1983 - The losing starts as Doug bolts for the USFL
If there is one point in the history of the Buccaneers that people point to as the turning point of the franchise for the worse, it is the acrimonious departure of Doug Williams from Tampa. Much has been written over the years about who was to blame for the dispute, but it was a combination of unusual circumstances that led to Williams never pulling on the orange and white again.
The USFL had started operation during the spring and summer of 1983 and had proved to be a great success. The league was to expand from 12 to 18 teams for the 1984 season, they had raided the NFL for the likes of Brian Sipe and Joe Cribbs, and had signed several college players including Herschel Walker. Any NFL quarterback worth his salt was receiving offers from USFL teams, and those involved in salary disputes like Doug Williams were more popular than most.
Williams himself had just lost his wife to a tragic brain tumour and was not in the best of mental states, and was looking to take his anger out on someone. His racially-motivated autobiography, "Quarterblack", puts the blame solely on Hugh Culverhouse and Phil Kreuger for their supposedly-bigoted attitude to him, but it takes two to tango. The offshoot was Williams signing a deal with the Oklahoma Outlaws to start play in March 1984, and left the Bucs without the heart and soul of their team.
Ironically, Williams' long-time back-up, Chuck Fusina, had also bolted to the USFL and went on to win two championships with the Baltimore/Philadelphia Stars, leaving the Bucs' passing position in the hands of journeyman Jerry Golsteyn. A pre-season trade with the Cincinnati Bengals brought in Jack Thompson, a former first-round pick, but the cost was to be the Bucs' first pick in the 1984 draft, one that would ultimately be the first selection of the entire draft. And the Bucs were without a top pick in the 1983 draft, having spent that the previous year on the under-achieving Booker Reese, so one can quickly see where the fortunes of the team started to go downhill.
The 1983 draft did bring two solid players to the team, Randy Grimes who spent the best part of a decade at center for the Bucs, and cornerback Jeremiah Castille, a six-year Buc who went on to help the Broncos to the SuperBowl by recovering Earnest Byner's fumble during one of those classic Denver v Cleveland match-ups of the late 1980s. Mark Witte was a great special teams' player and charity worker off the field, but the remainder of the selections proved significant by their insignificance.
Entering the season without Williams for the first time since their second year, the Buccaneers went 4-0 in the pre-season and most fans and pundits thought the team would succeed without its fiery leader. But a couple of tough losses early in the campaign shook the team to its core, and without a strong quarterback at its helm, the team's defeats mounted up. Jack Thompson, installed as the starter after the Week 3 defeat to the Vikings, actually posted better numbers than Williams ever did, but could never replace that most intangible of assets, leadership.
William Gay led the Lions to their Week 1 victory in Tampa Stadium with no less than 5.5 sacks of Jerry Golsteyn, whilst it was a more famous name the following week, Walter Payton, scoring on a 73-yard screen pass that helped the Bears to their win. Minnesota's Week 3 success came on the back of two late fourth down completions to set up a tying fieldgoal, Bucs' kicker Bill Capece missing a 33-yarder in overtime, and then giving up a long pass to allow the Vikings a winning kick of their own from 42 yards away.
The Bucs' fourth straight defeat to Cincinnati came as Thompson's pass for Jimmie Giles was intercepted in the endzone as time expired, although the 49 points given up in the first half to the Packers in Week 5 remain one of the most potent 30 minutes of football in NFL history. The Buccaneer score incidentally, came on a Hugh Green interception return, so it could have been a lot worse.
When the 0-5 Bucs travelled to the 5-0 Cowboys, most people expected a cricket score from Tom Landry's team. As it was, Danny White had to perform late heroics to force the game into overtime, and then the Bucs were penalised on a missed fieldgoal that allowed Dallas' Rafael Septien a second chance to win the game for the Cowboys. This sort of ultimate foot-shooting was the story of the season, and although the final 2-14 mark is as bad as it looked, there is little doubt that better special teams play during 1983 would have given the Bucs at least another four wins.
The one bright spot on the season came when James Wilder was moved from full-back to tail-back. He carried 42 times for 126 yards in the Week 9 loss to Pittsburgh, the game being lost from a 12-0 lead and also when Kevin House dropped a sure touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter. Wilder topped this the following week in the Bucs' first win of the season, rushing for 219 yards against the Vikings including a 75-yard score. This was as far as success went for the third-year back, broken ribs against the Browns ending his season just as it seemed to get started. The team's only other win came against the equally hapless Oilers, 33-24 in the so-called Repus Bowl, so-named as it was as far from the SuperBowl as one could get.
After losing in a Monday Night game to the Packers on a missed fieldgoal and PAT, Bill Capece was cut, "Capece is kaput" being John McKay's comment to the press after the game. Seven days later, in the final game of the season, new kicker Dave Warnke shanked three kick-offs, missed a fieldgoal and an extra point, leaving offensive lineman George Yarno to score the final point of the year. These woes really summed up the 1983 season.