1978 - And starting at QB, No.12, Doug Williams
For the third year running, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers owned the first pick of the NFL draft, but unlike their first two seasons, they did not reserve the privilege of selecting the first player for themselves. After the success of LeeRoy Selmon in 1976, and the limited success of Ricky Bell the year after, the Bucs did not really want
to take the overwhelming choice of college football's best player, running back Earl Campbell. However, there proved to be no shortage of suitors for the chance to obtain the 1977 Heisman Trophy winner, and the Buccaneers entered into a deal with the Houston Oilers that saw them swop first round picks with the AFC Central division team, gain an additional second round pick, and also promising second year tight end Jimmie Giles.
Tampa needed a quarterback, a leader and focal point for the offense to grow from. Steve Spurrier had been a short term measure, but none of his successors had amounted to anything leaving John McKay with a huge hole to fill behind center. For this position, the Bucs went for Grambling's Doug Williams, a strong-armed leader who had taken his team under his powerful right arm and had been a finalist for Campbell's Heisman Trophy. Williams was not a popular choice with some of red-neck Florida fans and commented on the bigotry he found in the NFL several times during his 1990 autobiography.
At one point he received a rotten water melon through the post with a note attached, telling him "to try throwing this to some of his other niggers" on the team. Williams was made of stronger stuff however, and having easily won the starting position in training camp, took control of the team from the opening game of the 1978 season.
The majority of the other selections in that draft however, were far from as successful as Williams and Jimmie Giles would prove to be. The two second round picks, running back Johnny Davis, and guard Brent Moritz, both came from big name colleges, but lasted only three and one professional seasons respectively. A trade with the Dolphins brought defensive back Jeris White, who would go on to win a SuperBowl ring with the Redskins, but for now joined an ever-increasingly powerful defense, anchored up front by Selmon and Dave Pear, with a solid secondary that was playing together for the second straight season. Pear would become the Bucs' first-ever Pro Bowler following the 1978 season, and proved to be an effective nose tackle in McKay's 3-4 defense, while Selmon developed into the all-NFL force that he would become in the following few seasons.
Things did not start well for the 1978 Buccaneers, despite being full of hope from their two-game winning streak carried over from their second season. Two straight home losses brought memories of the earlier string of defeats, and the comedians began to dust off their Tampa Bay jokes for further use. But with Doug Williams powerful arm beginning to find its mark against NFL defenses, and enough of a running game behind Bell and Jimmy DuBose, the Bucs won enough games to find themselves with a 4-4 mark after eight games. That however, was as far as the third year team was going to go, as a late hit from Ram defensive end Fred Dryer, the man who would later go on to star in the television show Hunter, broke Williams' jaw and sent the rookie passer to the sidelines for the remainder of the season. Mike Rae took over as the starting quarterback, and despite being of quick feet and rushing for nearly 200 yards over the last seven games of the season, was able to engineer just one more victory out of a disappointing end to a promising campaign.
The Buccaneer defensive unit finished the season ranked 4th in the NFL, an amazing turn-around from the expansion squad. The linebacking crew were led by the Batman, Richard Wood, who amassed 168 tackles on the season, a record that stood until a certain Mr Nickerson became a Tampa Bay player some 14 seasons later. Wood, so nicknamed because of his liking for the caped crusader's logo to appear on his pads during games, was joined by Cecil Johnson, Dewey Selmon and David Lewis, in the first great quartet of linebackers to appear in the orange colours. Selmon had 11 sacks and made All-NFC honours, while the likes of Cedric Brown and Mark Cotney at safety, and Mike Washington on the corner, were gaining notoriety around the league for their ball-hawking abilities.
One special teams' play from 1978, remains on every NFL highlight film to this day however. The Bucs were lining up for a fieldgoal against the Vikings, with punter Dave Green holding for Neil O'Donoghue. The center snap from the eight-yard line, went sailing over both players' heads, and a mad dash back up the field began by players of both sides. O'Donoghue reached the ball first and attempted to kick it, soccer-style, back towards the Vikings' endzone. His foot connected with clean air, and ended in a heap under a pair of Vikings. Ultimately Green was brought down, somewhere around midfield, by a host of purple shirts, delighted their team would be taking over in such good field position. "You really don't want to go back to the bench, Coach McKay will kill you" Dewey Selmon advised Green and O'Donoghue as they turned to face the remainder of their team-mates.
If there was one criticism that was levelled at Doug Williams in his rookie year, and indeed ultimately through his career, it was his low percentage of completions, just 37.6% in his first NFL season. Williams always maintained that this was due to his unwillingness to force an interception or take a sack, two things that he thought would hurt the team. He would rather throw the ball away and lose something on his statistics, and then go back to the air on another down from the same yard-line. As Jimmie Giles began to gain in experience as a quality tight end, Doug would have a real threat downfield, rather than the somewhat weak group of receivers he worked with during 1978. And as the running game began to develop behind a growing line, this would also take pressure away from the rookie in the No.12 shirt. Buccaneer fans had begun to experience success on a more regular basis during their third season as NFL fans. Now they wanted more.