Monday, June 30, 2008

Tampa Bay Bandits vs Denver Gold, 6/27/83

As the first regular season in the history of the United States Football League neared its conclusion 25 years ago this week, the Tampa Bay Bandits found themselves on the cusp of a playoff berth. With a 10-6 record and two games left to play, the Bandits needed wins in both games, and a lot of help from other teams, to force a three-way tie atop the division along with the Chicago Blitz and Michigan Panthers.

Multiple losses to the Blitz, as well as a disappointing setback to the Boston Breakers in Week 16, threatened to derail Tampa Bay's once-promising season. With virtually every tie-breaker working against the Bandits, even victories in their final two games offered no guarantee of a playoff berth. Despite the long odds, the Bandits had much to look forward to as they prepared for a Week 17, Monday-night showdown against the Denver Gold on June 27, 1983.

On June 22, news broke that the Bandits had reached an agreement with Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver - and former University of Florida standout - Cris Collinsworth on a multi-year deal worth nearly $3 million. The team would have to wait for Collinsworth until 1985, however, as his contract with the Bengals ran through the 1984 season. Luring away one of the National Football League's premier wide receivers was a major coup for the Bandits and the USFL. The Bandits planned to formally announce the Collinsworth deal during halftime of the nationally televised Monday-night game.

Of more immediate concern to the Bandits and their fans was the impending return of quarterback John Reaves. While the summer blockbuster "Return of the Jedi" packed theaters and dominated the public consciousness, Bandit wide receiver Danny Buggs likened the comeback of Reaves, who had missed nine weeks with an injury, as their very own "Return of the Jedi."

Missing nearly 2½ months with a broken right wrist, Reaves expressed excitement about returning with his team still in the thick of the playoff chase. Tampa Bay head coach Steve Spurrier, however, coyly offered no guarantees that Reaves would start against Denver, even though he took a majority of repetitions in practice that week with the first-team offense.

Spurrier also hinted that even if Reaves started over backup Jimmy Jordan, the quarterbacks could possibly split time under center.

"If we have a little trouble, if we fall two touchdowns behind or something, we're going to have to put somebody else in," Spurrier said.

In his one previous appearance against Denver, Reaves set a league record with 63 passing attempts -- completing 38 for 357 yards -- in a 22-16 overtime triumph. Reaves would struggle to match those numbers in his second go-round against the Gold.

In front of a Tampa Stadium crowd of more than 46,000 on "Fan Appreciation Night," Reaves encountered a rocky reception from the Denver defense. The clearly rusty quarterback struggled to get into a rhythm, throwing two interceptions while completing 7 of 13 passes for just 72 yards. Fortunately, Tampa Bay managed to stake itself to an early two-touchdown lead.

Nose tackle Greg Nordgren intercepted a Craig Penrose pass and returned it 23 yards for a touchdown. The Bandits then converted the two-point attempt to take an early 8-0 lead. Running back Gary Anderson added a rushing touchdown from the one-yard line with 6:55 left in the first quarter to cap a six-play, 56-yard drive.

The Gold, however, stormed back and took the lead before the half. Opting for six points over a field goal attempt, Denver successfully converted a 4th-and-2 from the 3-yard line when Penrose hit tight end Bob Niziolek across the middle for the score. Following a touchdown plunge from the 1-yard line by Harry Sydney and a failed two-point conversion, the Bandits held a 15-13 lead.

With the first half winding down, Reaves' second interception of the game gave Denver the ball back with a chance to take the lead. After a promising start to the game, a 41-yard field goal by the Gold with just 17 seconds left before intermission sent Tampa Bay into the locker room trailing 16-15.

True to his pre-game warning, Spurrier relieved the ineffective Reaves and put Jordan in at quarterback to start the second half. But Jordan fared no better than Reaves early on as his first pass was intercepted by Denver in Tampa Bay territory. The Gold quickly marched down the field and Sydney's second score of the game - this time from two yards out - increased Denver's lead to 23-15.

Zenon Andrusyshyn's 47-yard field goal with 13:03 left in the game cut the Gold lead to 23-18, and with Tampa Bay's playoff hopes dwindling by the minute, Mother Nature intervened on behalf of the Bandits. Despite a forecast that only predicted a 20-percent chance of thunderstorms, the fourth quarter featured a mega-downpour typical of the summertime in Tampa.

The severity of the storm, coupled with thunder and a few nearby lightning strikes, prompted Spurrier to take his team off the field and into the locker room with 8:32 remaining. A 50-minute delay followed, which allowed enough time for the team to regroup and come up with a key offensive play to put them over the top.

On the Bandits' second play after the game resumed, Jimmy Jordan lofted a perfect touch pass to Eric Truvillion for a 44-yard touchdown. A two-point conversion run by Greg Boone gave the Bandits a 26-23 lead with less than 7 minutes remaining.

"During the break, we talked about that long pass," Spurrier said. "We hadn't tried to go long that much. (Eric Truvillion) ran a curl-and-go and Jordan made a great throw."

Fortunately for Tampa Bay, the three-point lead held up and the Bandits were able to run out the clock to preserve the much-needed victory. Unfortunately, it would be their last one of the season. With the playoffs on the line the next week at Birmingham, the Bandits fell to the Stallions, 29-17, to end their inaugural season with an 11-7 record. It was a bitter finish for a team that won nine of its first 12 games, only to stumble down the stretch and fall short of the playoffs.

Unbeknownst to the Bandits at the time, the future had more bad news in store: prized acquisition Cris Collinsworth would never play a single down for Tampa Bay. Immediately prior to the 1985 season, he failed a physical for the Bandits because of an ankle injury, voiding his contract with the Bandits. Collinsworth went on to play four more years in the NFL, while the Bandits and the USFL folded after the 1985 season.

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