The program sold at the Dallas-Minnesota game had a picture of a rookie on the cover. No, it was not Tony Dorsett. The cover boy was Tampa Bay Tailback Ricky Bell. After all, it was Bell, not the much-ballyhooed Dorsett, who was the first player selected in the 1977 NFL draft, and it was Bell, not Dorsett, who became the first rookie in NFL history to sign a million-dollar contract.
Bell was in Philadelphia on Sunday and, like W. C. Fields, he found it closed. The aroused Eagles rarely gave Bell any running room and in 15 carries he gained just 53 yards—17 of them on one play in which he broke two tackles. Still, he was more than half of the Tampa Bay rushing offense; the Bucs accumulated just 92 yards on the ground while losing to the Eagles 13-3. "Our offensive line refused to block," said Coach John McKay. Maybe so, but Bell himself ended Tampa Bay's deepest penetration of the first half when he fumbled at the Eagle 10 after gaining six yards and a first down. At that, Bell outgained Dorsett 53 yards to 11.
Although Bell was McKay's announced No. 1 draft choice long before last year's 0-14 season had mercifully concluded, he was not the first choice of Buc supporters. In a newspaper poll, local fans voted 3 to 1 in favor of selecting Dorsett. But McKay never wavered. "Don't get me wrong," he says. "I think Dorsett is a super back. But if Dorsett and Bell had a footrace, it would be close, and Ricky is 6'2" tall and weighs 218 pounds. I liken Ricky to Franco Harris. He's not very flashy but, my God, he's efficient."
For now, McKay cannot use Bell exactly as he did when they were at USC, where Bell sometimes carried more than 35 times a game. The reason is that McKay has not found two guards fast enough to get outside and clear the way. So Bell will run less, although more than the other Buc backs, block more and certainly catch more passes. He caught 16 during the exhibition season, twice as many as any teammate—and only two fewer than he caught in his entire USC career.
September 25, 1977
Bell's arrival in Tampa has hardly created a media carnival on the order of the Dorsett show in Dallas, but Bell seems to have gained the respect of his teammates. Knowing that the heat in Tampa would make it difficult for him to carry a lot of bulk, he reported to training camp at a trim 210 pounds, 10 under his normal playing weight, and only now has he built himself up to 218.
And unlike Dorsett, who has been pushed into the background by the established Cowboy stars, Bell has become a leader in Tampa. "There are a lot of young guys here [the team's average age is just 24.2], and being the No. 1 pick, people expect things from me," he says.
Bell topped all Tampa Bay runners in the exhibition season with 217 yards. In the Bucs' inexplicable 14-0 preseason shutout of Baltimore, Bell scored both touchdowns on plays on which he got negligible blocking. "I don't think in either case we'd have scored last year," says McKay. "On those two runs you could see what I was talking about in this youngster. Even if Dorsett makes twice as much yardage this year, and he might because he has a better supporting cast, I'll be convinced that we made the right choice in drafting Ricky Bell No. 1."