TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS v ATLANTA FALCONS FEATURE
13 September 1987 – what a start to another new era
Every team starts an NFL season with high expectations. The problems of previous years are temporarily forgotten, whereas success from 12 months earlier is always seen as a stepping stone to more next time out.
For the 1987 Buccaneers, there was really only one way to go and that was up. Two consecutive 2-14 seasons had seen the franchise reach its absolute nadir and there had been little to cheer about for Tampa Bay fans in recent times. Ray Perkins had replaced Leeman Bennett as head coach but could the Bucs’ third supremo become the first to win his first game in charge?
The turnover in player personnel since the 1986 season finale in St.Louis had been nothing sort of incredible. 20 draft picks, a range of trades and player signings, and all this in the era before free agency. Of the 22 starters who took the field in Busch Stadium the previous December, only nine began the 1987 season against the Falcons, and only injury kept rookies TE Ron Hall and WR Bruce Hill from opening day.
The biggest arrival had been that of QB Vinny Testaverde, selected with the first overall pick. QB Steve Young was now in San Francisco, and the starting role behind center had been returned to Steve DeBerg who had begun the 1986 season with a franchise record seven interceptions in a game against the 49ers.
The Bucs came out on fire and DeBerg had a half for the ages. It was 27-3 at the interval and DeBerg was 18 of 24 for 224 yards with four touchdowns. He led Tampa Bay to scores on each of their first four possessions and only a missed PAT by K Donald Igwebuike spoiled the perfect beginning for the orange and white. The Falcons’ only response was a 50-yard fieldgoal by Englishman Mick Luckhurst, beginning what would be his seventh and final season in the NFL.
And the rout continued after the break with DeBerg setting a franchise record with his fifth touchdown pass. The Bucs set franchise marks for first downs, yardage differential and points scored. Throw in an incredible 14 of 16 on third downs including making their first nine, and the Buccaneer offense could simply do no wrong. “After the fifth touchdown,” DeBerg said, “I came off the field and said, `Hey, Vinny, I'm making some records for you to break someday.'”
The Falcons’ only touchdown came after S Rick Woods had recovered a fumble, and then coughed the ball up himself during the return. Seemingly every Buccaneer got in the game including little-known rookie RB Steve Bartalo who gained 23 of his career 30 yards during the fourth quarter including the final touchdown of the game.
Seemingly everyone except the one player who everyone wanted to see. For the only Buc who left Tampa Stadium that day as a “DNP”, was QB Vinny Testaverde. Even leading 48-10, Ray Perkins kept DeBerg handing the ball off, whilst Vinny signalled the plays in from the sideline. His debut would come in the 20-3 loss the following week to the Bears.
"I expected to win the game," said Perkins, who ran off the field in such a state of excitement that he grabbed the cowboy-style hat from a state trooper and galloped into the locker room with it on his head. "I thought we would win the game," added Perkins. "I didn't have any idea we would win it in the fashion we did."
No one could have anticipated that Steve DeBerg, 33, would perform like a rookie phenom, passing for a team-record five touchdowns, playing what Perkins said was ""one of the best games of any quarterback I've ever been associated with."
"In the first game, you're really untested; you're just not sure, and for this to happen is fantastic," said DE Kevin Kellin afterwards in a delirious Buccaneer locker room. "I have to admit, I'm a little bit happily surprised that we did as well as we did."
The 1987 season was interrupted by a three-week strike and games played by replacement teams. The “B-Bucs” as they became known, went 2-1, and when the regulars returned, a 4-3 mark was better than any Buc fan could have dreamed possible after two years of Leeman Bennett. But injuries and late game collapses marred the second half of the season, and the 1987 Bucs would wind up at 4-11 in the 15-game season.
For the Falcons, Mick Luckhurst retired from his kicking role at the end of the season, and spent the next four seasons presenting coverage of the NFL for British television. He also became a regular newspaper columnist on the sport, and a good friend of the Bucs UK booster club, even if we did remind him of this game on more than one occasion.
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Paul Stewart, Buccaneers Review, September 2008