Monday, December 21, 2009

McKay Leaves With a Win, 12/16/84

Despite a disappointing 5-10 record, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers headed into their season finale twenty five years ago with something left to accomplish. With a playoff berth and a winning record long since out of reach, the Buccaneers could still end the season on a positive note: sending off coach John McKay with a win.

On Nov. 5, the day after a last-second loss to the Minnesota Vikings, McKay announced 1984 would be his final season on the sidelines. In the game at Minnesota, Vikings kicker Jan Stenerud broke a 24-24 tie on a 53-yard field goal with just two seconds left, sending the Bucs to their fourth consecutive defeat. This proved too much for McKay.

“When Stenerud hit that long field goal,” McKay said, “I said, ‘That’s as much as I can take.’”

The Buccaneers followed his announcement by dropping three of the next four games, ending any chance of making the playoffs or even finishing at .500. Still, coming off a 23-6 home win against Atlanta in Week 15, the Bucs had a chance to end McKay’s coaching career on an up note with a win over the 7-8 New York Jets.

Such circumstances hardly seemed appropriate for one of the legendary coaches in the history of football. As head coach of the University of Southern California Trojans from 1960-75, he won nine Pacific-8 Conference championships and four national championships (1962, 1967, 1972, 1974).

A winner of 127 games at the college level – with only 40 losses – many expected that success would translate to the pro level when he took over as first head coach of the Buccaneers in 1976.

We all know that did not happen, especially in the beginning. McKay received a most-humbling welcome to professional football, losing his first 26 games. Still, by his fourth season he had turned the Buccaneers into a winner and came within one game of going to the Super Bowl.

From 1979-82, McKay coached Tampa Bay to two NFC Central titles and three playoff appearances. A 2-14 season in 1983 was a huge step back for the organization, but McKay anticipated big things in 1984 and proclaimed it the most-talented Buccaneer squad ever.

Instead, the team underachieved despite having arguably one of the best offensive seasons in franchise history. Tampa Bay also had trouble winning close games, dropping seven of their games by seven points or fewer. So in many ways, 1984 had to be one of McKay’s most frustrating seasons, knowing his team was just good enough to lose when it mattered most. Still, the Bucs would find a way to come through for McKay one final time.

In front of 43,817 at Tampa Stadium on Dec. 16, 1984, the John McKay era ended not with a whimper, but with one of the most controversial conclusions in Buccaneer history. The fourth quarter, in particular, lives in infamy because of running back James Wilder’s pursuit of an NFL record.

Entering the game, Wilder needed 178 total yards to break Los Angeles Rams’ running back Eric Dickerson’s newly established record for all-purpose yards in a season (2,244). Wilder’s 4-yard touchdown run with 1:21 left in the game left him 15 yards short of O.J. Simpson for 2nd place on the list and 16 yards behind Dickerson. His touchdown set off a bizarre series of events still unmatched to this day.

Despite holding a 41-14 lead, on the ensuing kickoff McKay called for Obed Ariri to attempt an onside kick. A successful recovery represented Tampa Bay ’s best hope for getting Wilder in a position to break the record. Ariri’s first two attempts were voided by penalties, and finally on the third attempt, New York’s Russell Carter recovered the ball on Tampa Bay’s 35-yard line.

Here’s where things got interesting. New York knew the Buccaneers wanted the ball back, and with barely a minute left in the game, the Bucs could only regain possession on a punt, turnover or safety. Set up with excellent field position, a punt by the Jets seemed unlikely, so the Buccaneers' best bet was for New York to score.

The ensuing drive gave new meaning to the term “prevent defense.” Back-to-back completions moved the ball to the Tampa Bay 9-yard line with 1:07 left in the game. On the next play, safety Mark Cotney tackled running back Johnny Hector at the 2 and then, realizing his “mistake,” immediately called timeout. There would be no such confusion on the following play.

Hector again took the handoff, but this he time encountered nothing but backpedaling linemen, giving him an unmolested run into the end zone.

“We tried to make it look inconspicuous,” linebacker Scot Brantley said after the game, “but I guess we didn’t succeed. The Jets knew what was going on.”

New York knew and was not pleased. The Jets countered by attempting an onside kick of their own. George Peebles recovered Pat Lahey’s attempt, however, at the New York 45, giving Wilder one last shot at the record.

The Jets, who had been focused on shutting down Wilder for most of the fourth quarter, were not about to let him have an easy path to the record, especially after Tampa Bay’s flop-play on defense.

On Tampa Bay’s three final offensive plays, Wilder was tackled for a loss of 2, ran for a gain of 2 and was held for no gain on the last play of the game. With nearly ever defender committed to stopping him – and only him – on the play, Wilder never had a chance.

After the game, several Jets immediately directed their ire towards McKay, lobbing obscenities at him as he left the field. New York coach Joe Walton had harsh words for McKay following the game as well.

“The way it ended was a total embarrassment to the NFL,” he said. “It set football back 20 years and was completely uncalled for.”

McKay refused to apologize, saying he did what he did in the best interests of Wilder and the fans. The fans, who stayed to the end hoping to see history, showed their displeasure with New York by showering the team with a mixture of boos and debris as they exited toward the locker room.

It was appropriate that McKay left the game in a style befitting a man who never much cared what his critics said about him: defiant to the very end, and ultimately, a winner.

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