September 1, 2011

1979: Eckwood and Turnovers Key Tampa Bay Win Over Lions

Getting a jump on the rest of the NFL, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers started off the 1979 regular season with a Saturday night game against the Detroit Lions on September 1. There were 68,225 in attendance on an 80-degree evening at Tampa Stadium.

Since first taking the field in 1976, the Buccaneers, coached by the patient and quotable John McKay, had endured plenty of growing pains. They lost all 14 games in their inaugural season and, in fact, 26 straight before finally reeling off two wins to finish out ’77. In 1978, they got off to a 4-4 start before injuries and inexperience caused the bottom to fall out on a 5-11 campaign. There was reason for hope as the ’79 season got under way, with second-year QB Doug Williams, power-running RB Ricky Bell, and tight ends Jimmie Giles and Jim Obradovich healthy and ready to go on offense and a defense anchored by the Selmon brothers, DE Lee Roy and LB Dewey, and including a backfield that led the NFL with 29 interceptions in 1978. In the season-opening game, a newcomer to the offense, third-round draft pick RB Jerry Eckwood (pictured above), played a key role as well.

The Lions, coached by Monte Clark, were coming off of a 7-9 season, but had closed out the schedule at 6-3 after a slow start. Rookie DE Al “Bubba” Baker accounted for an unofficial total of 23 sacks (individual sacks did not become an official NFL statistic until 1982) and Gary Danielson had emerged as a competent starting quarterback. However, Danielson was lost for the year with a knee injury suffered just a week before the opening contest – starting in his place was eighth-year veteran Joe Reed, a mediocre career backup.

Things started off badly for the Lions on the first play from scrimmage when RB Dexter Bussey fumbled and Tampa Bay LB David Lewis recovered at the Detroit 17. The offense couldn’t get into the end zone and Neil O’Donoghue kicked a 31-yard field goal at just over a minute into the opening period to give the home team the early lead.

The Bucs took advantage of another Detroit fumble in the first quarter, this time by RB Horace King, with Lee Roy Selmon picking up the ball and running 29 yards for a touchdown and 10-0 lead (it was the only TD of Selmon’s Hall of Fame career).

In all, the Lions turned the ball over three times in the first quarter, but seemed as though they would get back into the game when CB Luther Bradley recovered a fumble by Eckwood that was forced by LB James Hunter. Six plays later, Reed passed to TE David Hill for an 11-yard TD, cutting Tampa Bay’s margin to 10-7.

The Buccaneers came back as Bell powered over for a seven-yard touchdown to cap an 11-play, 62-yard drive that was helped along by penalties on Detroit DB Walt Williams (pass interference and an illegal chuck, which turned an incompletion on a third-and-eight play into a Tampa Bay first down). Later in the second quarter, Doug Williams passed to Giles on a touchdown play that covered 66 yards. The Buccaneers held a solid 24-7 lead at the half.

Following a scoreless third quarter, Tampa Bay put together a drive that was aided by two fourth-down conversions and ended with Williams tossing a two-yard TD pass to Obradovich early in the final period.

Joe Reed suffered a pulled muscle and was relieved by backup Jeff Komlo in the fourth quarter. The rookie quarterback from Delaware led the Lions to a touchdown as RB Rick Kane ran for a three-yard score with 4:39 remaining in the contest, but it was too little, too late. Detroit got two last points when Tampa Bay backup QB Mike Rae was tackled in his end zone for a safety, but the final score was a resounding 31-16 win for the Buccaneers.

It was Tampa Bay’s first win over the Lions as well as its first opening-game victory. The Bucs ground out a club-record 229 rushing yards as they outgained the Lions (334 yards to 231) and had the edge in first downs (18 to 16).

Jerry Eckwood spearheaded the running game with 121 yards on 20 carries while Ricky Bell added 53 yards on 13 attempts that included a touchdown. Doug Williams completed just 4 of 16 passes for 99 yards, but two of the completions were for touchdowns and there were no interceptions, and he kept the offense moving effectively as a result of the running attack. Jimmie Giles (pictured below) caught three passes for 97 yards and the one long TD.

Neither quarterback was particularly effective for Detroit, as Joe Reed completed 8 of 15 passes for 61 yards and a touchdown and Jeff Komlo, attempting to play catch-up, was successful on just 5 of 21 throws for 45 yards; neither was intercepted (Komlo quickly supplanted Reed as the starter). Horace King led the running attack with 53 yards on 10 carries. David Hill was the top receiver with 5 catches for 48 yards and a TD.

The convincing opening-night win signaled a major turnaround by the Buccaneers. They won their first five games on the way to topping the NFC Central with a 10-6 record and advancing to the conference title game. For the Lions, the loss was a bad portent as they proceeded to go 2-14 and finish at the bottom of the division.

As the primary outside running threat, Jerry Eckwood gained 690 yards on 194 carries (the 121-yard performance remained the best of his three-year career). Ricky Bell was the team’s top rusher, accumulating 1263 yards with a 4.5 average. As the opening day showing indicated, Doug Williams was still very much a work in progress, throwing for 2448 yards and 18 TDs, but with 24 interceptions and a 41.8 completion percentage. But the defense ranked first overall in the NFL and Lee Roy Selmon was the Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year.