November 8, 2011

1987: Cardinals Pull Off 28-Point Fourth Quarter Rally to Beat Bucs

The Cardinals team that hosted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on November 8, 1987 was already a lame duck franchise in St. Louis, and there were just 22,449 fans in attendance at Busch Stadium. Owner Bill Bidwill, frustrated in efforts to gain a new, larger stadium for the team to play in, made it clear that he was looking to relocate in 1988.

It had been dismal, particularly in a year that featured a players’ strike and the use of replacement players for three games. The Cardinals, coached by Gene Stallings, were 2-5 and had lost their previous three contests (the replacement players went 1-2). The passing game was proficient with QB Neil Lomax (pictured above), WR J.T. Smith, and rookie TE Robert Awalt. But the defense did not rush opposing passers particularly well and was prone to giving up big plays.

Tampa Bay was 4-3 (2-1 with replacement players) and seemed to be moving in the right direction under Head Coach Ray Perkins. While Vinny Testaverde, in his second year after being the first overall draft pick, was the quarterback-in-waiting, veteran Steve DeBerg was still the quarterback of the present. FB James Wilder was productive as both a runner and receiver out of the backfield. While the defense was improved, especially at linebacker, there were problems at safety.

The Cardinals had the ball first and drove to the Tampa Bay 21 yard line, but Jim Gallery’s 38-yard field goal attempt was no good. The Buccaneers punted following their initial possession, but got the ball back when Lomax was intercepted by CB Rod Jones. With good starting field position at the St. Louis 49, they scored in six plays that were highlighted by a 32-yard gain on a DeBerg pass to Wilder. DeBerg threw to WR Mark Carrier for a five-yard touchdown and the Bucs were ahead by 7-0 at the end of the first quarter.

The Cardinals started off the second quarter with another drive into Tampa Bay territory that featured Lomax completions of 15 yards to Smith and 24 yards to Awalt. However, after driving down to the seven yard line, an errant pitchout by Lomax to RB Stump Mitchell was recovered by LB Ervin Randle for Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers made the most of the break, driving 92 yards in 15 plays that ate up over six minutes. DeBerg completed passes for 25 yards to WR Gerald Carter on a third-and-ten play, 16 yards to WR Bruce Hill, and to Wilder for 17 yards that was further helped along by a facemask penalty on the Cardinals. A three-yard scoring pass to Carter finished it off and gave Tampa Bay a 14-0 lead.

With five minutes left in the first half, the Cardinals engineered a 14-play drive of their own. Lomax twice threw to J.T. Smith, for a total of 24 yards, and twice to Awalt for 21. Gallery was successful on a 31-yard field goal attempt and the score was 14-3 at halftime.

Tampa Bay started off the second half with another long scoring possession of 80 yards in 12 plays. DeBerg completed a 34-yard touchdown pass to RB Jeff Smith and the Bucs were ahead by 21-3. Following a St. Louis punt, Tampa Bay methodically drove to another TD. This time it was 12 plays and 75 yards that included four pass completions by DeBerg and a 16-yard run by Wilder down to the St. Louis three. From there, Smith ran in for the score and the Buccaneers had a seemingly-comfortable 28-3 lead heading into the fourth quarter.

The third quarter ended with the Cardinals converting a fourth-and-one with a three-yard carry up the middle by Mitchell. Four plays later, Lomax threw to Mitchell for a 39-yard gain to the Tampa Bay four and immediately followed up with a touchdown pass to Awalt. Still, the Bucs held a formidable 28-10 lead.

On the second play of the ensuing series, Wilder fumbled and LB Niko Noga recovered and returned it 24 yards for a TD. The margin was narrowed to 28-17. The Bucs had a short possession that, with a holding penalty and three-yard loss on a carry by RB Bobby Howard, moved backward to their own 13. Frank Garcia’s 37-yard punt was returned eight yards by RB Vai Sikahema to give the Cardinals excellent field position at the Tampa Bay 39. While a holding penalty moved the ball back, the ensuing five-play series included four pass completions by Lomax, three of them to Awalt for 36 yards and one to J.T. Smith for 11 yards and a touchdown. Gallery’s extra point made it a four-point game as Tampa Bay’s once-large lead was now just 28-24, and there were still just over eight minutes left to play.

