In his inimitable style, Tampa Bay Coach John McKay announced one day last week, 'The Bucs are going to make history. On Sunday we're going to start the same guys for the fourth week in a row, unless someone gets hurt between now and then licking an ice-cream cone." Unfortunately for the Los Angeles Rams, the Buccaneers didn't encounter any physical difficulties with their double dips of Neapolitan Nut, and then on Sunday afternoon, before the largest crowd in Tampa Bay history—69,497—they treated the Rams like so much mushy Marshmallow Swirl by routing them 21-6.
As a result, the Bucs are unbeaten, untied and unbelievable, not to mention holding a two-game lead over second-place Minnesota and Chicago in the NFC Central. Not bad for a team that entered the NFL in 1976 and proceeded to lose its first 26 games, and a team that has known only one place—last.
Standing outside the Tampa Bay dressing room after the Bucs' fourth straight victory, Running Back Ricky Bell had the first word on the arrival of the Bucs as a real live rock 'em, sock 'em football team. "We've had the bad times," Bell said, "and now the good times are here."
During the bad times Bell, the NFL's No. 1 draft pick in 1977, was booed regularly by the Tampa Bay fans, who couldn't understand why he wasn't running for hundreds of yards each game as he had done at USC. Bell, of course, didn't want to tell anyone that until recently Tampa Bay's offensive line couldn't open a hole in a doughnut factory.
But in the wind and rain on Sunday, Bell, operating behind a mobile wall of young blockers, crashed through the Rams for 69 yards on 18 carries, and when he left the game in the waning moments, the crowd gave him a standing ovation.
For one fleeting moment on Sunday, though, the Bucs looked just like their old stumblebum selves. On a third-and-10 play at the Tampa Bay 30 in the first quarter, Buc Quarterback Doug Williams, who normally throws at laser speed, tried to dump a short, soft pass into the right flat. The ball was picked off by Ram Linebacker Jim Youngblood, and he returned it 31 yards for a touchdown and a 6-0 L.A. lead. Ah, yes, the rout was on.
But Williams, who suffered a broken jaw last season when he was brusquely sacked by Youngblood and Defensive End Fred Dryer, quickly shook off the interception. Two plays into the second quarter, following Tampa Bay Nose Tackle Bill Kollar's recovery of Lawrence McCutcheon's fumble at the L.A. 27, Williams hit Wide Receiver Larry Mucker with a 15-yard touchdown pass to tie the score at 6-6, and Neil O'Donoghue kicked the extra point for a 7-6 Tampa Bay lead. Now the real rout was on.
Williams skillfully moved the Bucs 84 and 70 yards for touchdowns later in the second quarter. Bell scored the first on a five-yard bolt up the middle, and then, with just 33 seconds left in the half, Williams tossed a 29-yard scoring pass to Tight End Jimmie Giles.
While Williams was igniting the Buc offense, the Selmon brothers—Lee Roy and Dewey (see cover, pouncing on Lawrence McCutcheon)—were firing up a marauding Tampa Bay defense. All week long McKay had geared the Bucs for L.A. Quarterback Pat Haden, who had played for McKay in three Rose Bowl games at USC, by saying, "I know a few things that Pat doesn't like, which he's going to see."
What Haden—and later his backup, Vince Ferragamo—saw too often were three Bucs rushing him and eight Bucs dropping into pass coverage. Unable to throw deep, Haden had to resort to harmless short throws to his backs, who accounted for 13 of the Rams' 17 receptions. In all, Los Angeles put the ball in the air 35 times, but gained a mere 97 yards. The Rams' running game was just as bad, producing only 110 yards. In the fourth quarter, Tampa Bay never let L.A. cross midfield. In effect, the Bucs' defense shut out the Rams' offense. "Today we played defense about as well as we can," said McKay.
How do the Bucs take their sudden success? Well, Linebacker Dewey Selmon says he notes a new pride among his teammates. "When the players go out now," Dewey says, "a lot of them are wearing their Buc T shirts in public." Brother Lee Roy, who has developed into one of the NFL's best defensive ends, sees the change in more personal terms. "I don't have to go to the drive-in window at McDonald's anymore," he says. "Now I feel safe walking right into the restaurant."
