The Bucs have won the toss …. and are going to kick the ball away?
Paul Stewart, Buccaneers Review , published 2008|
The situation is a common one. An NFL game goes to overtime – the two sets of captains go out to midfield, the referee tosses a coin, one team wins and elects to receive.
Then there was what happened almost 20 years ago involving the Buccaneers. Their Week 15 game in 1988 in the cold winds of the old Foxboro Stadium in New England went to overtime as the two teams were tied at 7-7. The Bucs won the toss …. and elected to …. kick away?
1988 was Ray Perkins’ second season in charge of the Buccaneers. His 1987 team had started brightly before going into an eight-game tailspin through the second half of the year. And 1988 did not start out too brightly either with mid-November arriving and the Bucs being mired in the NFC Central Division basement at 2-9.
A young Vinny Testaverde was in the middle of a record-setting passing season, albeit not a good record as it involved him throwing an incredible 35 interceptions across 15 starts. There was some young talent coming through on both sides of the ball, with the defense in particular starting to show real signs of improvement under Co-ordinator Doug Graber, now instantly recognisable on local television in Tampa.
The Bucs won an emotional home encounter in Week 14 against the up-and-coming Buffalo Bills, mounting a legendary goal-line stand in the fourth quarter to preserve a 10-5 victory. And with a final road game against the Patriots to follow, confidence was high in the now 4-10 Buccaneer camp as they headed north to take on Coach Raymond Berry’s team.
It was cold and windy in New England that December afternoon. And I mean, REALLY cold and REALLY windy. The wind-chill factor was -24 degrees and the air temperature remained below freezing throughout the game. And the 20-30 wind was blowing straight down the field making the direction of play more important than ever.
The Patriots had to win their final two games in 1988 to have any chance of a Wild Card berth. And when Rob Perryman put the home side ahead with a six-yard run midway through the third quarter, the 39,889 hardy souls in the stands thought their hopes of post-season play would continue.
Neither side could do much offensively although both teams had missed field-goals during the first half, the Bucs’ rookie replacement kicker, John Carney (yes that one!) coming up short on a 40-yarder. Carney had replaced Donald Igwebuike for the final month of the season after the Nigerian suffered a pulled hamstring in the Week 12 loss against Chicago.
But late in the fourth quarter, the Bucs won the field position game and a 41-yard, two play drive (both Testaverde to Mark Carrier passes) put the Bucs level at the end of regulation play.
The Bucs won the coin toss to start the overtime and elected to defend the north goal. Considering the 25-mph wind gusts the Pats would face and the stingy play of the Tampa Bay defense through regulation (167 yards and nine first downs allowed), coach Ray Perkins' choice seemed the logical one.
But the surprise in the commentary booth was evident with former Super Bowl-winning coach Hank Stram leading the second-guess brigade from the outset. And when Patriot QB Tony Eason connected with WR Irving Fryar for first 21 and then 26 yards, the home team were in point blank range and K Jason Staurovsky made no mistake from 27 yards.
“I really felt we were going to win it, especially when we went into overtime” said Perkins afterwards. He said he wouldn't second-guess his decision to take the wind instead of the ball in the end. “I would've done the same thing 10 out of 10 times,” he said.
In his defense, Patriot head coach Ray Berry said he would've made the same call had the Patriots won the toss.
The Bucs' loss was their seventh by seven points or less this season. “When you play the way we played, you're supposed to win,” said LB Ervin Randle. “We just couldn't do it in the end, when we had to.”
“Everyone played hard, but we made a few key mistakes that cost us the game,” said WR Don Smith, one of the culprits with an illegal motion penalty that negated a 20-yard pass completion with 35 seconds remaining.
Another glaring error was LB Jackie Walker's tripping penalty that erased John Carney's 46-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter. The Bucs moved back 10 yards and punted, a decision that disappointed Carney. “I wanted a shot at it (a 56-yarder),” said Carney, who had missed a 40-yarder in the first quarter. “I was still on the field when the punting team came on.”
The Bucs would win their season finale seven days later against the Lions to finish the 1988 season at 5-11. But Perkins’ abrasive style had begun to irritate players, fans and the media alike and this overtime decision would be one more piece of ammunition to fire his way when things did not go well over the following two seasons. Perkins would ultimately be fired in December 1990 and the Bucs have elected to receive in every overtime game since.