The 1981 Tampa Bay Buccaneers were a team trying to avoid falling back into the abyss. The franchise that was founded in 1976 had their breakthrough year in 1979 when they reached the NFC Championship Game. But after slipping back to 5-10-1 in 1980, the Buccaneers entered 1981 needing to prove they weren’t a one-year wonder. They made the necessary improvements and were able to win a balanced division.
Head coach John McKay didn’t have great talent to work with—only two players had Pro Bowl years in 1981. One of them was defensive end Lee Roy Selmon, easily the team’s best player and two years removed from being Defensive Player of the Year. The other was tight end Jimmie Giles, who caught 45 passes for 786 yards.
Doug Williams was at quarterback and the strong-armed 26-year-old threw for over 3,500 yards with a solid 7.6 yards-per-attempt and a respectable 19/14 TD-INT ratio. Williams favorite target was not Giles, but big-play receiver Kevin House, who racked over up over 1100 yards.
The running game lacked consistency, undoubtedly due in large part to the lack of talent up front. Jerry Eckwood led the team for 651 yards and while backup James Wilder would eventually become one of the league’s best, the 23-year-old was still learning in 1981.
Tampa Bay’s offense struggled and ranked 18th in the NFL in points scored. But the defense made up for it. They weren’t bursting at the seams with talent, but in addition to Selmon, they had a ballhawking free safety in Cedric Brown, who picked off nine passes. The defense also benefitted from the addition of rookie outside linebacker Hugh Green.
The opening game of the season was on a Saturday night against the Minnesota Vikings, who had won the old NFC Central (the Bucs plus the four current teams of the NFC North) in 1980. Minnesota had taken the division eight times in the 1970s and Tampa Bay needed to quell any ideas of a long-term restoration.
Williams threw a 55-yard touchdown pass to House and the Bucs led 14-13 in the fourth quarter. The Vikings were driving when Neal Colzie intercepted a pass on the 18-yard line and took it all the way to the house, sealing a 21-13 win.
The running game went completely AWOL in Kansas City the following week, rushing for just 12 yards in a 19-10 loss. Another loss came at Chicago, the worst team in the division. Tampa’s Mike Washington got the game off to a good start with a Pick-6, but the Bucs gave up a special teams TD and again failed to run the ball in a 28-17 loss.
Eckwood and Wilder combined to get the ground attack going at home against the St. Louis Cardinals. They combined for 147 yards, and with adequate support, Williams played an efficient, mistake-free game, going 17/30 for 162 yards. The Bucs won 20-10.
The Detroit Lions would be in the mix all season long this year. They came to Tampa and grabbed a 10-0 lead in the first quarter. Williams answered by twice finding House for touchdowns, throwing two more touchdown passes in the fourth quarter and the defense got two interceptions apiece from Brown and Cecil Johnson. The result was a 28-10 win.
Eckwood and Wilder made a good tag-team again in Green Bay, combining for 152 yards and the defense picked off four Lynn Dickey passes in a 21-10 win. The winning streak came to an end the following week in an exciting game at Oakland.
The Bucs trailed 15-0 against the defending Super Bowl champions (although the Raiders would miss the playoffs in 1981), but a Williams-to-House 77-yard touchdown strike keyed a rally where Tampa got a 16-15 lead, before Oakland answered one last time with a field goal to win it.
It was a tough part of the schedule, as Tampa Bay again went on the road to face a Super Bowl team from 1980, this time the NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles. And the Eagles were off to a strong 6-1 start. Tampa Bay was a (+9.5) underdog and looked the part. Williams was an erratic 19/45 for 243 yards and intercepted three times, while the defense allowed 189 rush yards in a 20-10 loss.
An easier opponent, the Bears at home, brought better results. Eckwood outrushed the great Walter Payton and Tampa enjoyed a 209-92 advantage in rush yardage. Williams threw two long touchdown passes, 81 yards to Giles and 51 to House in the 20-10 victory.
Tampa Bay was 5-4 and the Chicago game was the first of three divisional games in a four-week span. The subsequent trip to Minnesota couldn’t have gone much worse, as the Bucs were outrushed 205-43 and gave up the game’s first 23 points before making the final cosmetically close, at 25-10. Minnesota was emerging as the team to beat in the NFC Central.
A sluggish start at home against Green Bay followed, as Tampa Bay trailed 3-0 going into the second quarter, with the Packers driving. Then Brown turned the tide, with an interception and 81-yard return for a touchdown. It unleashed the floodgates, as the Bucs picked off backup Packer quarterback Rich Campbell four times and their own third-string running back James Owens ran for 112 yards in a 37-3 rout.
Tampa Bay went to New Orleans on the final Sunday of November and spotted the lowly Saints a 14-0 lead, before again getting rolling and winning easily. Williams went 16/24 for 218 yards and two touchdowns, while House caught six passes for 107 yards. The final was 31-14.
The next week’s home game with Atlanta required some later heroics. The Bucs trailed 23-17 in the fourth quarter. But Williams was playing well, finishing the day at 19/29 for 336 yards and no interceptions. He also threw two touchdowns and the biggest one was the 71-yard strike to House to win the game 24-23.
While Tampa Bay was winning, Minnesota had been flailing. The Vikings, once 7-4, dropped three in a row and with two weeks to go, the Bucs were suddenly in sole possession of first place, with Minnesota, Green Bay and Detroit all a game back.
A tough home loss to a good San Diego Chargers team ended the win streak. Williams and Dan Fouts went back-and-forth in a passing war, each clearing the 300-yard barrier. San Diego kicked a late field goal to win 24-23. The Vikings also lost though, and even though the Packers and Lions both won to move to 8-7, the Bucs still had control of their playoff fate.
Tampa Bay would visit Detroit for the final game of the season. Both teams held a tiebreaker edge on the Packers, so Bucs-Lions was straight-up for the division title. As far as the wild-card went, Tampa Bay began the season’s final week in decent shape here too. Conference record was the key tiebreaker when multiple teams were packed together and Tampa had the edge of everyone here.
But on the Saturday of the last week, the New York Giants upset the Dallas Cowboys 13-10 in overtime. The win ensured that the wild-card contenders Eagles and Giants would win at least nine games. And that in turn meant that Tampa Bay had to win the NFC Central or go home.
It was fitting that a big play to House was the key moment in the Silverdome. Tampa Bay trailed 7-3 and was backed up in their own end when Williams found House on an 84-yard touchdown pass. The teams traded field goals as the defenses took over and it was 13-10 in the fourth quarter.
Detroit had the ball deep in their own end when Tampa’s David Logan scooped up a fumble at the 21-yard line and took it into the end zone. The Lions were able to answer with a touchdown, but the Buccaneers salted away the 20-17 win.
Williams wasn’t great, completing just 8/19 passes. But he got 172 yards out of the completions and didn’t make any mistakes. Meanwhile, Brown had picked off Lion quarterback Eric Hipple twice, going along with the big Logan fumble recovery in an opportunistic day for the Bucs.
With a 9-7 record, no one was expecting anything from Tampa Bay in the playoffs. The format prior to 1990 had the #3 division winner seeded straight into the divisional weekend, so the Bucs were going to Dallas as a (+8) underdog, the biggest spread of the second round.
They hung with the Cowboys through a scoreless first quarter, but then it got ugly. Williams was intercepted four times, and the defense was run over for 212 yards on the ground. The final was 38-0.
Tampa Bay’s second division title in three years still established that they were a legitimate player in the NFC Central. They made the playoffs again in 1982. And while a long period of losing was ahead for this franchise, it wouldn’t be under the watch of John McKay or Doug Williams.