September 23, 2012

1979: Bucs Dominate Rams in Key Early Showdown

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had been regarded as something of a joke when they lost all 14 of their games during the inaugural season of 1976 and a total of 26 straight before finally entering the win column in the last two contests of ’77. They had risen to 5-11 in 1978, but had collapsed in the second half of the year after a promising start. Still, by 1979 Head Coach John McKay’s team was ready to contend and won its first three games. QB Doug Williams had shown promise as a rookie in ’78 and, if he lacked polish and consistency, he was also displaying the ability to make big plays. Third-year RB Ricky Bell was proving why the Bucs had taken him first overall in the 1977 draft and he was joined in the backfield by rookie HB Jerry Eckwood. Most significantly, the defense had come together to become one of the best units in the NFL. Anchored by DE Lee Roy Selmon, it was tough against the run and pass.

On September 23 the Bucs faced their toughest test to date against the visiting Los Angeles Rams. LA had been a regular contender throughout the decade and had won the NFC West for six straight seasons, first under Chuck Knox as head coach and now Ray Malavasi. The Rams also boasted a strong defense and a conservative offense directed by QB Pat Haden. They were 2-1 coming into the contest with the Buccaneers, having lost their opening game but winning the next two.

Things did not get off to a promising start for the fans at Tampa Stadium. On the second play of the game, Eckwood fumbled and CB Pat Thomas recovered for the Rams at the Tampa Bay 39. However, the LA offense could gain a total of just two yards against the inspired Buccaneers defense and the Rams were forced to punt.

The Rams blew another opportunity on their next series when they drove to the Tampa Bay 26 but Frank Corral missed a field goal attempt. However, following the missed field goal try, Rams LB Jim Youngblood intercepted a Doug Williams pass and returned it 31 yards for a touchdown. Corral missed the extra point attempt but Los Angeles held a 6-0 lead after a quarter of play.

Things changed decisively in the second quarter as the Buccaneers scored three touchdowns. The first was set up when NT Bill Kollar recovered a fumble by Rams HB Lawrence McCutcheon at the LA 27. Three plays later, the Bucs capitalized when Williams connected with WR Larry Mucker for a 15-yard TD.

The next scoring drive was helped along when, after stopping the Bucs at their own 24, Pat Thomas was flagged for roughing punter Tom Blanchard. LA gave away more territory on the next play when Williams threw an incomplete pass but the Rams were called for a personal foul, advancing the ball to the Tampa Bay 46. Two plays later, Willams completed a pass to WR Morris Owens at the LA 28 and a roughing the passer penalty put the ball on the 14. Three plays after that Ricky Bell ran through the middle of the line for a five-yard touchdown and, with the successful PAT, it was 14-6 in favor of the Buccaneers.

The Rams failed to score when Corral missed another 47-yard field goal in a driving rain – one of several heavy showers during the game that drenched the already-wet field. Tampa Bay drove 70 yards in six plays, capped by a Williams pass to TE Jimmie Giles down the middle of the field for a 29-yard touchdown. The Bucs went into halftime with a 15-point lead.

The second half was anticlimactic as neither team scored again. Tampa Bay’s defense completely stymied the Rams, with linebackers Dewey Selmon (Lee Roy's brother, pictured at top), Richard Wood, David Lewis, and Cecil Johnson performing notably well. The Buccaneers had another opportunity to pad their lead in the fourth quarter, advancing to the LA 15, but Neil O’Donoghue’s 32-yard field goal attempt was blocked. It wasn’t needed as Tampa Bay won by a score of 21-6.

On a day when the defenses dominated, the Buccaneers led in total yards (249 to 186) and first downs (15 to 11). The Rams turned the ball over four times, to three by Tampa Bay, and hurt themselves with five penalties that cost 61 yards (and came primarily on the second scoring drive by the Bucs).

Doug Williams completed only 5 of 20 pass attempts, but they were good for 101 yards and two touchdowns, keeping in line with the young quarterback’s big-play ability. He gave up the one interception, which directly led to LA’s only score. Ricky Bell (pictured at left) ran the ball 18 times for 69 yards and a TD and Jerry Eckwood accounted for 59 yards on 22 carries. The five pass completions were each to different receivers – Jimmie Giles, with his 29-yard scoring reception, led the team in yards.

For the Rams, Pat Haden was successful on 13 of 27 passes, but for just 64 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. FB Elvis Peacock led the running game with 47 yards on 6 carries while HB Wendell Tyler was right behind at 43 yards on 7 attempts. Lawrence McCutcheon, who gained just 9 yards on 8 carries, had the most pass receptions with 5, although for just 9 yards. TE Charle Young had the most receiving yards, with 28 on two receptions. Only three catches were made by wide receivers, gaining a total of 19 yards.

Tampa Bay made it to 5-0 before being upset by the Giants. The Bucs slumped during the second half of the season but still won the NFC Central with a 10-6 record. The Rams, on the other hand, finished strong after getting off to a 4-5 start and once again topped the NFC West at 9-7, by which time Vince Ferragamo had replaced the injured Haden at quarterback. The two teams faced each other again in the NFC Championship game in which LA got its revenge in another defensive struggle before succumbing to the Steelers in the Super Bowl.

Doug Williams continued to be a low-percentage passer, completing just 41.8 percent of his 397 throws for 2448 yards with 18 touchdowns and 24 interceptions. Ricky Bell had his best year, rushing for 1263 yards on 283 carries (4.5 avg.) and scoring 7 TDs – adding in passing yards, he had 1511 yards from scrimmage and nine total scores.

Defense continued to carry the Bucs, as the unit gave up the fewest yards (3949) and points (237) in the league. Lee Roy Selmon was selected to the first of six straight Pro Bowls and was also chosen as NFL Defensive Player of the Year by the Associated Press.