The Buccaneers, helped by a personal foul penalty on CB Mark Jackson of the Cardinals, got near midfield on their next possession but the offense again quickly stalled. Garcia’s punt carried into the end zone for a touchback, giving St. Louis the ball on its 20.

Mitchell ran the ball twice for 11 yards. After an incompletion, Lomax threw to WR Don Holmes for 23 yards and then to Awalt for 27 more to the Tampa Bay 19. Three plays later, Lomax connected with Smith for a 17-yard TD and, with another Gallery PAT, the Cardinals had an improbable three-point lead thanks to four fourth-quarter touchdowns.

There were just under two minutes remaining on the clock and the reeling Buccaneers came out throwing. Starting at his eight yard line, DeBerg completed three passes for 23 yards, missed on two, but converted a fourth-and-three with a three yard throw to Jeff Smith. Three plays later, DeBerg connected with Carter for 25 yards and then six yards to Smith to get the ball to the St. Louis 35. However, on the game’s final play, Donald Igwebuike missed a 53-yard field goal attempt and the Cardinals came away with a stunning 31-28 win. It was the greatest fourth quarter comeback in NFL history.

St. Louis outgained the Buccaneers, 415 yards to 377, while both teams generated 26 first downs apiece. Tampa Bay actually had more net passing yards (294 to 278) but was less effective at running the ball (83 yards on 33 attempts to 137 yards on 31 carries for the Cardinals). The Bucs also had more sacks (four to one, with two of them by LB Chris Washington) and fewer turnovers (one to two) and penalties (8 to 11). However, the one turnover led directly to a score during the big St. Louis comeback, and combined with the inability to maintain possession and stop the Cardinals when they had the ball, it proved fatal during the fourth quarter.

Neil Lomax completed 25 of 36 passes for 314 yards with three touchdowns (all, of course, in the fourth quarter) and one intercepted. Robert Awalt (pictured below) caught 9 passes for 124 yards and a TD and J.T. Smith was right behind with 8 receptions for 96 yards and the last two all-important touchdowns. Stump Mitchell rushed for 79 yards on 17 carries and also caught 4 passes for 58 more yards.

For Tampa Bay, Steve DeBerg was successful on 23 of 37 throws for 303 yards with three TDs and had none intercepted. James Wilder rushed for 49 yards on 11 attempts and caught 6 passes for 87 yards. Jeff Smith was right behind in the rushing department with 48 yards on 19 carries; he also caught three passes for 43 yards and a TD. Gerald Carter had 6 receptions for 82 yards and a score.

The dramatic game had a significant effect on the performance of both teams thereafter. The previously-lackluster Cardinals lost a close contest to the Rams the next week, but they won four of their last six contests (including another win over Tampa Bay) to nearly qualify for the postseason. While a final-game loss to the Cowboys ended their playoff hopes, their record was 7-8, respectable considering the poor start, for a third-place finish in the NFC East. It was something of a fitting climax to the franchise’s 28-year existence in St. Louis – the club moved to the Phoenix area for 1988.

As for the Buccaneers, a season of promise degraded into disaster. The loss to the Cardinals was the first of eight straight to close out the year. The final tally was 4-11, putting them at the bottom of the NFC Central along with Detroit.

Neil Lomax led the NFL in pass attempts (463), completions (275), and yards (3387) and ranked third in touchdown passes (24) and fifth in passing (88.5 rating). However, he also placed third by being sacked 48 times. Lomax was selected to the Pro Bowl.

J.T. Smith (pictured below) led the league in both pass receptions (91) and yards (1117) while scoring 8 touchdowns, although he was bypassed for postseason honors. Robert Awalt received Rookie of the Year honors from UPI and The Sporting News thanks to his 42 catches for 526 yards and six TDs.