1981 - Another title for the Orange and White
Five seasons had passed since the Buccaneers first took the field as an expansion team in the NFL, and a little over three seasons had passed since their first competitive victory. But no longer were the Bucs being thought of as another league patsy, their 1979 NFC Championship Game appearance seeing to that. While the Seattle Seahawks were going through the growing pains experienced by other expansion teams in the 1960s, the Buccaneers had gone from worst to first quicker than any other new team in any of the four American professional sports. And far from being a team of no-names, built around over-achieving unknowns, the Bucs of 1981 were full of star players with current and future star potential.
The one Tampa Bay player that everyone in the NFL knew, was Lee Roy Selmon. Now a perennial Pro Bowl choice at defensive end, he was the one player that all other offensive co-ordinators plotted to stop when facing the Buccaneers. To join Selmon and an already-strong set of linebackers, came one of the most highly-regarded college pass-rushers of the decade in Hugh Green. The former Pittsburgh lineman quickly adjusted to his new stand-up role in the NFL and was a unanimous All-Rookie choice at the end of the 1981 season. And yet Green was not even the most well-known of the Buccaneers' draft choices that year. For that was the season that James Wilder became a Buc.
Doug Williams maintains however, that the front office and coaching staff should shoulder a lot of the blame, describing their off-season activities of "six months of golf", whereas other teams would be undergoing workouts, coaching clinics and offensive re-structuring. The probable answer is that both are partially the reason for the lack of success that season, although there is no doubt that the Buccaneer defense probably exceeded its natural abilities during 1979, and simply slipped back to its realistic playing level the following season.
Wilder, the running back who would go on to lead the franchise in rushing, touchdowns, receptions, 100-yard games, and almost any other offensive category one would care to name. His rookie season would be spent as a full-back for James Owens and Jerry Eckwood, but he gave notice of his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield by ranking second on the team in receptions to deep threat Kevin House.
One back who did not appear in the Buccaneer running statistics as much as had been expected, was Ricky Bell. Hampered by injuries, he ran the ball only 30 times during 1981 and ultimately would up being traded to the Chargers at the end of the season. No-one was to know of his heart problems at this time, and after a few abortive carries in a San Diego uniform in 1982, he retired from the game just three seasons removed from a 1,000-yard season and Pro Bowl alternate selection. In 1984, Ricky Bell died from polymonoeucletis and the world was a sadder place for his passing.
The remainder of the 1981 draft was a fairly successful one for the Buccaneers, trades bringing in productive talent such as guard Greg Horton, pass rusher Dave Stalls, and punter Tom Blanchard. Late round selections Johnny Ray Smith and Brad White made the team, and the emergence of former Olympic sprinter James Owens as a backfield threat was a positive sign as well for the seasons ahead.
After a season opening home win over the Vikings, capped by Cedric Brown's 81-yard interception return late in the fourth quarter, it was a 1-2 mark that greeted Buccaneer fans as they opened their papers after a Week 3 loss in Chicago. The strong arm of Doug Williams took over from then on, teaming up repeatedly with Kevin House for big plays, the latter ending the season with 1,176 yards, which still remains the second-highest total in franchise history. Williams threw four touchdown passes against the Lions, and the three-game winning streak was only ended when Bill Capece had a fieldgoal blocked with five seconds remaining in Oakland.
Three losses in four games dented Tampa hopes by mid-November and left the Bucs with a 5-6 mark with five games remaining in the season, the team now two games back on NFC Central Division leading Detroit. Green Bay were finished off in the team's then biggest-ever win, a 37-3 hammering of the Pack at Tampa Stadium, while a comfortable win in New Orleans took the Buccaneers back to a winning record. Mick Luckhurst's last gasp fieldgoal was deflected by Scott Hutchinson in the narrow 24-23 win over the Atlanta Falcons, and only Rolf Bernischke's final minute heroics stopped the Bucs clinching the division title with their fourth straight win.
The season came down to a winner-takes-all showdown in the Pontiac Silverdome. The Lions led 7-3 in the second quarter and were driving deep in Tampa territory when Cedric Brown picked off Eric Hipple near the Buccaneer goal-line. On the first play from scrimmage, Williams hit House with an 84-yard bomb and the Detroit crowd was silenced. LeeRoy Selmon forced a Hipple fumble in the second half that David Logan returned for a touchdown, and the Bucs led by ten going into the final minute. A late Detroit touchdown gave the home fans some hope for a miracle, but Theo Bell's recovery of the ensuing onside kick put the Buccaneers into the play-offs for the second time in three seasons.
Any dreams that John McKay and his players might have had of going all the way to the SuperBowl were quickly dented however, as the Bucs ran into the Dallas Cowboys in top defensive form. Williams was sacked four times, intercepted four times, and twice called for intentional grounding, as Tom Landry's team rolled to a 38-0 win that was as convincing as the scoreline indicates. It was a sad end to a memorable season for the ff8c00 and white that were so popular, an average of 67,000 people watched their eight regular season games at Tampa Stadium. The defense again ranked in the top five in the NFL, the Bucs' 32 interceptions leading the league, and Doug Williams continued his maturity as the team gave him some legitimate targets to work with for the first time in his career.