We are officially less than a month before the start of the NFL season, so it's probably time to start previewing the monster. The key to the NFL's success — other than fantasy football and gambling, of course — is the rabid nature of its fans. That is to say: You don't see a lot of people painting their faces for their favorite golfer.
We asked a gaggle of writers, from the Web, from print, from books, even a TV guy or two, to tell us, in as many or as little words as they need, why My Team Is Better Than Your Team. This is not meant to be factual, or dispassionate, or even logical: We just asked them to riff on why they love their team so much, or what their team means to them, or whatever. We will be running two a day until the beginning of the NFL season.
Right now: the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Your author is Russell Levine.
Russell Levine is a contributing editor at Football Outsiders. His words are after the jump.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been playoff contenders pretty much for a decade now — their six postseason appearances are tied for the NFL lead since 1997 — so it pains me to think there's a developing generation of NFL fans that knows absolutely nothing of the franchise's infamous past.
The Bucs have risen from two decades of mostly hideous football to win a recent Super Bowl, yet the scars from the early years run deep. Their history includes a dozen consecutive seasons with 10-plus losses, some of the ugliest uniforms of all-time and a mascot that struck fear in the hearts of interior decorators everywhere. Remember Bucco Bruce, aka "The Gay Blade?" You know, still single after all these years?" Bruce (for the proper effect, pronounce it with a lisp), a winking pirate with a giant feather in his cap and a big hoop earring and a knife in his teeth, looked like a cross between Captain Feathersword and a refugee from a Fire Island Halloween bash.
The Bucs' scars are my scars. I picked them as my team when I was seven — and they were darlings of the NFL. Little did I know that my first day as a Bucs fan — the 1979 NFC championship game loss to the L.A. Rams — would be the high-water mark for the next 18 years. I stuck with them through all of it, despite growing up in central New Jersey (in fact, my next-door neighbor was the same John Bolster who wrote the Dolphins preview yesterday). I wore my James Wilder No. 32 jersey proudly every Sunday. I drew pictures of Bucco Bruce in elementary school art class.
I came close to packing it in once; I think it was the Alvin Harper experience that nearly sent me over the edge. But the team was sold, and the new owner proclaimed a new era. He spent money, hired a coach with a clue (Tony Dungy), got a stadium built. And on January 26, 2003, the new, pewter Bucs kicked the crap out of the Raiders in the Super Bowl. I was there, sitting by myself in a sea of Raider fans at Qualcomm Stadium. I got choked up when it was over simply because of the price I and every other long-time fan had paid in emotional sweat and tears to be able to enjoy that moment. We, too, had worn the orange.
The owner who rescued the franchise, Malcolm Glazer, would rather we all forget the orange. Bucco Bruce hasn't seen the light of day since new uniforms were unveiled in 1997. During Thanksgiving weekend, NFL.com typically displays "throwback" logos for 31 of 32 teams: Tampa Bay is the lone exception. It's one of the reasons Glazer and his family (three sons are team executives) aren't beloved in Tampa, despite having delivered a Super Bowl to long-suffering fans. They're not exactly warm and fuzzy, either. I met another of the Glazers once and thanked him profusely for what the family had done for the franchise. He told me "I want you to have something," before reaching into his wallet and handing me ... a pocket schedule. Not exactly the invite to the owner's box that I was hoping for.
To be fair, Malcolm Glazer is currently recovering from a pair of strokes, so let me give him credit for a few things. He is the first man to sport the "beard but no mustache" look successfully since Abe Lincoln ... His acceptance speech of the Lombardi Trophy was the most awkward two minutes of television since "The Wonder Years" went off the air ... Oh, and he stuck it to Euros everywhere by buying up their favorite soccer club, Manchester United. Has your team's owner ever been hanged in effigy by 10,000 drunken, heavily tattooed soccer hooligans? Daniel Snyder can only dream.
Our owner may not be better than yours, but our coach sure is. Jon Gruden looks like Chucky, sleeps three hours a night and set an unofficial record for bleeps the last time he wore a mike during a game. His offense is so complex that "U Shift to Green Left West F Short Fire Two U Banana Z Over" is a three-yard slant. How's that for intimidation! Even our verbiage is tougher than yours.
Gruden is colorful, but he's got nothing on John McKay, the USC legend who was the first coach in franchise history. Once asked about his team's execution during a particular game, he replied, "I'm in favor of it." Then there was Sam Wyche, infamously caught by NFL Films describing his bladder infection to the opposing coach during pregame pleasantries. Before his final game with the Bucs, the lame-duck Wyche tried to send the team out wearing orange jerseys and pants — a monochromatic nightmare that not even the present-day Seattle Seahawks can match. As the story goes, a locker room mutiny ensued in which the team refused to take the field dressed like pumpkins. Thankfully, the players won.
Our history is better than yours, too. Yeah, the 1972 Dolphins went 17-0. Big deal. The Bucs have played 30 seasons without ever returning a kickoff for a touchdown. You tell me which is more impressive?
You want legacy? The Buccaneers are responsible for impeding the geographic knowledge of an entire generation of Americans. The team does not play in "Tampa Bay," which is a body of water. The city they call home is "Tampa." (For proof, check the dateline on all those news stories about Deadspin Hall-of-Fame nominees Renee Thomas and Angela Keathley). That's the Buccaneers: stifling the intellectual growth of kids everywhere since 1976. Gives them sort of a "burnouts smoking butts in the school parking lot" edge, don't you think?
All the history is nice, but when you get right down to it, these days this is a pretty good football team. Chris Simms no longer resembles the over-hyped college player who was good for four turnovers in every big game he played. Cadillac Williams was the rookie of the year last season. Joey Galloway is 34 and has two rebuilt knees, yet is still the fastest straight-line runner in the NFL. The defense can play a little, too, with studs like Ronde Barber, Derrick Brooks and Simeon Rice — who's as crazy as Darryl Dawkins, by the way. The coordinator, Monte Kiffin, is an old-school wizard whose "Tampa 2" scheme is all the rage around the NFL.
One final thing you should know about the Bucs. If you hate stat geeks, they're for you. At Football Outsiders, we run all kinds of complex stats and spreadsheets to tell you what's going to happen in the NFL. Yet the Bucs so confounded us in 2003-2004 — going 12-20 despite our predictions that they'd be a playoff team — that when our numbers said they'd be good again last year, we threw up our hands and said "uncle." Of course, they went 11-5 and won their division. The numbers say they're probably going 8-8 this year, but the Bucs are better than our numbers, and they're also better than your team.