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From Worst to First: The Unlikely Rise of the 1979 Tampa Bay Buccaneers

From worst to first!
Publish Date: 08/20/2023
Fact checked by: Mark Lewis

Five wins in three seasons—twenty-six losses in their first 26 games.

When legendary USC coach John McKay was hired as the first coach of the new expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he had a daunting task: Lead an expansion team to respectability.

Unfortunately, the expansion draft in 1976 was much different than in 1995, 1999, and 2002. It consisted primarily of aging veterans that had difficulty making the roster on other teams and others that were likely not good enough to play.

As a result, Tampa Bay’s overall record from 1976-1978 ended at 7-37.

Not everything was terrible. With the first pick in the 1976 draft, Tampa selected one of the greatest defensive players in NFL History – Lee Roy Selmon. They selected Lee Roy’s brother Dewey in the second round, who was also an excellent defensive player and started for Tampa.

Unfortunately, Lee Roy Selmon isn’t commonly recognized as a top defensive lineman as he was dominant. While the statistics aren’t official, he compiled over 100 sacks in his short career while facing constant double and triple teams. Ron Wolf, their General Manager, stated he had been around Howie Long, Reggie White and other great defensive ends, but Lee Roy Selmon was the best he ever saw. And he indeed was great.

By 1979, they assembled an offense that could at least compete and a defense that carried them during that fantastic Cinderella season. In 1977, they drafted Coach McKay’s star running back at USC, Ricky Bell, who became the cornerstone of the offense. In 1978, they found their quarterback in Doug Williams from Grambling State.

After a surprising 5-0 start, Tampa was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, but it would be short-lived as they would drop three of their next five games.

One of the critical games of the season came in Week 11 at Detroit, where they trailed 14-6 going into the 4th Quarter. After cutting the lead to 14-9, Doug Williams would find WR Larry Mucker for a 23-yard touchdown pass to win the game 16-14 and improve their record to 8-3.

Now it was done or die. They would lose their next three games after defeating the New York Giants 31-3, including a 23-7 defeat to the 1-13 San Francisco 49ers. They were tied with the 9-6 Bears going into the last game and had a chance to wrap up the NFC Central Division. All they had to do was win at home against Kansas City. In a monsoon.

Who can forget all the clips shown over the years of this game by NFL Films? The river was flowing down the bleacher stairs, the crazy wind, the gigantic splashes after every routine tackle, and most of all, the 60,000 plus fans wearing their ponchos and holding their umbrellas high with hopes of deflecting just a part of the monsoon.

Passing the ball was pretty much impossible. Both teams had to run, and it wasn’t going to be easy. Tampa couldn’t muster much offense, but it turned out to be the same for Kansas City as they were held to a paltry 80 yards of total offense. Each team had turned the ball over, but it was Lee Roy Selmon’s block of a 39-yard field goal early in the game that literally may have saved their season.

On the last drive of the game, Doug Williams moved the ball a little through the air, and they let running backs Ricky Bell and Jerry Eckwood rush the ball to the Kansas City 2 yard line.

It came down to kicker Neil O’Donohue and a 19-yard field goal attempt in the monsoon. Despite a lousy snap, holder Tom Blanchard got the ball where it needed to be, and the kick was good! A 3-0 victory to capture their first division championship!

In the NFC Divisional game 13 days later against the Eagles, they unleashed Ricky Bell, who ran for 142 yards and scored twice in the first half as Tampa took a commanding 17-0 lead. And though Philadelphia would cut the lead to 17-10, Doug Williams would find TE Jimmie Giles in the endzone for a 24-10 lead that they would never lose.

They had won their first playoff game and were ready to play in the NFC Championship Game against the Rams for the right to go to the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl. No Tampa Bay fan could have foreseen a chance like that after the previous three seasons. It was a dream come true.

And though the dream was short-lived following a 9-0 loss to the Rams, Tampa Bay had a lot to be proud of. They had fought their way to respectability and had proved that they belonged among the elite instead of the basement.

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