Monday, October 27, 2008

Ricky Bell Breaks Loose, 10/22/78

On October 22, 1978, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers squared off against the Chicago Bears in one of the most meaningful games in team history. The Buccaneers, coming off a 2-12 season in 1977, found themselves with a 3-4 record and in an improbable three-way tie for second place with the Bears and Vikings.

Much like today, concerns with the economy clouded the week leading up to the game as the Dow Jones Industrial average suffered a 59 point loss, the worst week in its 93-year history. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay hoped to reach the .500 mark for the first time in their three-year history.

No one Buccaneer entered the game featuring more scrutiny than running back Ricky Bell. The team's number one selection in the 1977 draft, Bell faced criticism early in his career from Buccaneer fans, who mostly lamented the fact that his name wasn't Tony Dorsett. The Buccaneers selected Bell ahead of the highly touted Dorsett, and fans resented the success Dorsett enjoyed with the Dallas Cowboys while Bell struggled as a rookie in Tampa.

Bell had his chance to shine against the Bears, however, due to a season-ending injury to starting fullback Jimmy DuBose. The hometown fans gave him a less than warm welcome during the player introductions and saved their loudest boos for the second-year back.

"Nobody has to boo me," Bell said following the game. "I boo myself more than anyone else."

Thanks in large part to Bell, the largest crowd ever to see a game at Tampa Stadium -- over 68,000 strong – quickly turned their boos into cheers.

Tampa Bay jumped on top of the Bears early, as Cedric Brown intercepted Bob Avellini's first pass attempt and returned the ball 29 yards to the Chicago 19 yard line. A 17-yard completion by rookie quarterback Doug Williams to Morris Owens on third down set up Tampa Bay at the two. Bell capitalized two plays later with a one-yard plunge to give the Buccaneers a 6-0 lead.

In the second quarter, Avellini put Chicago back on top with a 34-yard touchdown pass to James Scott to give the Bears a 7-6 lead. The Buccaneers, behind the strong arm of Williams, quickly staged a comeback. A five-play, 38-yard drive culminated when Jim Obradovich made a leaping catch of a Williams pass in the corner of the end zone to put Tampa Bay ahead, 13-7.

The Bears added a field goal as the quarter wound down and the Buccaneers took a 13-10 lead into the locker room at the half.

Chicago regained the lead on the opening drive of the second half. The Bears marched 71 yards on eight plays, sparked by a 30-yard Avellini pass to Walter Payton. Roland Harper capped the drive with a two-yard run to give the Bears a 16-13 lead. The rest of the afternoon would belong to Tampa Bay.

The Buccaneers answered back with a time-consuming drive that covered 72 yards on 11 plays. Wide receiver Morris Owens got into the act with key receptions of 12 and 13 yards, while Bell – who finally had room to run – contributed with 20 yards on the ground. Williams called his own number to cap the drive with a one-yard run, putting Tampa Bay in the lead, 19-16.

Williams struck again in the fourth quarter as his team nursed a three-point lead. On third-and-four from the Chicago 40, Williams targeted a streaking Owens, who out-raced safety Gary Fencik. Without breaking stride, Owens made a terrific over the shoulder catch in the end zone for the score. Trailing Tampa Bay 26-16, the Bears added a 27-yard field goal by Bob Thomas to make the score just a one touchdown deficit.

With just a seven point lead late in the game, the Tampa Bay defense stepped up at a crucial time. For a stadium full of anxious fans, linebacker Dave Lewis made a huge play at just the right time. With the Bears poised to embark on a game-tying drive, Lewis intercepted Bears quarterback Bob Avellini at the 20 and returned the ball to the seven yard line. A personal foul moved the ball to the three, and it took just one offensive play for Tampa Bay to ice the game, as Johnny Davis ran the ball in to give the Buccaneers a 33-19 victory.

Overall, the Buccaneers produced -- to that point -- one of their finest offensive days in team history. Doug Williams provided a glimpse into his talented future by completing 73 percent of his passes and throwing two touchdowns. Additionally, the 33 points matched the most scored in team history, and the most ever put up by the home team at Tampa Stadium. And then there was the performance by Ricky Bell.

Bell dazzled with 95 yards on the ground and one rushing touchdown, while hauling in three receptions for 45 yards to cap his day. Head Coach John McKay remarked after the game that the pre-game jeers by the crowd served to motivate Bell. After the game, Bell said that he would remember this game as a career turning point.

"No one likes to be teased like that," Bell said. "But, hey, fans are easy to win back. Sometimes you can't listen to what everybody else has to say. You just have to believe in yourself."

Bell was awarded the game ball for his effort against the Bears. Classy to the end, Bell then awarded the ball to the fallen teammate he replaced in the lineup, Jimmy DuBose. Acts of kindness like those off the field, in addition to his heroics on the field, would soon endear him to Buccaneer fans for the remainder of his all-to-brief career.

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