1985 - The start of the dark era - the Bucs go 2-14
It had been widely accepted in Buccaneer circles, that John McKay's successor on the Tampa Stadium sideline, would be long-time defensive co-ordinator and assistant head coach, Wayne Fontes. It hence came as a major surprise when Hugh Culverhouse introduced Leeman Bennett as the second Buccaneer coach in franchise history in January 1985.
Bennett had taken the Falcons to the play-offs in 1981 and 1982 and was the coach who gave Mick Luckhurst his opportunity to play in the NFL, but had been out of football since being surprisingly fired by Atlanta owner Rankin Smith after their play-off loss to Minnesota in 1982. Fontes and the other McKay assistants were released and a new era began in Tampa Bay, one that had no links to the John McKay years except one thing - losing.
The 1985 Buccaneers posted a 2-14 mark, the worst in the NFL and brought back memories of those early days in franchise history when the team was a joke. LeeRoy Selmon missed the entire season recuperating from a serious back injury and ultimately never set foot on a football field in anger again, while the potent offense, by Buc standards, of the year before, was ditched in favour of a one-back offense that featured James Wilder on seemingly every play, utilising Jerry Bell as the so-called H-back for blocking duties.
This slide into the depths of the NFL's basement, one that has lasted for over a decade, co-incided with the first full year of existence for a certain British Buccaneer booster club, but of all the reasons given for the franchise's poor years, this has to be one of the most tenuous !
Leeman Bennett's first draft saw the team look for an immediate replacement for Selmon, in the form of Ron Holmes, a collegiate pass-rushing monster from Washington. Holmes missed much of training camp due to a contract hold-out, and when he did take the field for the Bucs, was immediately compared to Selmon, an unfair analysis for any defensive end, let alone a rookie learning what it takes to play in the NFL. Holmes did have some successful years for the team, but never really became the great pass-rushing threat one expected at the time of his selection.
Ervin Randle was a solid linebacker who played several seasons with the Bucs, as did kicker Donald Igwebuike, a ninth round selection from Clemson. Igwebuike wound up beating out his old friend and college team-mate Obed Ariri for the Buccaneer kicking job, and promptly put his first pro kick-off through the goal-posts at Soldier Field. The trade for Steve DeBerg meant the Bucs had no second round pick, but 8th rounder Phil Freeman was a great kick returner for three years, and Mike Prior went on to an NFL career that lasted through the end of the 1996 season with the likes of the Colts and Packers as a nickel back and punt returner.
Most NFL teams gained an unexpected influx of talent when the USFL folded at the end of its 1985 spring/summer season. Players began jumping back to the NFL, knowing full well the USFL would never be able to compete with the established league from then on, and the likes of Reggie White, Bobby Hebert and Doug Williams all came back to further their careers outside the USFL.
The league held a form of allocation draft for players that had gone straight into the rival league from college and had no draft ties, the Bucs coming up with Steve Young as their initial selection. Young had signed a $40 million deal with the L.A.Express on completing his senior year at Brigham Young, and had set several league records for rushing and passing in his years in Los Angeles. Young joined the Buccaneers at the end of September 1985, and quickly set about learning Bennett's complicated offense as the back-up to Steve DeBerg.
1985 was the year of the Chicago Bears, the 46 defense, and William Perry. Yet the Bucs jumped out to an early 21-7 lead at Soldier Field in the season opener, and really only lost when DeBerg's early second half pass was returned for a Bear touchdown. James Wilder gained over 100 yards in each of the first four games, but the reliance on his solid shoulders quickly began to take its toll, and his performances began to tail off during the season. Kevin House was a deep threat that was never utilised as much as previous seasons, and Gerald Carter's performance fell away rapidly from its 1984 highs.
Loss after loss built up, although the seventh game in Miami ranks as one of the most exciting in team history. The Dolphins, with Dan Marino and the Marks brothers, Clayton and Duper, in full flow, twice opened up 17 point leads, only for DeBerg to continually bring the Bucs back on four touchdown passes to tight end Jimmie Giles. A late Miami fieldgoal gave the home team a 41-38 lead, even though the kick was partially blocked, and DeBerg's late bomb to House was caught inside the Dolphin 20-yard line, but the Buc receiver could not dive out of bounds before the final second ticked off the clock.
The first win of the season came after nine straight losses, a 16-0 shut-out win over St.Louis, only the second blanking of an opponent in team history. Any hopes of a winning streak were quickly put to rest as the Jets gained revenge for their 1984 season finale loss, but racking up the biggest score ever put on the Bucs, eight touchdowns and a pair of fieldgoals in their 62 point total. Steve Young earned the start in the final five games of the season, winning his first start in overtime over Detroit, but then almost suffocating in a foot of snow in the famous winter game in Green Bay.
Young was more of a runner than passer during his rookie NFL season, scrambling at almost every opportunity trying to make something happen for the team. However, the burden of the 28th and worst ranked defense in the NFL was always too much for the future MVP to overcome, and the Bucs lost their last four games to fall to the league basement for the second time in three seasons.
"If I do not have a dramatic turnaround in two years, in all probability I would sell the team because I feel fans would like to have another owner" said Hugh Culverhouse at the end of the season. He was right, the fans did. Unfortunately it would be another decade before they got one.