TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS v SAN DIEGO CHARGERS FEATURE
13 December 1981 – thriller for the division title
Whenever the NFL schedule is announced, you always wonder whether the last two games of the season will prove to be decisive in terms of winning a division or making the post-season. In 1981, the Bucs found themselves in that very situation in their final home game of the regular season, a match-up with Dan Fouts and the San Diego Chargers.
The Bucs came into the game on a three-game winning streak that included their biggest-ever victory (37-3 over Green Bay) and a titanic struggle with the Falcons that saw DL Scott Hutchinson block a Mick Luckhurst fieldgoal attempt as time expired to preserve a 24-23 win. They needed one more win in their final two games to take the NFC Central Division title for the second time in their history.
The Chargers in the early 1980s were an NFL attraction in terms of their wide-open passing game. “Air Coryell” was the name given to it after their pass-minded head coach, and led by future Hall-of-Famer Dan Fouts at quarterback, Wes Chandler and Charlie Joiner at receiver and Kellen Winslow (senior and father of the current Browns player) at tight end, this was an offense that could move up and down the field on anyone.
Both Fouts and Buccaneer QB Doug Williams were set for monster passing days and both would ultimately end up exceeding the 300-yard mark on the day. After Fouts found back-up TE Eric Sievers for an opening score, Williams hit WR Theo Bell on a quick out pattern that turned into a 58-yard scoring strike.
The offenses moved up and down the field all day, even with the Bucs’ highly-rated defense on display, and it was only a succession of interceptions and fumbles when they approached the red-zone that prevented the score matching Arena League standards.
When James Brooks capped a successful Charger drive with a one-yard run early in the fourth quarter, San Diego held a 21-10 lead and looked comfortable to maintain their own division push. Brooks would go on to play briefly for the Buccaneers at the end of a long NFL career in 1992 and even appeared a couple of years after that in the British Gridiron League.
But rookie RB James Wilder showed an early indication of the scoring ability he would display throughout the 1980s with a pair of touchdown runs less than a minute apart.
The first came after an 80-yard drive in which coach John McKay opened up the playbook and had Williams passing all over the field. And then after LB David Lewis had intercepted Fouts, Wilder took a pitch right and utilised McKay’s favourite USC running play, “Student body right” into the endzone for a Buccaneer lead.
The first touchdown had been marred by K Bill Capece missing the extra point wide left after a high snap. This would ultimately cost the Buccaneers as Fouts led an 16-play, 60-yard drive that was capped by K Rolf Bernischke making a 29-yard fieldgoal with 45 seconds left.
One final bomb by Williams on 4th and 2 from his own 37 was picked off at the San Diego goal-line and the Bucs were thwarted in their bid for a division title.
“We’re in a situation now where we’ve got to win” the Bucs’ quarterback said after the game. “Games like we’ve had the last two weeks are tough on a team. Sooner the law of averages will catch up with you.”
The Chargers set an NFL record with their sixth straight game of 400 yards or more in total offense, but were full of praise for their young opponents. “I’m glad the Bucs are in the NFC” said Winslow in a victorious San Diego locker room. “They’re hitters, they’re big and they’re talented. I feel they are so talented that it’s only a matter of time before they dominate the NFC.”
But when it came to post-game quotes, then you always went to John McKay, the master of the one-liner. One beat reporter asked him for a comment on the game. “We didn’t play very well and got beat. The better team won”. And when asked how he would get ready for the following week’s showdown in Detroit, McKay simply replied “Oh I’d say, play a little bit better”.
The Bucs went to Detroit who were 7-0 at home that season. Thanks to a Doug Williams to Kevin House touchdown bomb, and a fumble return score by the late David Logan, the Bucs triumphed 20-17 and took their second division title in three years. Their prize was a trip to Dallas in which they were narrowly defeated 38-0 by the Cowboys.
San Diego also won their division with a 10-6 mark ahead of the Denver Broncos and played an epic 41-38 overtime game with the Miami Dolphins that remains part of NFL legend, Their chance to make Super Bowl XVI was dashed in one of the coldest games ever recorded in Cincinnati that saw the Bengals win 27-7.
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Paul Stewart, Buccaneers Review, December 2008