Tony Dungy helped build it. In 2002, the season after the Bucs sent Dungy packing, Jon Gruden rode it to a Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Talented. Well-coached. Smothering. Play-making. This defense had been such a rock of dependability for so long you pretty much took for granted that it would do its part to keep the team in contention even when other phases weren't doing theirs.
NFL playoff picture
What's the old saying about not appreciating something until it's gone?
That's precisely the case as the Buccaneers, once on track to win the NFC South, fight for their playoff lives. Simply put, their defense has been nowhere to be found the past three weeks. Not coincidentally, Tampa Bay is 0-3 during that stretch. At 9-6, the Bucs don't control their postseason destiny. They need to beat the Raiders in Sunday's regular-season finale and then hope the Eagles knock off Dallas later in the afternoon.
The first sign of trouble for the Bucs' defense came in the Dec. 8 loss to Carolina when it allowed the Panthers to rush for 299 yards with ridiculous ease. It was as if all of those outstanding, highly accomplished athletes forgot how to tackle. Another disappointing effort came six days later against Atlanta, yet you still felt (at least I did) that they would snap out of it.
Monte Kiffin. The name is synonymous with great defense. You can worry about the inconsistency at quarterback and the absence of play-making receivers and the injuries at running back. You're not supposed to worry about Kiffin's guys.
Identifying the collapse is easy. Explaining it isn't. Some league observers point to the fact that it was three weeks ago that speculation began about Kiffin leaving the team to work with his son, Lane, the new head coach at the University of Tennessee. Speculation has since become fact, and they wonder if he is giving his current employer its full attention while preparing for his new gig.
After the San Diego game, Kiffin assured reporters that his focus is on the Bucs -- that he's "not going to let these players down." I've known Kiffin a long time. I'm inclined to take him at his word, as are many others in and around the Bucs and the rest of the NFL.
But the question will continue to linger as long as the defense continues its freefall. At about the time the elder Kiffin's name was linked to Tennessee, Tampa Bay ranked fourth in the NFL in total defense. In three games since then, the unit has allowed 92 points, 1,207 yards, and a third-down conversion rate of nearly 60 percent.
Maybe it is the players who are letting down Kiffin. The fact he is leaving shouldn't affect the way they play. They have too much experience, smarts, and professionalism for that. At least, they seemed to at one point.
Gruden, for one, is pointing in the direction of the players. The day after the Bucs registered only one sack against San Diego, he told reporters that the team needed better production from its defensive line. "This is a 4-3 defense," Gruden said. "… the engine of it, my thing, is the guys up front."
Another factor to consider in trying to sort out the defensive slump is that the leading candidate to replace Kiffin is Bucs defensive backs coach Raheem Morris. If nothing else, wouldn't the players want to make a favorable impression on their next coordinator?
McDaniels, 32, and Polian, 37, have built very strong credentials in helping their respective teams remain among the elite of the NFL. McDaniels has been particularly impressive this year in keeping the Patriots' offense mostly on track with first-time starting quarterback Matt Cassel, who took over for injured Tom Brady and led New England to a 10-5 record. Polian, son of Colts president Bill Polian, has had a substantial role in helping to plug holes created by a rash of injuries and allow the team to make the playoffs at 11-4.
McDaniels and Polian share the same agent, Bob LaMonte. According to league sources, LaMonte is prepared to talk with clubs seeking a coach and general manager to hire both clients. Potential landing spots are Cleveland, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Detroit.
Instead of their usual zone-coverage scheme, the Falcons played a great deal of man-to-man coverage and involved their cornerbacks in stopping the run by emphasizing a swarm-to-the-ball mentality. With hits coming at him from every angle on practically every carry, Peterson was separated from the ball four times and the Falcons recovered twice. In all, the Vikings fumbled seven times and lost four of them.
Although Peterson is the best running back in the NFL, he has shown a disturbing trend toward poor ball security. And opponents clearly recognize it. That could prove to be a significant problem if the Vikings reach the postseason.
Bright spots in lost seasons
» Buffalo: Rookie cornerbacks Leodis McKelvin and Reggie Corner. This could eventually prove to be a highly effective duo for many years to come. McKelvin made an immediate impact as a game-changing returner, but started slow in coverage. After taking over for injured Jabari Greer, McKelvin has steadily developed into a reliable player. Corner has shown tremendous instincts and play-making skills. He made a huge play in the Bills' Week 16 victory over Denver by breaking up a fourth-down pass to Brandon Stokley in the end zone to seal the outcome.
» Oakland: Besides being a dangerous return man, Johnnie Lee Higgins is beginning to show he can make an impact as a receiver with half of his 16 catches and two of his three touchdown receptions for the season coming in the last three weeks. He caught three balls, including a 20-yard touchdown, in the Raiders' triumph over Houston. Higgins also returned a punt 80 yards for a touchdown against the Texans.
» San Francisco:Shaun Hill might very well have had his career turning point in the 49ers' triumph over St. Louis. Mike Singletary, the Niners' interim coach, was ready to yank Hill with the 49ers trailing the lowly Rams, 13-3, in the third quarter. Hill was struggling badly, completing only eight of his first 19 passes for 89 yards with three interceptions and no scores, but he convinced Singletary to give him a chance to rebound in the fourth quarter. And Hill did, connecting on 10 of 15 attempts for 127 yards and two touchdowns. The 49ers' ability to escape with a win saved them some major embarrassment, but it also gave Singletary, who is likely to keep the coaching job, a true sense of what Hill is all about.
» It's hard to let the Broncos off the hook for letting Buffalo off the hook and not wrapping up the AFC West championship, which they'll probably end up surrendering to San Diego. But it's also hard not to feel for the Broncos after they lost their sixth and seventh tailbacks to season-ending injuries against the Bills. I've never heard of anything like that.
» Worse idea: Coach Eric Mangini, after the Jets averaged six yards per rush on a 78-yard drive, decided to kick a field goal on fourth-and-1 from the Seattle 2-yard line on the opening drive of his team's loss. The coach told reporters his decision was based on his anticipation of a close game on a snow-covered field, but it seems the better choice would have been to go for the end zone and set a necessary aggressive tone on the road.