Time Machine: Bucs vs. Packers ’02

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With the Buccaneers about to play in their second Super Bowl, a member of Tampa Bay’s first title-winning team decided to reminisce about what made his championship season so special. Former All-Pro cornerback Rondé Barber picked one game that exemplified the greatness of the 2002 Buccaneers — Tampa’s late-November clash with the Packers — and broke it down for The Players’ Tribune.

1. Madden Defense

I’d like to tell you about the 2002 Bucs, but to do so, I need to explain who we were at the time.  As everyone who followed the Bucs will remember, ’02 was the year we hired Jon Gruden as our coach. There was no denying Gruden was a character — the perfect combination of half-maniac and half-genius, much like a crazy scientist. He arrived with expectations and demands, but he also transformed us into a really good football team. We had some bad dudes on defense — Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, John Lynch, and the list goes on. And Lord, could we blitz. Think Madden defense. And we played fast as hell. Monte Kiffin was our defensive coordinator, and he used to joke about how other coaches would ask him, “Do y’all speed this tape up before you give it to us?” Monte would tell them, “Nah, we just have a bunch of really athletic, hungry young guys.”

2. So, It’s the Sunday Before Thanksgiving in Tampa

Which in many parts of the United States means flannel shirts and blankets. But in Tampa, it’s like every other day — warm. Regardless, the atmosphere was electric because this rivalry had existed for years, and this was the first season the Bucs and Packers weren’t in the same division. So, a little backstory. Ever since the Bucs came into the league in 1977, they had played in the NFC Central, and they faced the Packers twice a year. When it got cold up north, Packers fans would head south to watch them play the Bucs, and this year was no different. There was a TON of green throughout Raymond James Stadium. But the atmosphere spoke for itself. Both teams were 8—2, so this wasn’t just another game. It was a battle for supremacy in the NFC. It was one of those games where if you were a broadcaster, you didn’t have to build the hype. The hype was already there.

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3. 7–0

On our very first drive, our QB, Brad Johnson, throws an interception. Boom. So, suddenly the defense has to hop on the field with the ball on our 30-yard line. All we have to do on defense is hold them to three points or whatever. But we don’t. They score. So, it’s seven-zip at the end of the first. We kicked a field goal at the very end of the half, and Green Bay was ahead 7—3 when we headed to the locker room. A close game at the half is not where you want Brett Favre. That was where Favre used to thrive. When he got into the moment and into his rhythm, he was almost unstoppable with crazy plays and out-of-his-mind type throws.

4. Favre

The ONE thing we always knew about playing against Brett Favre was that if we hung in there long enough and kept our heads in the game, we might have an opportunity to intercept the football. The only thing was, you had to catch it when he threw it to you, which was harder than it sounds. Favre had a hell of an arm and threw the ball so damn hard — like it was shot out of a cannon. Over the years, we probably watched 15 clips of him throwing us the football and us dropping it. And in our mind, that was why we didn’t win games ... or at least that was why we told ourselves we weren’t winning games.

Favre had a hell of an arm and threw the ball so damn hard — like it was shot out of a cannon.

Rondé Barber

5. That Hit in the Carolina Game

Just a week before this matchup, I had a crazy hit in a game against Carolina. My left (nondominant) thumb felt stiff coming off the tackle, so when I went to the sideline, I showed it to our trainer, Todd Toriscelli. He touched it and said, “You hear that?” There was a little clicking sound every time he pushed my thumb. I could hear and feel a click, so I thought it was broken. The next day when I went to the doctor, they told me it was broken in two places and required surgery that would put me out for four weeks. At that point, I was thinking that would put me out almost to the end of the season, until Week 16. Keep in mind, we were tied with Green Bay at the time for the best record in the NFL. And we were off to the best start in franchise history and trying to make a statement in the league. So, I said, “Here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to have surgery on Monday and practice on Wednesday. No other option. That’s it.” He was like, “Seriously?” 

“Yeah. Seriously.”

6. So, There I Am with My Broken Thumb

Third quarter. Brian Kelly has one interception, we’ve made some plays, and we’re up 14–7. Brett Favre comes out, and Green Bay makes a long drive. Now, they’re down somewhere around the 20, and Favre is trying to throw a little slant into the slot where I am. It almost felt like Favre was trying to throw it to me. I caught it in the pocket of my left arm and never even left my feet. I made the interception and went to the ground, ball tucked into my side, with a  cast on, and came up with the ball. That might have been the best interception of my career. 

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7. It’s a Wrap

After that interception, it was pretty much over with. The defense turned into what we already knew it was — the dominant unit that defined us all that year. Up until ’96 or ’97, the Bucs were just that team that’d only had one or two good seasons — all the way back to the ’70s — somewhat of a doormat, laughingstock or whatever, of the league. But we drafted Mike Alstott in ’96, John Lynch a couple of years before that. Drafted Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp in ’95. By ’99, when we played the St. Louis Rams in the NFC championship game, we had suddenly become a team, especially on defense, that could beat anybody. The team that nobody had thought much about in the mid-’90s was now outperforming what anyone could have expected.

8. The Old NFL

In the third quarter, Dexter Jackson intercepted Favre again. On the return, Warren Sapp peeled around and blindsided Chad Clifton. It was a monster hit — the ugly kind we don’t really see anymore. And obviously, Packers coach Mike Sherman thought it was unnecessary, so he went after Sapp at the end of the game. The whole incident received a lot of press. But as far as we were concerned, you were either playing hard or you were getting beat up. Sapp had the biggest, nastiest attitude of anybody on our football team. Nowadays, people don’t like those hits, and that’s understandable. I’m not trying to glorify the violence, but back then, those hits were part of football. 

9. This Is Our Woodshed

The Bucs won 21–7 that day — the same Bucs team that still trained in that old, dilapidated facility everyone laughed at. We had a building with three or four trailers outside. It had an outdoor weight room, and our field was right next to the airport. So, not only did we hear engines blaring all day at practice, we often breathed in jet fumes whenever planes took off. We simply viewed the situation as, This is our woodshed, and we’re going to own it. That was the hand we were dealt, and it was just fine. In a way, it made us tougher and more appreciative of the success we achieved.

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10. Epilogue: Keep Pounding the Rock

Early in the preseason, Rod Marinelli brought out a huge rock. He told us that adversity — and every little thing we would go through that season — was not going to matter. He sat us down and said, “You’re going to keep hitting this rock, and it’s not going to break. You’re going to hit it again, and it’s not going to break. But if you keep hitting it over and over, you never know which hit will be the one, but one of your hits is going to break this damn rock.”

And that was how we approached ourselves and our makeup as a team. 

We were just pounding and pounding rocks. So, our motto became, “Keep pounding the rock.”

That became our defense’s M.O. We pounded rocks, and it didn’t matter that we couldn’t break them. Eventually, if we just kept pounding away, it was going to go our way.

The Green Bay game was a perfect example of that. 

Just pound rocks. And eventually, even Brett Favre will break.

That’s why that game is my favorite. 

Fire the cannons!