Monday, September 27, 2010

Bucs' Comeback Falls Short, 9/28/80

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers opened their season two weeks ago with a victory at home over the Cleveland Browns. After going winless against the Browns between 1976 and 1995, the Buccaneers have now won three straight against Cleveland.

The second all-time meeting between these two teams occurred 30 years ago, when the Browns came to Tampa for a late-September contest at Tampa Stadium.

Coming off the fantastic 1979 campaign, the Buccaneers had high expectations for 1980. The season started off promising enough, with victories on the road against Cincinnati and at home against the Los Angeles Rams in a rematch of the NFC Championship game.

In Week 3, the Buccaneers dropped a winnable game on the road against Dallas. After leading 17-7, Tampa Bay surrendered 21 unanswered points in a 28-17 loss to the Cowboys.

Still, at 2-1 the Buccaneers seemed poised to have another fine year. The Browns came into the game having struggled their first two weeks -- dropping meetings against New England and Houston – while rebounding for a win in Week 3 against Kansas City.

Prior to the game, Tampa Bay head coach John McKay warned of taking the 1-2 Browns for granted.

“The key word for Cleveland is that they play in a very tough division,” McKay said of the AFC Central Division. “Take them lightly and they can tear us apart. It could be worse than Dallas.”

Prophetic words from McKay, as the Browns indeed had their way with a suddenly porous Buccaneer defense.

On September 28, 1980, in front of crowd of 65,540, the Browns and Bucs did their best to light up the stadium scoreboard.

After taking an early 6-0 lead on a pair of field goals by Garo Yepremian, Tampa Bay’s defense came back to reality after holding Cleveland to only five yards in the first quarter.

Momentum seemed to turn when Tampa Bay passed on a 27-yard field goal attempt, instead going for it on fourth-and-two. The gambit failed and Cleveland marched down the field for their first points of the game, a 35-yard field goal by Don Cockroft to cut the lead in half.

The Buccaneers answered right back, however, on a 41-yard touchdown pass from Doug Williams to Gordon Jones to extend their lead to 13-3. The joy from this scoring drive would prove short-lived.

The league’s top-ranked defense in 1979, Tampa Bay struggled mightily for the rest of the afternoon against a Cleveland passing attack led by quarterback Brian Sipe.

Sipe caught fire in the second quarter, at one point reeling off a Cleveland-record 13-consecutive pass completions, and 18 out of 19 passes overall.

“To be truthful,” Tampa Bay cornerback Danny Reece said after the game, “a lot of those passes were little passes, passes to the backs. But you must give him credit, he found the open spots.”

The comeback began with an 8-yard touchdown run by Charles White to narrow Tampa Bay’s lead to three. On their next offensive possession, Sipe hit running back Calvin Hill for a 3-yard touchdown pass to put the Browns in the lead, 17-13.

More misery for the Buccaneers in the second half, as Sipe continued to have plenty of time in the pocket, while his receivers continued to find holes in the Tampa Bay secondary.

Receiver Ricky Feacher, a graduate of Brooksville-Hernando High School, caught a 13-yard touchdown pass from Sipe in the third quarter, and Calvin Hill added his second touchdown reception in the fourth quarter – this time a 43-yarder – to give Cleveland a commanding 31-13 lead.

As fans started streaming out of Tampa Stadium, however, the Buccaneers began fighting their way back into the game behind the arm of Doug Williams. Although somewhat overshadowed by Sipe’s day, Williams had quite a day of his own. For the second consecutive week, Williams passed for over 300 yards and put Tampa Bay in position for an improbable comeback.

Williams hit Gordon Jones for his second touchdown of the day on a 3-yard pass to cut the lead to 31-20. The Browns added a 36-yard field goal to make it a two-touchdown game, 34-20. Then the dramatics began.

With 45 seconds left in the game, Williams hit running back Jerry Eckwood on a 7-yard touchdown pass to bring Tampa Bay within a touchdown.

On the ensuing kickoff, the Buccaneers successfully recovered an onsides kick attempt by Yepremian to earn one last chance.

With no time outs remaining and already in Cleveland territory, Williams passed the ball over the middle to tight end Jimmie Giles at the Browns’ 20. Giles was immediately met by two Cleveland defenders, and the Buccaneers were unable to run another play. The clock expired and any hopes for a miraculous comeback were dashed as the Browns held on in a 34-27 victory.

After the game, there was plenty of blame to go around the Tama Bay locker room. The defense, for getting carved up by Sipe, and the offense, for botching the final play of the game, shared equal blame in the eyes of their head coach.

“A statement,” said John McKay in his post-game comments. “Our offense was inept and our defense was terrible. It was hard to tell which was worse. Our pass defense was horrible. We looked like we were playing in cement.”

McKay lofted several more bon mots, calling the decision on the final play “idiotic,” saying in reference to Sipe that “he was lofting balloons to start the game and we were acting like they were guided missiles,” and in an overall assessment of his team’s state of mind, “I think it is manure that we are a team that continually makes mental errors.”

While both teams left Tampa Stadium with matching 2-2 records, they were clearly headed in different directions.

Cleveland would win nine of their next twelve games en route to the playoffs, while the Buccaneers could look forward to a total of three more victories the rest of the season, a disappointing follow-up to the magical season of 1979.

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