In Bucs Throwback Thursday, I take a stroll down memory lane and offer up my own personal insight and anecdotes on days gone by in Tampa Bay football history. Let me know what you think of the Bucs Throwback Thursday column in the article comments – and be sure to keep an eye out for the latest installment.
Before offering up a new Bucs Throwback Thursday, I pay my respects to the late, great former sports editor of The Tampa Tribune, Tom McEwen, who often started his column “Breakfast Bonus” describing a large southern-style breakfast in detail before turning the column back to sports.
Tom McEwen and Mark Cook in 1996
Over your breakfast of a Florida-style seafood omelette, consisting of three Parrish free-range brown eggs, sautéed pink gulf shrimp fresh from the docks at A.P. Bell Seafood in Cortez, Homosassa gathered scallops, melted with sharp cheddar and topped with a dollop of Cigar City Smoked Salsa, a quarter loaf of La Segunda cuban bread toasted and slathered with fresh butter and guava jelly and a cup of cafe con leche, here is this week’s Throwback Thursday section.
It was September 1979 in Tampa, Florida.
If you stopped cars cruising down Dale Mabry Highway and checked their radios, songs like Good Times by Chic, After The Love is Gone by Earth Wind and Fire or My Sharona by The Knack were likely blaring through their speakers.
If you peeped in their living room windows at night they were likely watching Three’s Company, The Dukes of Hazard, CHiPs, The Jefferson’s or That’s Incredible on the latest Zenith television console.
On their bedroom nightstands you’d probably see book titles like The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, or Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews.
Follow them to the movies and they were buying tickets to see Superman, Alien, Steve Martin in The Jerk or Rocky II.
But on Sunday afternoons in the Tampa Bay area in the fall of 1979, something special started happening. Something that captured the attention of an entire region.
It was something unexpected.
It was something very unlikely.
And while the Tampa Bay Buccaneers fell nine points short of their first Super Bowl appearance in 1979, it was a magical four months to end the decade.
Photo courtesy of BucPower.com
Prior to the season beginning, fans had reasonably low expectations. Sure, the Bucs had one of the best defenses in the NFL, but were only a couple years removed from a 0-26 franchise start.
Just think about that. It was almost two full seasons before Tampa Bay won a game in the NFL.
The creamsicle pirates were the laughingstock of the sports world.
They were the butt of jokes from The Tonight Show’s Johnny Carson on a regular basis.
Fans showed up wearing paper sacks on their heads as the team found a different way to lose week in and week out in 1976 and ’77. Missed field goals. Fumbles. Dropped touchdown passes.
Sounds a little like some of the Bucs’ teams we’ve seen over the last 12 years, doesn’t it? Minus the orange and white uniforms and winking pirate on their helmets, of course.
But back to the magic. Let’s take a week-by-week look at the 1979 Buccaneers.
Week 1: Tampa Bay 31, Detroit 16
The Buccaneers opened at home against the NFC Central rival Detroit Lions on a Saturday night. Yes, a Saturday night. Don’t ask me why, but Tampa Bay was never really threatened by the Lions. Bucs quarterback Doug Williams only completed four passes in the game (one being a touchdown to tight end Jimmy Giles while on his rear end after slipping). Tampa Bay’s defense stifled the Lions for an easy opening season win to give the team a 1-0 record.
Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Week 2: Tampa Bay 29, Baltimore 26 (OT)
The Bucs traveled to Baltimore to take on the Colts. Yes young NFL fans, the Colts originally called Baltimore home. Tampa Bay had a disastrous first quarter, falling behind 17-0. The team rebounded and scored 13 in the second quarter to make it respectable at halftime. After the first quarter the smothering Bucs defense gave up just nine more points and collected 10 sacks on the afternoon. Tampa Bay ended up winning in overtime on a 31-yard field goal by Neil O’Donoghue to start the season 2-0.
Week 3: Tampa Bay 21, Green Bay 10
The Bucs were back on the road, this time to historic Lambeau Field for another NFC Central rival game with the Packers. A low-scoring affair in the first half saw Tampa Bay take a 7-3 lead into the locker room at the half. The Buccaneers put up 14 points in the third quarter and with the solid play of their defense, essentially put the game out of reach. Tampa Bay set a franchise record on the afternoon rushing for 235 yards in a win that pushed their record to 3-0.
Week 4: Tampa Bay 21, Los Angeles 6
Two of the best defenses in the NFL met at a packed Tampa Stadium, and for those who loved defensive football, they wouldn’t be disappointed. The Rams scored a defensive touchdown in the first quarter and then the Buccaneers offense had a brief quarter-long spurt of success, scoring 21 points. The defense was outstanding once again, holding the Rams to 97 total passing yards and never allowing Los Angeles to cross the 50-yard line in the second half.
Week 5: Tampa Bay 17, Chicago 13
In another defensive war, the Bucs and Bears battled on the artificial turf at Soldier Field in a close game that wasn’t decided until late in the fourth quarter. The Bears took a 13-10 fourth quarter lead on a 65-yard pass reception by future Hall of Famer Walter Payton, but the Bucs responded and scored the decisive touchdown with just five minutes left in the contest. Jeris White and Cedric Brown had two interceptions in the final five minutes to preserve the win and give the Bucs a 5-0 start to the season, becoming the only undefeated team left in the NFL.
Week 6: New York Giants 17, Tampa Bay 13
You can’t win them all, right? The Buccaneers suffered their first let down of the season losing on the road to the then winless Giants. The game saw the debut of Phil Simms under center for New York, and while he finished just 6-of-12 for 37 yards, Simms got help from running back Billy Taylor, who rushed for 148 yards on 33 carries to go along with two touchdowns. The Bucs dropped to 5-1 on the year after the loss in the Meadowlands.
