Bucs' long wait is over, they're a team to be feared
It was a game awaited. And it was a game worth the wait. It was a victory long awaited. And it was a victory worth the wait. People left Tampa Stadium on Sunday night and walked away from their television sets in Florida and California, saying, "I Believe!"
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had just filed full claim for complete credibility in the National Football League. They had just beaten the thunderation out of the proud Los Angeles Rams. The score was 21-6 and it wasn't that close. The six Los Angeles points came on an early interception of a Doug Williams pass, meaning the NFL heavyweight Rams score no offensive points, not even a field goal, against the staunch Buc defense. Last time that happened to the Rams was in the National Football Conference championship game last year. The Dallas Cowboys did it, 28-0. Pretty good company, the Bucs and the Dallas Cowboys.
The Bucs shot to a 21-6 halftime lead and clung to it. Why, they even chose to run out the clock deep in Ram territory as the game ended, rather than run up the score. It was a most pleasant opportunity for the Bucs, for most of them had read where Rams coach Ray Malavasi had said his team "had nothing to fear about the Bucs." "Maybe," said linebacker Richard Wood, who played a whale of a game, "there was something to fear after all."
Indeed. They had to fear Doug Williams, who was never sacked and who passed for two touchdowns (to Larry Mucker and Jimmie Giles). They had to fear running backs Ricky Bell and Jerry Eckwood. They had to fear the Buc offensive line and they had to fear the absolutely awesome Buc defense, the front, the linebackers and the secondary. They had to fear the good punting of Tom Blanchard. They had to fear the Ram offense would get shut out and the defense would yield 21 points. The proud Ram defense is said to be as good as there is in football. If it is, the Buc defense Sunday earned some special rating.
Premier Los Angeles defensive end Jack Youngblood said of the Bucs when the day's deeds were done, "They have a lot of talent over there. A lot of talent, especially in the offensive line." That was high tribute for a segment of the Bucs so long maligned. Coach John McKay disguised well his feelings. I know what they are.
I know what it meant for his team to beat this team from the place where he lived and where he made such a coaching name for himself. I know what it meant for his team to perform so well against these Rams who once offered him a job, for his team so long maligned to perform so well before the California television audience that chose to watch for as long as it chose to watch. It was John McKay's finest hour yet in pro football.
He would say his team has never played so well as it did in the second quarter, which was won 21-0. He would say his defense was at its zenith in this pivotal game. He would say, when reminded that the Rams were supposed to be the team to give the Bucs their come-uppance, that "I don't think anyone can give us our come-uppance." And he did say he felt the Bucs would find all games ahead hard to win, but then all opponents would also find the Bucs hard to beat.
And, he did acknowledge that for just under three minutes Sunday, in an absolute downpour, his Bucs proved their poise and true grit. The Bucs were leading 14-6, less than three minutes to the half, third and three on their own 37, and it had begun to storm. The Rams began calling time out hoping to get the ball deep, with the rain, hoping for a Buc error.
Eckwood, on one of the game's key plays, slipped 10 yards off left tackle for the first down. Then, after the two-minute warning, McKay and Co. stunned the Rams with a first-down pass from Williams to Eckwood. It carried to the Los Angeles 33. The Rams stopped calling timeouts. Eckwood got 5, and then Williams threw a 29-yard drawing board touchdown pass to Giles. Perfect play. Perfect pass. Perfect catch. Perfect poise. It was the game-breaker because at 21-6, the Buc defense took charge and the Bucs coasted to their proud 4-0 standard.
It was a most professional series. It was, in fact, a most professional Buc production and it will get this team perhaps as much national attention in the week ahead as any in the NFL. And while it was a gratifying win to the patient partisans, who hardly noticed the rain that came and went and came and went, it was most gratifying to all of the Buc players. Perhaps none longed for this win more than the California ex-patriots on the Buc team, such as McKay, such as Danny Reece, such as Greg Horton, such as Richard Wood and David Lewis and, of course, Ricky Bell. "Hey, you know what it meant to me," said Wood. "A lot of us USC (Southern California) guys got passed up by the Rams. But, hey, I'm glad I'm here. I'd rather be here. Especially today."
David Lewis longed for the result, too, and had a big hand in its development. "We wanted to go right after them, make Pat (Haden) scramble. Everybody at home was watching. If they don't want to put us on TV (national or Monday Night), we'll make the playoffs and put ourselves on TV. Coach Malavasi kept talking about his Big D. Well, our Big D didn't play too bad."
Bell scored the second touchdown and run and blocked hard all afternoon. He had the spring in his legs he loves to feel. Ahead 7-6, the Bucs, with some help from Ram penalties (35 yards) because Los Angeles, not Tampa Bay, lost its poise, had the ball at the Ram 5. "It was third and one," said Bell, grinning. "I was planning to dive over the top for the first down, but I looked and Greg Horton and Steve Wilson and Dave Reavis and the rest blocked so good I had a hole, so I leaped and jumped on in for the touchdown. It's one I won't forget."
It was a special 5-yard run for Ricky Bell and he ran it special, knees high, unstoppable. Then Bell said what everyone involved feels. "We've had the bad times. The good times are here."
Tom McEwen The Tampa Tribune September 1979