Most Eagles fans already have penciled a “W” next to Sunday’s game with Tampa Bay. The Bucs, after all, are 0-4 and in disarray. They cut quarterback Josh Freeman and are starting rookie Mike Glennon who turned the ball over three times in his debut, a 13-10 loss to Arizona.
So this looks like a layup for the Eagles, right? It is in Tampa but so what? There probably will be more Eagles fans than Bucs fans in Raymond James Stadium. The Eagles are favored and I’ve already heard some talk show callers saying, “So we’ll be 3-3 when Dallas comes in …”
A word of caution: Consider the history of the Eagles-Bucs series. Whenever things look too easy for the Eagles bad things often happen.
The most obvious example was the NFC Championship Game played on January 19, 2003. It seemed like the surest of sure things. The Bucs had lost six consecutive road playoff games. They were coming here to play the Eagles in January and the Bucs were famous for never winning in cold weather. What’s more, it was the final game at the Vet so there was the destiny factor. The Eagles could not lose and spoil that moment. Well, could they?
We all know how it turned out. Brian Mitchell returned the opening kickoff 70 yards and two plays later Duce Staley scored standing up. The Eagles led 7-0 just 52 seconds into the game. It looked like the rout was on. Eagles fans were already making plans for the Super Bowl. Then along came Joe Jurevicius and, well, you know the rest. Bucs 27, Eagles 10.
I’ve witnessed a lot of painful days in Philadelphia sports history, but I think that was the worst. When Ronde Barber intercepted Donovan McNabb late in the game, it sucked the air out of the stadium. The fans didn’t boo, they simply fell silent. I never heard anything quite like it. People filed out of the Vet for the last time in shock. Some, I’m sure, have yet to recover.
“You couldn’t have a better stage set,” Troy Vincent said afterwards. “The fans were ready. The city was ready. The atmosphere was right. For us to lose this football game …” He paused and shook his head. “It is a tough one to swallow,” he said.
Nine months later, the Eagles and Bucs met again in the first regular season game at Lincoln Financial Field. It was a Monday night game; a sellout crowd of 67,771 was looking for revenge. A fireworks and laser show had the fans roaring. And just before kickoff Sylvester Stallone, dressed in an Eagles jersey, appeared on a staircase in the north end zone and struck his Rocky pose. Philly’s emotional cup runneth over.
Surely, the Eagles would roll. Uh, no. The Bucs won 17-0.
The two teams didn’t meet again until the 2006 season. By then, the Bucs were on the skids. They were 1-4 on their way to a 4-12 finish. The Eagles came into the game 4-2 and heavily favored. Starting to see a pattern?
Tampa Bay was playing with a rookie quarterback in Bruce Gradkowski. The Eagles gained 506 yards to 196 for the Bucs. Brian Westbrook had a career day, rushing for 101 yards and gaining another 113 on seven pass receptions. It was only the second time in franchise history that a player had more than 100 yards rushing and 100 yards receiving in the same game. Timmy Brown did it in 1964.
Again, Ronde Barber tormented the Eagles. He returned two interceptions for touchdowns - the Bucs never did score an offensive touchdown - but when Westbrook put the Eagles ahead, 21-20, on a 52-yard catch-and-run off a screen pass in the final minute, it appeared they would escape with the win. The Bucs got the ball and made a couple first downs but with just three seconds remaining, they brought kicker Matt Bryant on to attempt a 62-yard field goal. His previous career long was 50 yards.
I was in the Comcast Sports Net studio waiting to do the Post-Game Show. Vaughn Hebron, the former Eagles running back, was sitting next to me.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” he said.
“Come on, Vaughn,” I said. “It’s a 62-yard kick.”
“I’m telling you, I have a bad feeling,” he said.
Vaughn had played three seasons in Denver so he saw teammate Jason Elam routinely kick long field goals. In fact, Elam tied the NFL record with a 63-yard field goal. But that was in the thin Mile High air. This was a humid day in Florida where the air was thick as pea soup.
“Bryant doesn’t have that kind of leg,” I said. “There’s no way he makes it.”
“I don’t like this,” Vaughn said as Bryant kicked the ball.
We watched as the ball tumbled through the air in what seemed like slow motion. It kept going and going and, incredibly, cleared the crossbar. Cannons started firing on the pirate ship in the end zone as the Buccaneers poured off their bench to mob Bryant. It was the longest field goal ever kicked against the Eagles.
“Told you,” Vaughn said, shaking his head.
The Eagles lost the game, 23-21. They have won the last two games against the Bucs – 33-14 in 2009 at Lincoln Financial Field and 23-21 last season in Tampa when
The bad news is the games that looked the easiest on paper were the ones that proved most painful. So if you are thinking Sunday’s game is a sure thing, beware.
An award-winning writer and producer, Ray Didinger was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1995. He has also won six Emmy Awards for his work as a writer and producer at NFL Films. The five-time Pennsylvania Sportswriter of the Year is a writer and analyst for Comcast SportsNet. Didinger will provide Eagles fans a unique historical perspective on the team throughout the season for PhiladelphiaEagles.com. You can read all of his Eagles History columns here.