Worst to first? GOAT and Gronk? Determining the greatest Bucs era ever

For all their foibles and flaws, the 2023 Buccaneers have ingrained themselves in team lore.

By capping this turbulent season with a 9-0 victory Sunday at Carolina, they earned the franchise’s third consecutive division title, an unprecedented feat around here. In the process, they also perpetuated arguably the most glorious era this organization has known.

Key word: arguably.

Recency bias might insist the Bucs never have had it better than this current stretch, which has produced a GOAT, a Gronk, a Lombardi Trophy, four playoff berths and the most carousing boat parade in sports annals. But the ghosts — and gold-jacket bearers — of prior generations might be willing to debate.

So let’s commence the deliberations right here, dissecting the franchise’s three most successful eras. Coaches of these eras are in parentheses.

1979-1982 (John McKay)

Regular season record: 29-27-1

Playoff record: 1-3

Postseason appearances: Three

Division titles: One

Super Bowl titles: None

It’s the best era because: In only four seasons, the franchise evolved from Johnny Carson joke material to the cusp of the Super Bowl, when such rapid transformations simply didn’t happen. The NFL’s current free agency system remained more than a decade away, meaning rosters were built primarily through the draft and with castoffs from other clubs. For context, consider the free agents essential to the 2020 team’s Super Bowl run (Tom Brady, Ndamukong Suh, Antonio Brown, Leonard Fournette). After totaling seven wins in their first three years, the Bucs earned three playoff berths over the next four seasons, reaching the NFC title game in 1979. While the offense clearly had its deficiencies during that stretch, the defense (led by Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon) had dynasty etched all over it. The 1979 unit still holds the franchise record for fewest total yards allowed (3,949 in 16 games) and most forced fumbles (45).

1997-2002 (Tony Dungy, Jon Gruden)

Regular season record: 60-36

Playoff record: 5-4

Postseason appearances: Five

Division titles: Two

Super Bowl titles: One

It’s the best era because: It squelched the most futile stretch in franchise history (14 consecutive losing seasons), won a Super Bowl and produced five Hall-of-Famers. Armed with a stoic demeanor, unflinching resolve and a defensive scheme (”Tampa 2″) inspired by the Steelers’ heyday, Dungy set Bucs football on its most consistent course yet. After a 6-10 inaugural season in 1996, his teams reached the playoffs four of the next five years, winning one division crown and reaching the 1999 NFC title game. When the offense continued sputtering despite a carousel of coordinators, Gruden was brought in to apply the finishing touches to a franchise poised to break through. That occurred in 2002, when the Bucs won their first world title with some key offensive additions (i.e. Michael Pittman, Keenan McCardell) and a defense that set a franchise record by allowing only 12.3 points a game.

2020-present (Bruce Arians, Todd Bowles)

Regular season record: 41-26

Playoff record: 5-2

Postseason appearances: Four

Division titles: Three

Super Bowl titles: One

It’s the best era because: It gave us Tom Brady, who thrust the franchise onto its grandest stage ever (14 prime-time games in three regular seasons) and laid the groundwork for a championship culture that still exists. Bucs fans never have enjoyed the type of offensive proficiency generated by the GOAT; the 2021 and 2020 teams rank first and second in franchise history, respectively, in points and touchdowns. Moreover, ownership’s willingness to give Brady all the components necessary to flourish (i.e. Rob Gronkowski, Brown, Fournette, etc.) made his three-season tenure mostly surreal. While the salary-cap consequences from that period were severe, Bowles and new offensive coordinator Dave Canales somehow siphoned nine wins (and another division crown) out of the 2023 team, projected by many to finish at or near the NFL basement. The Bucs are the only NFC team to have clinched a playoff spot in each of the last four seasons.

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