Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Bucs End 1985 at 2-14, 12/22/85

In 1985, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers seemed condemned to failure right from the very beginning. Few teams ever rebound from a 0-9 start, and the Bucs proved to be no exception.

Even their first victory – a 16-0 triumph at home over the St. Louis Cardinals, and only the second-ever shutout in team history – could not be enjoyed for more than a few days. The next week on the road in the Meadowlands, the Jets handed the Buccaneers one of the worst defeats in franchise history, a 62-28 spanking in which, remarkably, Tampa Bay at one point actually held a 14-0 lead.

Quarterback Steve Young provided a glimmer of hope by winning his first start the following week against the Detroit Lions, a 19-16 overtime victory. Unfortunately, the good times would not last and the Buccaneers dropped their next three games to fall to 2-12 on the season.

On December 15, the smallest crowd to ever see a Buccaneer home game – 25,577 – watched Tampa Bay fall to the almost equally dreadful Indianapolis Colts, 31-23. This set the stage for the season-finale at Tampa Stadium against the Green Bay Packers, in a game that had a considerable amount of importance for the future of the franchise.

By virtue of a league-worst 2-13 record, Tampa Bay had been guaranteed at least the second-overall pick in the 1986 draft. Their Buffalo Bills, with an identical 2-13 record, were out of the running because they had traded their first round pick in 1986 to Cleveland. Win or lose, the Buccaneers needed only a victory by the Atlanta Falcons to ensure the top pick. This meant having first-crack at the Heisman Trophy-winner from Auburn University, running back Bo Jackson.

Despite the big-picture prize that the team could earn with a loss, none of the players wearing orange and white looked at losing as an accomplishment. Jobs were at stake, after all, since few players on the team could consider their job safe going into the following season.

“You either play or you don’t have a job,” Tampa Bay head coach Leeman Bennett said prior to the game. “We want to look presentable. We are all professionals and certainly we want to play our best. It is a matter of pride to finish with a little sweeter taste than on a losing note. One win isn’t going to make everything right, but at least there will be a sweeter taste.”

More like a familiar taste. For the fourteenth time in 1986, the Buccaneers would go home a loser. As always, however, they made it interesting to the very end.

On December 22, a Tampa Stadium crowd of 33,992 came out to see the last chapter of the 1985 season. It started out well enough, with Donald Igwebuike kicking a 33-yard field goal in the first quarter to give Tampa Bay an early 3-0 lead.

The Packers went ahead later in the quarter on a 30-yard touchdown run by wide receiver Phillip Epps that came on a reverse. James Wilder got Tampa Bay back on top in the second quarter, however, scoring on a one-yard touchdown run to give the Bucs a 10-7 lead.

An Al Del Greco 24-yard field goal with just 16 seconds left in the second quarter tied the game 10-10 going into the half.

To their credit, however, the Buccaneers played hard on a day when many could understand if they’d rather be across the street doing their Christmas shopping at the Tampa Bay Center.

Trailing 13-10 going into the third quarter following another Del Greco field goal, the Buccaneers put together their best drive of the day. Quarterback Steve Young engineered a 10-play, 74-yard drive that culminated with a 3-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jimmie Giles. Tampa Bay took 17-13 lead, but their defense would once again let them down when it mattered most.

Randy Wright, Green Bay’s third-string quarterback, answered Tampa Bay’s best offensive drive with their best of the day as well. Wright put together a 13-play, 73-yard drive that took 6:13 off the clock. The immortal Jessie Clark scored on a 6-yard run to regain the lead for Green Bay, 20-17.

Igwebuike, who on his second extra point of the game set Tampa Bay’s single-season scoring mark with 96 points, had a chance in the fourth quarter to even up the game. Instead, he pushed a 48-yard attempt wide right late in the fourth quarter – his second miss from 40+ yards on the day -- and the game would end with Tampa Bay three points short of taking the game to overtime.

On the bright side, Steve Young had his best statistical game of the season, completing 21 of 37 passes for 277 yards and one touchdown. Despite their record, Young felt optimistic about the team’s future.

“I want to be here,” Young said. “I want to have a career here. I want to help this team fill up this stadium again. James Wilder came up to me after the game and I talked to Jimmie Giles, too, and we are convinced we can do it.”

With Young at quarterback, Wilder at his familiar spot in the backfield, and Giles making big catches for Tampa Bay, Buccaneer fans could only wonder how much better the team might be with the addition of Bo Jackson through the upcoming draft. Yes, the future never looked so bright in Tampa Bay.

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