Bucs' fairy-tale season ends
The once-upon-a-time football fairy tale featuring the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ended Sunday just two chapters short of a lived-happily-ever-after conclusion. And that, said Wally Chambers, one of the several wounded Bucs forced to watch the finish uninvolved, "makes it all the worse. To come so close." The Bucs came as close as repeated breaks and an expected muscular defense allowed. But no one yet has discovered a way to win a football game, even a fairy tale team, without scoring a point. That the Bucs scored not a point in the NFC Championship Game at Tampa Stadium was produced by a two-fold effort, a Ram defense that won the line of scrimmage, and a Buc offense that was so hamstrung it kept possession of the football only 22 minutes of the 60-minute game.

Therefore, the three field goals-to-nothing result, the 9-0 score pretty much mirrors the game's play, one disappointing to the record 72,033 (only 93 no-shows) chilled loyalists who were encouraging to the season's final whistle. Indeed, as the Bucs left the field 10 points shy of a trip to the Super Bowl, thumbs-up signs were signalled to them by their partisans. There is a strong possibility that in Pittsburgh, Steelers watching the game on television, if they bothered, also had their thumbs up. Some may have had to be awakened to give the sign. Some may have already phoned in their orders for Super Bowl rings, after watching the Bucs and Rams slug it out with so little offensive display for the right to the Jan. 20 Pasadena spot opposite them. The Steelers are sure to be some kind of favourites.

It has been characteristic of these up-and-down Bucs that when they start well, when Doug Williams hits receivers early, they play well. It has been characteristic that when those things do not happen, they do not play well, indeed, that they get beat. Doug Williams" first eight passes were incomplete and then came a completion for 1 yard. It got worse because Williams left the game in the third quarter with a torn muscle in his strong throwing arm, the victim of a whiplash of it when he was hit hard by Mike Fanning.

Williams watched most of the rest of the game in civvies, beside Chambers, also in civvies, beside defensive end Lee Roy Selmon, who kept his uniform on but played little in the second half. All three were No. 1 draft picks, or trades for No. 1 picks. Others also were bandaged beside them, meaning the Bucs lost more players in the game that counted the most than they have all season. Bucs coach John McKay said that reflected the game's trend. The Rams hit harder, offensively and defensively, he said, the offense hard enough to put Frank Corral in range for his second-quarter field goals of 19 and 21 yards and for a clincher of 23 in the fourth.

The Bucs did have their chances, a second-and-five at the Rams 30 with Mike Rae the quarterback and four minutes to play in the third quarter, the score only 6-0. But a pass too long and one Jimmie Giles could not keep in the end zone (no interference, the official rules on this important play), and then one Isaac Hagins couldn't catch stopped all that. Other opportunities came in the fourth, when it was 9-0, such as an apparent Giles touchdown nullified by an illegal procedure penalty. But that seemed to be the way it was to be in this 18th Buc game of this long, fascinating season, that will today be judged beyond all expectations, but Sunday night was reserved for disappointment.

The Bucs, offensively and defensively, have played much better games than they did against the Rams. But wait, said John McKay after the season was done with an 11-7 standard, much of how the Bucs looked must be attributed to how the Rams performed. Sure it is hard, he said, to accept defeat after so much achievement, because the gold ring is too close, but "we did make it to the Final Four. All we needed was a couple of big plays, which we did not get," he said.

"Our idea was to keep the game close and we did. The final field goal hurt as did the Giles touchdown that didn't count. We didn't play very well defensively. We almost forgot our offensive game plan sitting on the bench waiting for the ball. By the same token, the offense didn't keep the ball long enough I don't want to take away from the Rams. They beat us. They limped off and limped back. They did what they had to do. We didn't."

He insisted no one should blame Doug Williams, his statistics notwithstanding. His statistics jump at you. He completed only two passes for 12 yards. A shocking development. "Don't go out of here blaming Doug Williams. We had a couple of guys who don't understand that if you blitz, you have to run a different pattern. You can't run a 55-yard pattern when he's under a blitz. He has to get rid of the football. He does it as well as anybody but when they don't do that, he must look for a secondary receiver. He did a pretty good job of not getting sacked. The Rams did a good job of covering."

McKay then turned to the future, saying, "Our season is over, but we'll be back and we'll get better as the years roll on." It ended with its starting quarterback throwing for a season-low dozen yards, for the man voted the best defensive player in the NFL, Lee Roy Selmon, credited with a career low no tackles. So the fairy tale ended because of some very real developments. It ended formally with a final act by John Sheffield. Sheffield is the Bucs ticket manager. At 9 p.m., he was to rendezvous with the Purolator security people and in their armed car he would, with escort, take 21,500 Super Bowl tickets to the plane for transport back to Los Angeles.

Tom McEwen The Tampa Tribune 7 January 1980