFL's competition committee. He remains one of the most influential people in professional football. I bet that drives Jon Gruden crazy.

The former Bucs ball boy, son of the team's first head coach, John McKay, had an impact on the franchise. His departure in 2003, late in the season after the Super Bowl as Gruden consolidated power, mattered, too. The Bucs haven't returned to the big bowl, not even close, not so much as one playoff win. McKay's departure didn't lead to all that jungle madness, but some of it. I'm not trying to make him into Bill Polian. But the man mattered in Bucs history.

The new Atlanta stadium is the second NFL home field McKay helped broker. You might remember the first one: Raymond James Stadium. It was 1996. McKay was the front man for the immovable, arms-folded Glazers on that deal. The stadium measure barely passed when put to a vote in this community, and if it hadn't, the Bucs probably wouldn't be here. McKay helped save the day.

There was April 22, 1995, a signature day, when the Bucs, forever lousy, selected Warren Sapp with the 12th pick of the NFL draft and Derrick Brooks at No. 28. After the draft, McKay and Bucs director of college scouting Tim Ruskell sat smoking cigars on the back porch of old One Buccaneer Place and watched tape of Sapp and Brooks, two future Hall of Famers. "That was the moment," McKay said years later. "It really just felt like the tide was finally going to shift for this franchise."

There were others great picks. Like Mike Alstott, Ronde Barber and Warrick Dunn. And there were other successes in free agency. McKay made lousy picks, too, and other mistakes, plenty of them. And the lawyer in him would occasionally pop out. He'd "go into the bunker," out of media reach.

But I always appreciated the guy's sense of humor. Even at the end of the 2001 season, which turned out to be Tony Dungy's last in Tampa. In the deathly quiet Bucs locker room after another playoff loss in Philadelphia, as McKay spoke with media, a reporter tripped over a travel bag and fell. McKay broke into his Howard Cosell: "DOWN GOES FRAZIER! DOWN GOES FRAZIER!" Everyone laughed, even the guy who fell.

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McKay was back in Philadelphia the next season, watching the Bucs win the NFC title on the way to the Super Bowl. With Gruden as Bucs head coach. Yes, it worked for one season. It should have worked longer, but that was never going to happen. For one season it worked. Gruden brought urgency. McKay brought reason. They barely made nice, but the Bucs won.

I don't think Gruden ever looked at McKay and saw the dream draft, Sapp and Brooks. He saw the Keyshawn Johnson signing. He saw McKay the league guy, the committee guy, the golf guy, the guy who laughed at his ideas. McKay looked at Gruden as the lone wolf who wanted control, who chewed through McKay's leg. I wonder how Bucs history would be different if that hadn't happened.

So in December 2003, McKay left for Atlanta. He was back in no time, for his first game as Falcons executive, at the stadium he helped get built, watching the Falcons beat the Bucs. Beyond weird.

The Bucs have pretty much wandered about since that Super Bowl. It's not just because McKay left, but he meant something to this franchise. And this franchise meant something to him. He helped build more than a stadium here. I knew it that night as he danced with that trophy. I still know it.