January 6, 2010
The NFC Championship game on January 6, 1980 at Tampa Stadium featured two teams that had overcome differing forms of frustration to get there.
The hometown Buccaneers were the surprise story of the 1979 regular season. They joined the NFL as an expansion team in ’76 and proceeded to lose their first 26 games before winning the last two contests of the 1977 schedule. After going 5-11 in ’78, Tampa Bay leaped to the forefront in ’79, winning their first five games and ending up with a 10-6 record and the NFC Central title. Under patient (and highly quotable) Head Coach John McKay, the Bucs featured an outstanding defense that included NFL Defensive Player of the Year Lee Roy Selmon at defensive end. The offense relied on the running of FB Ricky Bell (1263 yards) to take the pressure off of QB Doug Williams, a second-year signal caller with great potential who completed just 41.8 percent of his passes but displayed an ability to make big plays.
The story for the visiting Los Angeles Rams was very different. From the point that Chuck Knox became the head coach in 1973, the team had won six consecutive NFC West titles and made it to the conference championship on four occasions. The problem was, they had lost all four of those games. Knox left the team following the ’77 season and George Allen, who had coached the team successfully from 1966-70, was hired to replace him. However, Allen failed to last the preseason and was in turn replaced by Ray Malavasi. The sense that the Rams were a talented team destined to underachieve took hold.
Los Angeles won a seventh straight division title in ’79, but with a 9-7 record – the worst since the pre-Knox year of 1972. Injuries took a toll, particularly when QB Pat Haden went down with a broken finger. The inexperienced Vince Ferragamo took over at quarterback for the last five games and the Rams won four of them to make it into the postseason once again. With Ferragamo throwing the long ball, HB Wendell Tyler (1109 yards) and FB Cullen Bryant (pictured) running the ball, and a tenacious defense, they were just good enough.
Neither team was expected to go far into the postseason but pulled upsets to make it to the conference championship game. Tampa Bay played very well in defeating the Philadelphia Eagles in their divisional playoff game, while the Rams upset the Cowboys in Dallas.
There were 72,033 hopeful fans at Tampa Stadium, but they were in for a very disappointing performance. The Rams completely shut down the Tampa Bay offense from the start, allowing just 13 yards in the first quarter. Meanwhile, the offense mounted a 68-yard drive to the Bucs one yard line, but after failing to crack the end zone, Frank Corral started off the second quarter with a 19-yard field goal.
Late in the second quarter the Rams again put together another scoring drive, going 58 yards deep into Tampa Bay territory. Once again they failed to score a touchdown and had to settle for another Corral field goal of 21 yards with 47 seconds left in the half.
Corral finished off the scoring with a 23-yard field goal in the fourth quarter that was set up by a 16-yard punt return by safety Eddie Brown. The Rams offense moved the ball effectively and accumulated 369 total yards, but couldn’t reach the end zone. Then again, they didn’t have to as Tampa Bay failed to mount any sort of effective offense. The closest they came was a pass from backup QB Mike Rae to TE Jimmie Giles in the end zone that was called back due to an illegal motion penalty.
Making it worse for the Bucs, they lost two of their key defensive starters, Selmon and DE Wally Chambers, to injury during the course of the game.
The Rams won by a final score of 9-0, which was the first time that a league or conference championship game had failed to include even a single touchdown. The running back tandem of Cullen Bryant (106 yards on 18 carries) and Wendell Tyler (28 rushes for 86 yards) was effective and allowed the Rams to control the ball; LA ran 77 plays to Tampa Bay’s 54.
Vince Ferragamo completed 12 of 23 passes for 163 yards, not tossing any TD passes but also not giving up any interceptions. His longest completion was 35 yards to WR Preston Dennard, who led the team with 56 receiving yards on his three catches. Bryant had the most receptions, with four, adding 36 yards to his tally from scrimmage. Perhaps the most inspiring performance was by DE Jack Youngblood (pictured at right), who played with a hairline fracture in his left leg.
Ricky Bell, who had run for 142 yards in the victory over the Eagles the previous week, gained just 59 yards on 20 carries this time. The passing game was a shambles, with both Doug Williams and Mike Rae combining for four completions in 26 attempts for 54 yards (both were two of 13, with Williams passing for 12 yards and Rae for 42). In fact, RB Jerry Eckwood tied Rae for the team lead in passing yards with 42 on his lone completion, an option pass to WR Larry Mucker.
Los Angeles went to its first Super Bowl and lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers, although the Rams gave the heavily favored returning champions a good battle. Tampa Bay returned to earth with a 5-10-1 record in 1980, and while they would win a division title in ’81 (and get blown out in the first round of the playoffs), the road to respectability for the franchise would be a long one.