Monday, December 28, 2009

NFL Playoffs Come to Tampa Bay, 12/29/79

As the Tampa Bay Buccaneers near the finish line of one of the worst seasons in franchise history, a fan’s thoughts may wander back to happier, simpler times.

In 1979, Tampa Bay shocked the NFL by racing to a 5-0 start. Coming off a 5-11 record in 1978, the Buccaneers were at least seen as a team going in the right direction. Still, few could have anticipated such a staggering start. Amazingly, after five weeks the Buccaneers were the only undefeated team in the league.

“No one gave the Bucs a chance at anything,” says Dick Crippen, a former member of the Buccaneers broadcast crew, “yet somehow in training camp, they got the idea they could win.”

Win they did. The Buccaneers finished with a 10-6 record and won the NFC Central Division. This set up a divisional playoff showdown against the Philadelphia Eagles on December 29 at Tampa Stadium.

Former Tampa Mayor Bob Martinez had just entered office as the Buccaneers began their climb in the standings. By late December, Buccaneer mania had clearly run wild on the community.

“The city became alive with talk, preparation, shopping for playoff memorabilia, and trying to get playoff tickets,” Martinez recalls.

The success of the team, in turn, gave Tampa a unique opportunity to showcase itself on a national stage. This would be the first game in team history to be broadcast on national television.

“Tampa was marketing itself nationally and internationally as a place to do business, work and play,” Martinez says. “The playoff game gave us center stage during the run up to the game and the game itself.

“It's great for a community to have a big topic, like the Bucs, to talk about in addition to weather, politics, etc. Having big-time sports gives a community a sense of place and pride. Once the Bucs got their winning ways, Johnny Carson picked on something else, game attendance went up and the players stopped fighting being part of the Bucs organization.”

Much like the Buccaneers in 1979, up until 2008 the Tampa Bay Rays were a team that knew nothing but losing. Making the playoffs and winning the American League East division were considered such major accomplishments that reaching the World Series was gravy. In both instances, players and fans had cause to slip into “happy to be there” mode.

“Like the Rays in 2008, the Bucs were 'The Little Engine That Could,' Crippen says. “When the fans heard that the Eagles would be the opponent, I think many of them figured it had been a great ride and were just proud the Bucs made the playoffs.”

The Eagles, despite making the playoffs as a wild card, at 11-5 actually had a better record than Tampa Bay and were considered a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

“All the experts had Philadelphia going to the Super Bowl, and I think they were even a favorite to win it,” recalls radio personality Jack Harris, then a member of the Buccaneers broadcast crew. “We were supposed to be just a bump on their way to being champions. I don’t think anyone gave us much of a chance.”

True enough, the Eagles were installed as a four-point favorite despite being the road team. Because of Tampa Bay boasted the league's top-ranked defense, most prognosticators anticipated a close game no matter the outcome. Brent Musberger, host of “The NFL Today” on CBS, proved to be one of the few exceptions in predicting a 21-point Philadelphia victory.

Bucs coach John McKay anticipated a much-closer and low-scoring contest. He also said that to win, the Bucs would have to pass the ball effectively and often.

“Just taking the ball and driving it on them, I don’t think you are going to do that,” he said. “I just don’t see anybody doing that.”

Whether McKay truly believed that or just said it as a ruse, the Buccaneers did the exact opposite on their opening drive of the game. On a day officially proclaimed by Mayor Martinez as “Tampa Bay Buccaneers Day,” it turned out to be Ricky Bell Day at Tampa Stadium.

On a clock-chewing, morale-boosting opening drive, the Buccaneers controlled the ball for 9:25, marching 80 yards down the field for a touchdown. Bell , the workhorse on this drive and on the day, got into the end zone on fourth-and-goal from the Philadelphia four yard line to give Tampa Bay the early lead.

This would be just the beginning. With his team leading 10-0 in the second quarter, Bell scored his second rushing touchdown of the day, a one-yard run to give the underdog Buccaneers a three-score lead.

Tampa Bay ’s defense lived up to its billing as well, bullying and harassing quarterback Ron Jaworski all afternoon, limiting him to 15 completions on 39 attempts. The league’s top defense held Pro Bowl running back Wilbur Montgomery to just 35 yards on 13 carries. The hard-hitting secondary and linebacker corps, in the meantime, forced drops on catchable balls and held star wide receiver Harold Carmichael to just three receptions.

On the other side, Doug Williams had an efficient, if not spectacular, game at quarterback -- 7-15 for 132 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT – but managed the offense and made key throws at the right time. Bell simply had a monster performance with an NFL-record 38 carries, rushing for 142 yards and two touchdowns.

Despite a late rally, the Buccaneers held on for a 24-17 victory in a game that really wasn’t as close as the score indicated. Tampa Bay dominated on both sides of the ball and left no doubt as to which was the better team. The victory sent Tampa Stadium into what Crippen calls a state of “delirium.”

“When the Bucs ended up beating the Eagles, the euphoria set in and the fans believed anything was possible,” he says. “Everyone believed the team was capable of going all the way.”

Harris recalls how being the underdog in the game made the outcome that much sweeter.

“Consequently, it was almost like a Super Bowl win,” he says. “We had beaten the best team arguably in the NFL, and no one expected it. I think the unexpected wins are the best ones.

“But again, almost all the wins that season were pretty much unexpected, which tends to heighten the level of elation on the part of fans and players alike, almost exponentially.”

That afternoon, the Buccaneers earned the respect of the Philadelphia Eagles and, finally, the nation. Losing the following week to the Los Angeles Rams, while disappointing, did nothing to diminish the good feelings engendered by the Buccaneers, who thirty years ago this week, were indeed the toast of the town.

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