1984 - McKay goes in controversial circumstances
After the trials and tribulations of the 2-14 campaign in 1983, the Buccaneers would have been hoping for a bumper draft to boost their confidence, particularly as their record was the worst in the NFL and hence due for the first pick of the draft. The trade with the Bengals that brought Jack Thompson a year earlier was made in exchange for Tampa's first round pick however, and it was the Bengals who took advantage of this fortuitous break to acquire the likes of Boomer Esiason and Brian Blados in a deal with New England.
No Buc selection will be looked back on as a steal, although both Chris Washington and Rick Mallory played several seasons as solid starters at linebacker and guard respectively. Keith Browner never played to the potential he showed in college and wound up in the Arena League in the early 1990s, although his most memorable contribution as a member of the orange and white, was to actually fall asleep on the bench during the 1986 season finale against the Cardinals!
The one deal that the Bucs did make that was a success, was the acquisition of Steve DeBerg from the Denver Broncos for a second round pick in 1985. DeBerg had been superseded as the starter in the Mile High City by John Elway, and John McKay quickly jumped in for the perennial journeyman as competition for Jack Thompson.
DeBerg quickly won the starting job during the first month of the season and went on to lead the Buccaneer offense to one of its most profitable seasons in franchise history. Armed with a pair of talented receivers in Kevin House and Gerald Carter, a deep threat tight end in Jimmie Giles, and the incomparable James Wilder in the backfield, DeBerg passed for over 3,500 yards in 14 starts.
The season finale against the Jets came in a season when New York's Mark Gastineau and Ken O'Brien had been arrested in a Big Apple night-club called Studio 54. DeBerg decided to call an audible with that as the title and saw Gastineau jump offside in an instant in an attempt to throttle the cheeky quarterback. The week before against Atlanta, DeBerg had introduced a play called "Red merry Christmas" which left the Falcons laughing so hard, they missed the snap and James Wilder strolled in for a touchdown.
Joking aside, Wilder had one of the most memorable seasons in NFL history. He set a league record for carries in a single season with 407, and added another 85 receptions out of the backfield. His total of 2,219 combined yards was just 11 short of the record set by Eric Dickerson a day earlier, and led to one of the strangest finishes to a game in league records.
When the Bucs took a 41-14 lead against the Jets inside the last two minutes of the final game, John McKay ordered an onside kick to attempt to get the ball back for Wilder to gain the 13 yards he needed for the record. The Jets were naturally incensed by this and after three abortive onside kick attempts, gained possession of the ball themselves at the Buccaneer 40.
McKay then ordered his defense to allow the Jets to score, and after four plays, Johnny Hector scored on a two-yard run with most of the Buc defenders standing around watching. New York coach Joe Walton called for an onside kick of his own, but the Bucs recovered giving Wilder three plays to break the record. Naturally the Jets were all over Wilder on each carry and his additional two yards gained only notoriety rather than a record. McKay was blasť about the whole saga, although Walton left the field refusing to shake hands with the Buccaneer coach and several fists were thrown between players as tempers boiled at the final whistle.
Jack Thompson began the year as the starting quarterback, but five interceptions in two losses to Chicago and New Orleans saw him lose his spot behind center for good. DeBerg won his first game against Detroit, and only the heroics of Lawrence Taylor of the Giants foiled a second straight win a week later.
The overtime win against Green Bay came from the foot of an unlikely source, the diminutive Nigerian kicker Obed Ariri, who had won the job with a strong training camp. His third fieldgoal of the game, a 47-yarder in overtime, capped a 172-yard performance from James Wilder, and took the Bucs to a 2-3 mark at the end of September. Seven days later, and the Buccaneers evened their mark for the season with five offensive touchdowns in a 35-31 thriller with the Vikings.
The four-game losing streak in mid-season spoiled any post-season hopes that the 1984 Buccaneers may have had, the Week 9 loss to the Chiefs being made more memorable by the passing duel between DeBerg and Bill Kenney that saw a then-NFL record 100 passes thrown during the game. Only when DeBerg's final pass to Kevin House was batted down, did the Bucs finally succumb in the aerial battle. The losing streak was ended when the Bucs gained revenge over the Giants at Tampa Stadium, and only a missed extra point and fluke touchdown from Dieter Brock, gave the Rams their 34-33 win in Week 13.
Steve DeBerg was not the only Buc to throw a touchdown pass in 1984, as James Wilder also added a passing score to his massive tally of records. His wobbly 16-yard option pass to Adger Armstrong in muddy Green Bay was his only pass attempt in his long career, but counted for six points all the same.
Armstrong was the unsung hero of the season, blocking on almost every play for Wilder, yet only carrying the ball 10 times himself in his role as "Lead Dog". The defense also took a back seat to the offense for the first time in franchise history, although the acquisition of veteran Beasley Reece helped to solidify the secondary, and LeeRoy Selmon made his final NFL season a memorable one by once again being voted as a starter to the Pro Bowl.
John McKay had announced his intention to retire before the midway point of the 1984 season, and desperately wanted to go out a winner. His 44-88-1 mark will be forever tainted by that 26-game losing streak at the very start, but he took the Bucs further than any of the following four coaches did that followed him.