It was 1976 when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers came into existence and their first three years were less than stellar. The Bucs went 0-14 their first year, 2-12 in ’77 and then up to 5-11 in 1978 when the schedule expanded to sixteen games. Steady improvement, but no indicator of what the 1979 Tampa Bay Buccaneers were about to do, which is make a run to the first division title in franchise history.
John McKay was the head coach and the man who had been a college legend at USC drafted one of his own in Ricky Bell. The runner-up for the 1976 Heisman Trophy, Bell was the first overall pick in the ensuing NFL draft.
Bell’s career and life would end tragically. Health problems would force his retirement in 1983 and he died a year later at the age of 29 from heart failure. 1979 was the high point of his NFL career. He ran for over 1,200 yards and was the keystone of the Tampa Bay offense.
Doug Williams was at quarterback and the young gunslinger who would eventually make history with the 1987 Washington Redskins, was erratic. He got decent yardage totals, at 2,448, but also threw 24 interceptions. Even allowing more interceptions in this time period, that was still a hefty number. Especially given that a mostly no-name offensive line came together nicely and allowed the fewest sacks in the NFL.
In fairness to Williams, the offense wasn’t stacked with great receiving threats though. The best of the group was tight end Jimmie Giles, but there was no one to stretch the field. Tampa Bay’s offense ranked 21st in the NFL in points scored
What Tampa Bay could do was play defense and no one did it better than defensive end Lee Roy Selmon, who won Defensive Player of the Year honors. He was the only Pro Bowler on the squad, but impactful enough that the Bucs were the best in the league at points allowed
Tampa Bay opened the season with a rare Saturday night game, at home with a Detroit Lions team that would finish last in the NFC Central (Tampa Bay shared this division with the four current teams of the NFC North). Selmon set the tone for his season early when he returned a fumble 29 yards for a touchdown. Williams hit Giles with a 66-yard touchdown pass that broke the game open in the second quarter and Tampa won 31-16.
The Bucs went on to Baltimore, where the Colts were not particularly good, but jumped out to a 17-0 lead. Before you could say “same old Bucs”, Williams led them back with two touchdown passes and they led 26-17. The Colts came right back with a touchdown, but missed the extra point. It proved critical when the game went to overtime before Tampa won 29-26.
It was still a less-than-stellar win over another bad team in a game where there were nine total turnovers. There was no reason to get overly excited about Tampa Bay just yet. But they kept churning out the wins over poor teams, going to Green Bay and winning 21-10. The Bucs pounded the Packers for 232 rushing yards, with Bell and Jerry Eckwood sharing equally in the glory.
A real test awaited the following week when the Los Angeles Rams, a playoff perennial arrived for a late Sunday afternoon kickoff. Tampa Bay sent a clear message that they were for real, holding the Rams to 186 total yards and cruising to a 21-6 win. The winning kept going in Chicago, as the defense locked down Walter Payton, Eckwood ran for 120 yards and Williams threw a fourth-quarter touchdown pass to win 17-13.
Tampa Bay made the cover of Sports Illustrated with their 5-0 record, but the next two weeks turned sour. Playing another soft opponent, the New York Giants, the Bucs allowed 202 rushing yards, Williams threw three picks and they lost a 17-14 road game.
In a home date with the mediocre New Orleans Saints, the game was scoreless at the half and Williams threw a touchdown pass to Isaac Haggins to start the scoring. Tampa Bay also scored the game’s final touchdown. In between, the Saints found the end zone six times and won 42-14 in a complete defensive meltdown for this normally stellar unit.
A visit from Green Bay got the Tampa Bay and the running game back on track. Bell went for 167 yards and also caught a TD pass from Williams in an easy 21-3 win. The defense stepped it up in Minnesota, where the Vikings were the division’s traditional power, but also in transition in their first year without retired Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton. Tampa sacked new Minnesota QB Tommy Kramer four times and fought out a 12-10 win.
Another poor performance against a poor team followed in Atlanta. Even though the Falcons had made the playoffs in 1978, they fell hard to 6-10 in 1979. But today was one of the six wins, as Bell could muster only 41 yards, while a cavalry of Falcon backs combined for over 200 rush yards in a 17-14 win.
Tampa teetered on the brink of disaster the following week in Detroit. They trailed 14-6 after three quarters to a team that would only win two games. With no two-point conversion in play, the Bucs needed to score twice. After a field goal, Williams found receiver Larry Mucker on a 23-yard touchdown pass to win it 16-14.
The Giants made a return visit the following week—the schedule formula of the time required the last place teams in the NFC’s two five-team divisions (East & Central) to play twice. This one went better for the Bucs, as they played one of their most complete games of the season. Bell ran for 152 yards. Williams was an efficient 12/24 for 176 yards and no interceptions. The defense sacked Phil Simms five times and the final score was 31-3.
