TAMPA — The initial Sunday forecast called for pewter skies, perhaps gusts, for the latest Bucs-Eagles playoff clash. Projections have grown a bit more promising since, but who knows? Playoff weather rarely is pristine.
Except for one sublime, 60-degree afternoon back in the disco era, when the crispness in the December air was as profound as the creamsicle awash on jerseys and jackets inside Tampa Stadium.
“It was a beautiful day in Tampa that day,” recalled Richard “Batman” Wood, the iron-horse inside linebacker of the Bucs’ first generation.
Turned out, Dec. 29, 1979 would grow even more blissful as the afternoon — and decades — lingered.
Barely 24 months after snapping a 26-game losing streak that served as their nationally lampooned NFL indoctrination, the 4-year-old Bucs found themselves in the playoffs for the first time, against the same Eagles franchise they face Sunday.
By kickoff, most of the 71,402 fans had shoehorned themselves into the “Big Sombrero.” By dusk, the first watershed moment in this area’s pro-sports life had come to fruition.
“We were fired up, man,” said tight end Jimmie Giles, the organization’s first premier pass-catcher. “We wanted the world to see that we were a good football team.”
Taking the national stage
CBS’ NFL Today, precursor to the current litany of pregame shows, broadcast from a makeshift set inside the stadium to chronicle the organization’s formal transition from punchline to playoff team. Joining the NFL Today cast (led by Brent Musburger and Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder) was the broadcast team of Curt Gowdy and Hank Stram. A-listers, all.
“It was like a fairy tale,” recalled Mark Cotney, the Bucs’ strong safety and a forerunner to fierce-hitting descendant John Lynch. “It was like, ‘Is this really happening? Are we really this good?’”
The staggering transformation preceded salary caps and seven-round drafts, causing the incubation period for a fledgling franchise to take longer — much longer. The Bucs built their inaugural 1976 roster off rookies and an expansion draft consisting of castoffs from other teams.
“I mean, none of these guys would make some of the college teams now,” Giles said. “And that’s just a fact.”
To the surprise of few, they finished 0-14 that year, averaging fewer than nine points and suffering five shutouts. But by 1979, the front office had constructed a formidable young roster featuring an eventual Hall of Famer (Lee Roy Selmon), three 1979 All-Pros (Giles, Selmon and Selmon’s brother, Dewey), a 1,000-yard rusher (Ricky Bell) and and a future Super Bowl MVP (Doug Williams).
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The Bucs won their first five games, immortalizing themselves on the Oct. 1 cover of Sports Illustrated (a photo of Dewey Selmon driving Rams tailback Lawrence McCutcheon to the Tampa Stadium turf). A late-season, three-game skid imperiled their playoff hopes, but they salvaged them with a 3-0 home win against the Chiefs in a raw, rain-soaked regular-season finale. The 80 yards allowed by the defense remains a franchise-low for a single game.
They entered the playoffs with a 10-6 record, boasting the NFL’s No. 1-ranked defense (246.8 yards per game) and a brute-force, ball-control attack that proved very serviceable if not stylish. Yet they felt far more jilted than coronated.
Las Vegas’ line favored the Eagles, featuring 1,500-yard rusher Wilbert Montgomery and 6-foot-8 Pro Bowl receiver Harold Carmichael, at minus-4.5.
“(The Eagles) talked, as everybody else did, about what they wanted to do,” Wood said.
“But I think people disregarded the fact that we had a great team also. That day we just were not going to be denied, because we were playing at home. At home in front of our fans? Oh no, you’re not going to come in here and beat us.”
Upon taking the opening kickoff, the Bucs didn’t set the tone, they cemented it. Behind Bell, the archetypal bell-cow back of the era, the Bucs drove 80 yards on 18 plays, consuming more than nine minutes. Bell gained 37 yards on nine carries, capped by a 4-yard score on a sweep to the right.
“It was just a true statement that we wanted to make,” Giles said, “to let them know this wasn’t going to be no picnic and you’re not just going to pack your bags and send your major bags on to Los Angeles (for the NFC title game).”
A would-be 14-0 lead was negated when officials ruled Giles didn’t maintain possession on an apparent 13-yard TD pass from Williams. The Bucs settled for a field goal, and increased the lead to 17-0 with 5:24 to play in the half when Montgomery fumbled at the Eagles 4, and Bell scampered into the end zone’s right side on fourth-and-goal from the 1.
Montgomery never had a chance, managing only 35 yards (his third-lowest total of the season) on 13 carries. His fumble didn’t help Philly’s cause, nor did 10 dropped passes against a secondary that battered receivers in lieu of blitzing.
“We let them catch the ball in front of us, we didn’t care,” Cotney said. “I’m watching all the games now, and I enjoy them. But I see guys running wide-open deep so much, I’m going, ‘You didn’t see that in our secondary.’”
A Williams interception late in the half set up Philadelphia’s first touchdown, and the Eagles opened the second half with a field-goal drive, but the Bucs resumed command on Williams’ 9-yard TD pass to Giles early in the fourth.
Ron Jaworski’s 37-yard TD pass to Carmichael with 3:36 remaining preserved the hopes of the Eagles, who got the ball back for a final possession. Bucs defenders dropped three sure interceptions, two by cornerback Jeris White, during the final comeback attempt, before Jaworski’s fourth-down sideline throw to Carmichael fell incomplete in front of his own bench.
Moments later, Bucs coach John McKay was shaking hands with counterpart Dick Vermeil, whom he coached against when the two were at USC and UCLA, respectively. As McKay, bedecked in his trademark creamsicle jacket and white floppy golf hat, exited the field, the crowd broke out in the franchise’s theme song of the era.
Hey, hey, Tampa Bay, the Bucs know how to shiiine!
“Champagne in the locker room afterward,” Wood said. “It was so much happiness. I mean, God almighty, you have to think about the first three years that we went through, and we hate to be remembered by that.”
The game represented Bell’s finest hour as a pro. His 38 carries set an NFL playoff record and remains a Bucs playoff mark. His 142 rushing yards also remain the most by a Tampa Bay player in the postseason.
“He was the most gentle-giant man I have ever known,” Cotney said. “He was intimidating-looking to me, he was just a beast of a man. I would compare him to a Lee Roy Selmon-type individual, where he was just so humble and kind, and yet so violent and such a great athlete.”
The epilogue was somber. The Bucs failed to reach the end zone the following week in a 9-0 home loss to the Rams in the NFC title game. They reached the playoffs again in 1981 and the strike-shortened 1982 season but lost to the Cowboys on the road both years.
By 1984, Bell had succumbed to a rare inflammatory skin-muscle disorder at age 29. Williams departed after the 1983 season, insulted by owner Hugh Culverhouse’s notorious frugality. The Bucs wouldn’t make the playoffs again until 1997.
Meantime, creamsicle went out of fashion. Two-back sets were supplanted by spread attacks. Tampa Stadium was razed.
But its 1979 tenants remain regal in these parts. Rock stars from a disco era.
“From worst to first is one of the good stories in the NFL,” Cotney said. “Not for a lot of people, but for the people in Tampa, and especially for the guys that were a part of the ‘76 fiasco and ‘77, which was nearly a fiasco. And then to get that far in that short a period of time was just an incredible story.”
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls
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