Week 7: New Orleans 42, Tampa Bay 14
In a game that was scoreless at halftime, the second half saw an explosion of scoring with 56 points in the final two quarters. Unfortunately for the Buccaneers, 42 of those were scored by the Saints and Archie Manning who was 11-of-14 on the afternoon. The Bucs defense gave up 397 yards – their worst performance of all of 1979. The loss dropped Tampa Bay to 5-2 on the season.
Week 8: Tampa Bay 21, Green Bay 3
Tampa Bay got back on the winning track with another easy win over the Packers, this time at home. Ricky Bell ran for 167 yards, which was a team record at the time and Williams threw for two scores and ran for another. The win pushed the Bucs’ record to 6-2.
Week 9: Tampa Bay 12, Minnesota 10
The Bucs and Vikings defenses both played well in this low-scoring affair that saw the Bucs hang on to win after forcing Minnesota QB Tommy Kramer to throw an illegal fourth down pass, pushing Minnesota out of field goal range to preserve the victory for Tampa Bay. Bell ran for 75 yards and Williams threw for 267 yards to improve the Bucs’ record to 7-2.
RB Ricky Bell Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Week 10: Atlanta 17, Tampa Bay 14
The Buccaneers got on the board first with a touchdown run by Bell in the first quarter, but they wouldn’t find the end zone again until their last drive in the fourth quarter with 28 seconds left in the game. Still down by three, the Bucs failed to recover the onside kick and fell by three points on the road to the Falcons after shooting themselves in the foot all game long with three fumbles and five penalties. The loss dropped Tampa Bay to 7-3.
Week 11: Tampa Bay 16, Detroit 14
What should have been an easy win over a one-win Lions team turned into a struggle, as it took a 10-point fourth quarter comeback to win their eighth game of the season on the road at the Pontiac Silverdome. Williams hit wide receiver Larry Mucker with a 23-yard TD pass late to take the lead and Dewey Selmon saved the game with a forced fumble as the Lions moved into field goal position.
Week 12: Tampa Bay 31, New York Giants 3
In a grudge match and revenge game, the Buccaneers avenged an earlier loss that season to the Giants with a blowout at Tampa Stadium, as the Bucs defense sacked Simms five times and held an opponent without an offensive touchdown for the fifth time that season. Bell had 152 yards rushing through three quarters to lead the Bucs offense. The win gave the Bucs an NFC-best 9-3 record and the playoffs were just one win away.
Week 13: Minnesota 23, Tampa Bay 22
It was one of the most frustrating games of the season as the Bucs were at home needing just one win to clinch a berth in the playoffs. The Bucs outplayed the Vikings in most aspects of the game, except special teams. Tampa Bay had three kicks blocked including the potential tying extra point after Williams had led the team down the field on a last-minute touchdown drive. John McKay was booed following the game and screamed an obscenity himself toward a group of fans near the tunnel. McKay said the fans had made some racial slurs. The loss dropped the Bucs to 9-4.
S Mark Cotney – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Week 14: Chicago 14, Tampa Bay 0 The tough loss the week before carried onto the field the following week, as the Buccaneers came out flat and laid an egg against the Bears. It was an all-round ugly offensive performance, with Williams completing only 5-of-19 passes for 60 yards with four interceptions. He was replaced late in the game by backup Mike Rae.
Week 15: San Francisco 23, Tampa Bay 7
Still needing just one win to make the playoffs, the Buccaneers traveled out west to face a bad 49ers team that saw O.J. Simpson play his final home game. The 49ers had just one win on the season, but the Bucs were once again plagued by poor offensive play with Williams throwing five interceptions and again being benched. The Bucs were just as bad on the ground, with Bell managing just 36 yards on the afternoon. The loss dropped Tampa Bay to 9-5 on the season and in an NFC Central tie with the Bears.
Week 16: Tampa Bay 3, Kansas City 0
The Bucs closed the regular season at home, hosting the Chiefs while needing a win to lock up the division and their first playoff appearance. The weather Gods didn’t cooperate, as the game was played in a monsoon at Tampa Stadium that still offers some of the funniest NFL bloopers you will ever see. The Bucs defense was outstanding and the offense was able to put a drive together late in the fourth quarter, as O’Donoghue’s 19-yard field goal gave the Bucs the win and the NFC Central title.
I’ll save the two playoff games for a future Bucs Throwback Thursday, but the Buccaneers had done it – from 0-26 just a few years prior, to winning the division and hosting a playoff game. The entire Tampa Bay Area was caught up in Buccaneers mania.
Tampa Bay hosted the Eagles two weeks later and won, 24-17, and hosted the Rams for the NFC title game, a team they had beat soundly earlier in the year. The Rams spoiled the trip to the Super Bowl, but looking back 41 years later, it was a magical year to be a Bucs fan in Tampa Bay.
Mark Cook currently is the director of editorial content and Bucs beat writer and has written for PewterReport.com since 2011. Cook has followed the Buccaneers since 1977 when he first began watching football with his Dad and is fond of the 1979 Bucs team that came within 10 points of going to a Super Bowl. His favorite Bucs game is still the 1979 divisional playoff win 24-17 over the Eagles. In his spare time Cook enjoys playing guitar, fishing, the beach and family time.Cook is a native of Pinecrest in Eastern Hillsborough County and has written for numerous publications including the Tampa Tribune, In the Field and Ya'll Magazine. Cook can be reached at email@example.com