Tampa Bay was riding high with a 9-3 record. They led Chicago by two games in the division race, with everyone else lagging behind. The possibility of a #1 seed in the NFC playoffs was very real. But this was also a very young team—only two starters were even as old as 28-years-old, defensive end Wally Chambers and left guard Greg Horton. And the inexperience began to show as the team stood on the threshold of something special.
Tampa hosted Minnesota on the Sunday after Thanksgiving and grabbed a quick 9-0 lead that could have been more. There was a missed extra point and one drive stalled on the 3-yard line. Later in the game, the Bucs trailed 23-16 and scored what should have been the tying touchdown…until they missed another extra point. The kicking game failures were the difference in a 23-22 loss.
Another home game was up next, with Chicago in and an opportunity to clinch the Central there. Williams threw four interceptions. Backup Mike Rae came in and threw another pick, as the Bucs lost 14-0. Now the division lead over the Bears was down to one game and a wild-card berth still not sewn up, with three solid contenders in the NFC East at a time when only two wild-card teams made the playoffs.
The worst performance came in San Francisco, against another 2-14 team in the 49ers. Williams threw five more interceptions, Bell was held to 52 yards and the 23-7 final was not close.
Now everything was on the line. Tampa Bay was tied with Chicago at 9-6, though the Bucs held the tiebreaker for the division due to a better conference record. Furthermore, the NFC East was guaranteed to have all three contenders—Cowboys, Redskins and Eagles win ten games. So Tampa Bay had to either beat the Kansas City Chiefs or hope the Bears lost to the St. Louis Cardinals.
A torrential downpour greeted the Tampa area on game day. Oddsmakers were souring on the Bucs, making them just a (-3) favorite over the Chiefs, who were 7-8 coming into the game, meaning Las Vegas saw homefield advantage being the only difference between these two teams.
Bell was able to run the ball in the rain, getting 137 yards, but no one could score. Meanwhile, the Bears were crushing the Cardinals as Tampa Bay-Kansas City went to the fourth quarter scoreless. Finally, the Bucs mounted a drive and Neil O’Donoghue booted a short field goal. The 3-0 win, and the last month in the season weren’t pretty, but the 1979 Tampa Bay Buccaneers were division champs.
Tampa Bay also had a home playoff game, even though Dallas had passed them for the #1 seed. The Eagles beat the Bears in the NFC wild-card game and came to Tampa (at the time, the league had a rule prohibiting the wild-card winner playing the champion of its own division).
It’s ironic that the Bucs’ first playoff game would be against the Eagles, because Philadelphia proved to be the stumbling block that Tampa Bay had to get through in the years of 2000-02, when they first lost consecutive playoff games up north, before finally going back to Philly and winning the NFC Championship Game, en route to a Super Bowl title. And if we crisscross sports, the city of Tampa’s only trip to the World Series with the Rays came in 2008 against—you guessed it, the Philadelphia Phillies.
In 1979, Bucs-Eagles kicked off the divisional round on early Saturday afternoon and the problems of December disappeared on Tampa’s first drive, as Bell capped it off with a 4-yard touchdown run. They got a second-quarter field goal and then Chambers recovered a fumble deep in Eagles’ territory to set up Bell’s second touchdown and it was 17-0.
Williams then made a big mistake and threw an interception deep in his own end that allowed Philadelphia to get a touchdown before the half. Another Eagles’ field goal came in the third quarter and at 17-10 we had a game. Selmon reversed the momentum with two big sacks of Philadelphia quarterback Ron Jaworski.
Tampa Bay was getting a running game while Philadelphia was not—Bell carried 38 times for 142 yards, while the Eagles rushed for only 48 yards as a team. In the fourth quarter, the Bucs reasserted control. Williams threw a nine-yard TD pass to Giles and even though the Eagles scored another touchdown late, Tampa got a 24-17 win.
They were going to the NFC Championship Game and the news got even better the following day when the Rams upset the Cowboys, meaning that Tampa Bay would host. But that was the last good news of the 1979 NFL season for the Buccaneers.
The offense did nothing in the NFC title game. Williams was 2-for-13 for 12 yards. Rae came in and went 2-for-13 for 42 yards. Eckwood completed a 42-yard pass to Haggins off the halfback option that actually made the running back the best Tampa Bay passer of the day. Given that, it’s not surprising the game ended a 9-0 shutout win for the Rams.
Tampa Bay’s 1979 season was the start of a decent little stretch for the young franchise. Even though they slipped back in 1980, the Bucs won the NFC Central again 1981 and made the playoffs in the strike-shortened year of 1982, losing to Dallas each time. But it would be a long time before the Buccanners played for an NFC Championship again—that wouldn’t happen until 1999, ironically against the Rams.