Shelby Strother, The St.Petersburg Times, published 7 December 1981|
As most things are when Kevin House and Doug Williams are involved, it happened so fast. So frighteningly quick that you really didn't know just what was happening.
There were 9:39 left in which to beat the Atlanta Falcons, who were leading by six points on a chilly NFL Sunday with all sorts of nitty-gritty circumstances transpiring on several fronts around the country. It didn't look promising for the Bucs. There was a brisk breeze blowing into the Bucs'faces. They were 71 yards from the touchdown that would tie the game. It was second down and 14 yards were needed for a first down.
The play before, Williams had called a play named split-G 88. He had drilled a pass to tight end Jimmie Giles, who had been stopped after 6 yards by Falcon linebacker Buddy Curry. Ominous, however, was the appearance of Atlanta free safety Tom Pridemore into the picture, diving over the tangled heap just before the whistle. Typical aggressiveness by a Leeman Bennett defense. Always charging to the ball, always swarming in the gangtackling style all coaches drool over. It was a foreshadowing of doom, that charge by Pridemore. It cost the Falcons six points less than a minute later.
Back came the Bucs with the same play, another split-G 88. This time, however, when Giles dragged across the middle, Williams didn't throw him the ball. This time he looked for House, the wide receiver with the certified 4.4 speed that gets even quicker after 40 yards.
Rookie cornerback Bobby Butler was beaten. And the help that was supposed to come from Pridemore was too slow getting there. Maybe he did it unconsciously, but the -first thing Pridemore did after the ball was snapped was take a step forward. Aggression knows only one direction: straight ahead.
That step was fatal. House blew by Butler after the former Florida State standout bit on his fake to the outside. From there it was a post pattern over the middle with House having the inside. No contest. Tie ballgame.
Bill Capece's kick made it 24-23, Bucs' favor. A few gut-wrenching minutes later, the Falcons missed a field goal with 4 seconds left. Bucs win; they lead the NFC Central all by themselves.
"It was a perfect pass," House said, recalling the 71-yard bomb. "I saw it all the way, right from the moment Doug let it fly until it came down in my hands. I always wonder if I'm going to be able to catch up to a perfect pass. You know, if it looks like it's going to be right on the spot, that means I'll probably have to slow down. I don't know, I guess the adrenalin gets pumping and I speed up when the ball's in the air or something. I do know this winning this game is the most excited I've been as a pro.',
Asked if there was blown coverage by the
House shrugged and said, "I believe their safety was a little slow getting over to help out. The cornerback (Butler) I think was expecting some help to the inside. And Atlanta's safeties like to come up the middle and make the big hits there. Maybe they were expecting us to go to Jimmie again."
House was unaware the big touchdown play put him over the 1,000-yard plateau for the season. For the numbers fanatics, House has 1,031 yards on 52 catches. Almost 20 yards a grab.
"I knew I had a chance (to top 1,000 yards) coming into the game. And it's something I wanted really bad," he said. "But I didn't want to say anything about it until I got it. It really makes the day even more special."
A few lockers away, Williams was in the middle of the usual mob of newsmen and TV cameramen. Another spectacular performance (19 completions in 29 attempts, 336 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions) had him feeling jocular and playful. But he still doesn't want to rate himself or his performance.
Asked how he felt about his statistics, he said with a smile, "We won." Asked how he felt about going over the 10,000-yard passing mark for his career, Williams repeated himself, "We won."
Asked why the Bucs have been playing so well the last three weeks, Williams laughed, then said, "Coach (Bill) Nelsen came down from the press box and man, he's blocking himelf to death, doing a great job protecting me and..."
Everyone laughed along with Williams. Then the man who runs plays that John McKay calls grew serious and tossed well-deserved boquets of compliments to his offensive line. He talked of execution, sure-handed pass receivers and the establishment of a running game.
If you are honest and can see the game with the proper perspective, everything Doug Williams talked about is the same stuff every player will talk about after a victory.
But there was also something else Williams wanted to talk about. First place in the division.
"It feels good, so good, Williams said. "But we were in first back in September, too. It felt good then, too. It's better now, though. That's because it's near the end of the ,season.
"We knew the loser today would be in a bind. We knew Minnesota and Detroit had lost, but we still felt we were in a must-win situation. Today was a real confidence builder. If you recall, in our last preseason game, Atlanta kicked our butts pretty good (27-7). What we did the last two weeks (in impressive wins over Green Bay and New Orleans) is what we did today.
"Atlanta has a fine team and a reputation for being really aggressive. But they found out how badly we wanted this. What we did today was show the country we're capable of beating anybody in the league."
Williams then took a deep breath and said, "To me, this game puts us out of the Rodney Dangerfield syndrome. We've finally earned respect."
