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Saturday, December 6, 2008
Defensive resurgence leading Bucs

By Doug Farrar
Football Outsiders

It took a decade to build the Tampa Bay defense that led the Bucs to a 48-21 win over the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII.

Former Stanford quarterback John Lynch was the first on board, drafted in the third round in 1993 to play safety. The big haul came in 1995, when defensive tackle Warren Sapp and linebacker Derrick Brooks were taken in the first round. Cornerback Donnie Abraham, who tied for the league lead in interceptions in 1999, was a third-round choice in 1996, and 1997 brought another third-round cornerback, Virginia's Ronde Barber.

Through the next few seasons, other key cogs such as defensive tackle Anthony McFarland and end Simeon Rice were added through the draft and free agency, and from 1999 through their Super Bowl season, the Bucs had as good a defense as any in the NFL.

At Football Outsiders, we've amassed Defensive DVOA totals from the 1995 season through Week 13 of the 2008 season. (Our DVOA stats are explained here). The 2002 Bucs put up the best Total Defensive DVOA and the best Defensive Passing DVOA of any team, in any season. Though they finished first in total Defensive DVOA in 1999 as well, 2002 was their vintage year:

Best Defenses by DVOA, 1995-2008
Rank Total Defensive DVOA Pass Defense Run Defense
1 2002 Bucs -33.6% 2002 Bucs -55.8% 2000 Ravens -41.7%
2 2000 Ravens -30.0% 1999 Bucs -36.3% 1998 Chargers -35.3%
3 2008 Ravens -28.4%* 2004 Bills -35.7% 1999 Chargers -34.0%
4 2003 Ravens -28.2% 2003 Ravens -34.8% 2006 Vikings -33.6%
5 2004 Bills -28.1% 1998 Dolphins -33.5% 1995 Chiefs -29.8%
*through Week 13

That original defense was built by GM Rich McKay, head coach Tony Dungy, an outstanding defensive coaching staff and a great network of scouts. Dungy was fired after the 2001 season, McKay left after 2003, that staff (which included current head coaches Herm Edwards, Rod Marinelli and Mike Tomlin) started to dissolve and scouting maven Tim Ruskell followed McKay to Atlanta before becoming Seattle's team president in 2005.

Winning the Super Bowl in his first year with the franchise gave head coach Jon Gruden the right to do it his way, which was to build the team through free agency. Hamstrung in the draft by the cost of acquiring Gruden from the Raiders (two first-round and two second-round picks), the Bucs' defense started to fall apart. Lynch was a salary-cap casualty after the 2003 season, Sapp signed with the Raiders in time for 2004 and the 2003 and 2004 drafts brought nothing of note to replace them. The Bucs ranked third in Defensive DVOA in 2003, eighth in 2004, ninth in 2005 and 22nd in 2006.

The pass defense that once posted the best DVOA we've ever seen ranked 28th at the end of the 2006 season. A 4-12 record that year illustrated the need for change.

The switch to a younger defense developed through the draft started in 2005, when the Bucs got past the lack of high picks from the Gruden deal.

Current standout linebacker Barrett Ruud was taken in the second round from Nebraska, but the new philosophy really paid off in the 2007 draft. Clemson end Gaines Adams was taken in the first round to replace Rice, and Syracuse safety Tanard Jackson was a steal in the fourth round. The Bucs melded this new defensive draft focus with the ability to get fine performances out of veteran pickups like Kevin Carter, Chris Hovan and Jovan Haye. Greg White, who led the Bucs in sacks last season with eight, was recommended to Gruden by his brother, Jay, a former Arena League quarterback, who had seen White playing for the Orlando Predators. Tampa Bay rebounded to finish fourth in Defensive DVOA in 2007, and the Bucs are third after 13 weeks this season. The NFC South was theirs in 2007, and it could very well be again.

Ruud is the epicenter of the defense as Brooks once was, but the new Tampa Bay defense differs from the old in that it is defined as much by the secondary as by a quarterback-killing front seven. Rookie Aqib Talib leads the team with three interceptions, Barber has played well of late after a rocky start against elite receivers, and the safety tandem of Tanard Jackson and Jermaine Phillips is outstanding.

The question going forward for the Bucs is how they deal with the possible departure of defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, the most constant presence in the transition between new and old. If Kiffin should join his son, Lane, on the University of Tennessee coaching staff, it would be the first time since 1996 that the franchise has been in the market for a new defensive mastermind. However, the Bucs are now set up to handle such transitions much better than they were before -- the defense is younger, the focus is consistent, and the coaching and scouting staffs have been fortified with great talent. Don't be surprised if current secondary coach Raheem Morris joins Edwards and Tomlin, who each held his job at one time, among the hot head-coaching names. Perhaps after a stint as Kiffin's replacement?

We'll have to wait and see, but we do know that the Buccaneers have built a new defense that could match the one living on in franchise legacy.

Doug Farrar is an analyst for FootballOutsiders.com.