For the most part, Tampa Bay's fans showed surprising good humor during what Bell called the "bad times." When the fledgling Bucs were threatening to produce back-to-back winless seasons—they failed by only two games, winning their final two outings of 1977—T shirts appeared which showed a Buccaneer ship doing down and bore the inscription, GO FOR 0. When a local newspaper asked its readers to submit suggestions on how Tampa Bay owner Hugh Culver-house might get the Bucs straightened out, one fan advised him, "Sell the franchise. Erect two golden arches over Tampa Stadium and sell hamburgers."
But there were also some inhospitable moments. During one loss Bell almost went into the stands after a heckler, and after another, McKay was showered with soda, no doubt by a fan wearing the once-popular THROW MC KAY IN THE BAY T shirt.
"Getting through the last couple of years took guts on Coach McKay's part because everyone in the whole town was against him," says Dewey Selmon, who became the quarterback of the Bucs' defense when McKay converted him from a down lineman to an inside linebacker in 1977. "Our team was like the stock market. It was in a depression. He had two choices: sell us out by trading for more experienced players, or ride out the depression with the young ones he had. It would have been easy to shift the blame to us by simply suggesting that we couldn't do the job. But he stuck with us. He stood up and said, 'This is my plan and it'll work.' You've got to give him credit." The Bucs did just that by awarding McKay the game ball on Sunday.
Most of McKay's critics in the club's first three years focused on his inoffensive offense. Completing a forward pass appeared to be as complex an endeavor to the Tampa Bay players as balancing the federal budget. Things were so bad in 1977 that the Bucs didn't score a touchdown at home until the final game of the season. One excuse was injuries; in their first three years the Bucs used a total of 20 different interior linemen on offense, and McKay started nine different quarterbacks, none with much success.
Healthy now, and with Williams installed at quarterback, the Bucs ranked second in the NFL in yards rushing before the Rams game. Twice in their first three games they broke the team's single-game rushing record. Most important, they're finally getting into the end zone, which is what offense is all about. Tampa Bay scored three times as many touchdowns in the second quarter against L.A. as it did in the month of November—four games—in 1977.
The offense actually started to take shape last season when Williams, the Bucs' first-round pick from Grambling in the 1978 draft, took over at quarterback; before drafting Williams, McKay had tried to acquire Haden from the Rams. In his first appearance Williams dropped back, flicked his wrist and sailed the ball 60 yards downfield. The pass just missed the outstretched fingers of Wide Receiver Isaac Hagins, but to Tampa Bay's long-suffering fans it didn't matter. Help had arrived. They rose en masse and gave Williams an ovation.
The 6'4", 215-pound Williams has a quick release and he is very mobile, one reason why he was sacked only six times last year and has not been bagged once this season. But Tampa Bay is no one-man team.
By the end of the '78 season McKay was already plotting ways to surround Williams with a better supporting cast. He decided to shift starting Defensive End Charley Hannah to offensive right tackle, a sound move considering Hannah's bloodlines; his brother John is an All-Pro guard with the Patriots. Then, in the off-season McKay traded starting Nose Tackle Dave Pear to Oakland for a second- and a third-round draft choice. He used the second-round pick to take Guard Greg Roberts of Oklahoma, the Outland Trophy winner who opened holes for Heisman Trophy winner Billy Sims. Forthwith, Roberts was stationed next to Hannah.
McKay later drafted Arkansas Running Back Jerry Eckwood and, after a brief look in training camp, installed Eckwood at halfback and moved Bell to fullback. Eckwood responded by setting a Buc rushing record with 121 yards in Tampa Bay's 31-16 opening-game win over Detroit. He contributed 59 yards Sunday and has 332 in the Bucs' four wins. So who's Eckwood?
There was a time when he was mentioned in the same breath with Bell. While at Brinkley (Ark.) High School, Eckwood was named to an All-America backfield that also included Houston's Earl Campbell and Buffalo's Terry Miller. Through the first seven games of his sophomore season at Arkansas, Eckwood ran neck and neck with Bell, then a USC junior, in the race for the NCAA rushing title.
But in the eighth game Eckwood was clipped on a pass play and suffered torn cartilage in his right knee. That finished him for the season, and leg miseries hobbled him for the next two, one of which he spent as a redshirt. Last year Eckwood was mostly a blocking back for Ben Cowins. "Cowins and I had the same rushing average, but I had 78 fewer carries," says Eckwood. However, he was drafted earlier than Cowins, who was cut by Philadelphia before the season.
While Eckwood is readjusting to the football limelight, his wife Valerie is studying mortuary science. Says Eckwood, "She's the one who puts a happy face on you when it's all over."
When it was all over Sunday, all the Bucs were wearing happy faces—and they were very much alive.