Bobby Butler will testify in behalf of that. So will Tom Pridemore and the rest of the Falcons. And while the team from Atlanta would probably say the same thing if they had won and the Bucs had lost, the impact is much greater. The unwritten rule is to be gracious winners. Another unwritten rule is to ignore the false endearment. But gracious losers, well, they usually tell it like it is.
"I can't say anything but good about their team and staff," said Leeman Bennett, referring to the Bucs. "Kevin House is one of the best receivers in the world. He beat me bad, man. Doug Williams is the best quarterback I've faced," said Bobby Butler. "They're just super," said Steve Bartkowski.
Welcome music for once-bruised ears. The turnaround has been sudden. But once again, what would you expect when Kevin House and Doug Williams, the longdistance connection of Tampa Bay, are involved?
House ran past rookie Falcon cornerback Bobby Butler from Florida State as smoothly as a Ferrari goes by a dump truck on the highway. Williams'spiral hit House in glorious stride, a 71-yard touchdown play that would become the final score.
In their three consecutive wins, the Bues began generating a creditable running game to go with the builseye arm of Williams. And, on the other side of this shiny new Buccaneer coin, a somewhat-renowned defensive unit kept on doing its admirable job. The march was on.
Green Bay, New Orleans and Atlanta went croakcroak-croak all in a row. Now, almost extraordinarily, the Bucs need just one win in two remaining games against San Diego and Detroit to become NFC Central Division champions for the second time in three seasons.
Perhaps now a doubting America will at least recognize Tampa Bay is in the race. Just before the Bucs beat Atlanta, their divisional rivals from Detroit and Minnesota were slipping into a tie for second place.
Until now, the Bucs have been overlooked like a stepchild with body od6r. Before Sunday's game, NBC sportscaster Bryant Gumbel said, "Minnesota is in a tough race with Detroit."
No mention of Tampa Bay.
If the critical beating of Atlanta is not featured in ABC Monday Night Football's halftime highlights, somebody should put a horse's head in the bed of network czar Roone Arledge.
Now, recogr~ition is due. Tampa Bay has paid enough for its shoddy 5-10-1 record of 1980. These comeback children of Papa John McKay may now throw away the dunce hat.
A full pardon.
Oh, sure, luck was a vital Buccaneer partner against Atlanta. But, when a team operates at a high level of competence, it is more prone to be blessed. Tampa Bay is no less than wholly deserving of Sunday's joy. Luck is so frequently the residue of good play.
The Bucs had some luck even before their game began, Both their prime rivals in the NFC Central were losing, Detroit to Green Bay and Minnesota to lowly Chicago.
But the most skyseraping break came in the last five minutes at Tampa Stadium. Williams was rushed and made a weak throw that skipped off the fingers of tight end Jimmie Giles. Atlanta's Bob Glazebrook intercepted. Yellow flag.
"They should have taken a picture of that yellow flag lying on the ground," said Bues safety Mike Washington. "It might've saved us from going down."
Veteran defensive end Jeff Merrow of the Falcons was charged wlth illegally slapping a Bucs player on the helmet and also throwing an elbow to the head.
Glazebrook's interception became a non-interception. Tampa Bay retained the football and began to drive again, chewing up the clock.
If Luckhurst is to be christened the goat for missing the deciding 45-yard field goal, he'll have to wear a small set of borns. They had already been ordered up for the head of little Bill Capece, Tampa Bay's kicker.
At the end of the Bues'drive made possible by the yellow flag on Merrow, rookie Capece had a 32-yard field goal chance. It would've meant a four-point lead.
Wide left, also by 2 feet. "I know what Luckhurst is going through," Capece said. "I've been in that situation." And, he well might've been again. Ironically, Capece had made six field goals in a row before the late Sunday miss.
This was to be Atlanta's season to make the Super Bowl. The current issue of Sport magazine has the Falcons on the cover, suggesting they are the NFL's next dynasty.
It's a dynasty delayed.
Instead, this has become the Falcon year to lose at the wire. This is a 7-7 team that even before Sunday had dropped three games by a field goal and another by two points.
"Atlanta is a dirty bunch of aggressive football players but a great bunch of guys," said Bucs offensive tackle Gene Sanders in an interesting assessment.
It is indeed puzzling to see a team so skilled as the Falcons, especially with a runner as remarkable as William Andrews, ftghting for its wild-card life with a 50-50 record.
"That ---ing Andrews," said Bues linebacker Cecil Johnson in language too hot for this newspaper's type, "he's better than Earl Campbell or any of them other
Johnson wasn't wrong. It was Andrews, more than any other man, who had the Falcons in position for that deciding if errant field-goal attempt by Luckhurst.
Constantly, Andrews would be hit and would somehow turn himself into a human torpedo to gobble extra yardage. Johnson was right. Earl Campbell never did it better.
But, for want 6f a field goal, Andrews flew home a loser. Leaving behind a Tampa Bay area that was still ringing from the happy thunder. This morning, season ticketholders for Bucs games should receive an order blank in the mail for playoff tickets. Amazing, just amazing.