Monday, December 20, 2010

Bucs Fall to Bears in Finale, 12/20/80

On November 2, 1980, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers sported a record of 4-4-1 with seven games remaining. A season which had seen the Bucs sandwich a five-game winless streak between two separate two-game winning streaks could still be salvaged with a strong finish.

At the same point the previous season, the Buccaneers were 7-2 and on their way to winning the NFC Central Division. Although that team would endure a mini-slump en route to clinching the division, the 1980 edition of the Buccaneers shared few similarities with their previous edition.

The defense, which had been such a strength in 1979, failed to dominate opponents or even hold leads. Many wondered if these in fact were the real Buccaneers who had simply over-achieved in 1979.

It began to look that way when Tampa Bay lost five of their next six games to drop to 5-9-1 and completely out of the playoff picture. All that remained was a final home contest against the Chicago Bears to close out the disappointing campaign.

Although they had little left to play for, the Buccaneers had a bit of unfinished business with the Bears. On October 6, the Buccaneers made their first-ever appearance on Monday Night Football at Soldier Field in Chicago. The experience turned out to be less than memorable for the Buccaneers and their national audience.

Despite only trailing 3-0 at the half, the Bucs ultimately fell to the Bears 23-0. Walter Payton rushed for 122 of his 183 total yards in the second half and the Bears sacked Doug Williams four times. Head coach John McKay famously quipped after the game that his team had "set Monday Night Football back 2,000 years."

Then there was the additional matter of a borderline shot levied on tight end Jimmie Giles by hard-hitting Chicago safety Doug Plank. Plank achieved a place in NFL lore when his jersey number -- 46 -- became the root of the so-named "46 defense" developed by Chicago defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan. It was his hit on Giles, however, that enraged Tampa Bay quarterback Doug Williams.

Although no penalty was called on the play, Williams believed that Plank had speared Giles with his helmet. For the hit, Plank earned a $750 fine from the league (roughly $1900 in today's dollars). Giles remained in the game, although some speculated that there may have been a long-term impact on his performance.

Prior to the Bears game, Giles had 12 receptions for 222 yards and three touchdowns in four games. Following the Chicago game, Giles had only 19 receptions and one touchdown in 10 games, this after leading the team in receiving with 40 catches and seven touchdowns in 1979. Still, Giles earned ultimate vindication by being named to the NFC's Pro Bowl squad.

While McKay attributed the decline to Giles drawing more attention from opposing defenders, Giles bluntly stated that the hit had nothing to do with his decrease in production.

"If I let one hit stop me or get me scared, I shouldn't be in football," Giles said. "I think I've had a great year compared to last season because I'm getting double-teamed and triple-teamed in certain situations."

While most of the Buccaneers expected that there would be no retaliation in mind towards Plank, defensive lineman David Logan knew the importance of evening the score with the Bears.

"They beat us 23-0," Logan said. "They embarrassed us. We're not just going to go out there and go through the motions and then just get out of town."

On December 20, with John Madden in the house for the nationally-televised Saturday afternoon game on CBS and a sell-out crowd of over 72,000 expected at Tampa Stadium, both the Bears (6-9) and Buccaneers (5-9-1) had plenty of reasons to not just go through the motions.

Although the actual crowd numbered closer to 55,000 fans – resulting in the greatest number of unused tickets in team history at the time -- those in attendance saw a game that epitomized the struggles of Tampa Bay's 1980 campaign. Not that they didn't have their chances, but the Bucs held true to form and self-destructed at the most important time.

Tampa Bay started off strong enough, racing to a 10-0 first quarter lead behind a 33-yard pass from Williams to Gordon Jones and a 27-yard field goal by Garo Yepremian. For the eighth time in 1980, however, the Buccaneers could not hold on to a 10-point lead.

Chicago signal-caller Vince Evans began the Bears comeback with a six-yard touchdown run at the 10:14 mark of the second quarter. He added his second of the game in the third quarter from one yard out just three plays after Tampa Bay's Jerry Eckwood fumbled at his own three-yard line.

Although the Bears held a 14-10 lead, the Buccaneers had time to mount a comeback. A Yepremian field goal from 26 yards out cut the lead to 14-13 with 10:38 left in the fourth quarter. The fun, however, was just about to begin.

On their next drive, Williams connected with rookie wide receiver Kevin House on a 61-yard completion to the Bears 16, but House got careless with the ball and cornerback Terry Schmidt forced a fumble. The ball then bounced down to the 4-yard line where it was recovered by Doug Plank to kill the drive.

After forcing a Chicago punt, the Bucs had another golden opportunity when Williams connected with Giles across the middle inside the Bears 20. Turning to run towards the end zone, however, Giles fumbled after a big hit by rookie linebacker Otis Wilson. Again, the Bears recovered inside their own 5 to end a potential Buccaneer scoring drive.

Tampa Bay forced another Bears punt and had one final chance to win the game, driving down to the Chicago 15. From there, Yepremian would attempt a 32-yard field goal, surely an automatic kick for one of the most accurate kickers in the NFL.

Instead, the kick never had a chance due to a high snap by George Yarno. Holder Tom Blanchard got the ball down, but Chicago's Al Harris - a 6'5" Monster of the Midway -- got his hands up and blocked the potential game-winning kick to preserve the 14-13 lead for the Bears.

The Buccaneers battled and put up a better fight than during their Monday night meltdown in Chicago, but the missed opportunities and turnovers epitomized their wasted season.
McKay, for one, could not understand how his team could be completely undone by the late fumbles.

"It is absolutely ridiculous," he said. "In professional football, when you are paid the money they are paid here, you should not drop the football. It's disgusting, ridiculous, and has no part in the game."

In short, a fitting end to the one of the most disappointing seasons in team history.

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