Gone With The Wins

Tampa Bay's Bucs are 0-7 without USFL-bound Doug Williams, the key to all of Coach John McKay's plans
October 23, 1983

On the most miserable afternoon of John McKay's coaching life, with the Tampa Bay team he had built from scratch into a Super Bowl contender coming apart like a piñata in Green Bay, the young man he had built it around lounged in the living room of his family's ranch house on the outskirts of Zachary, La., and laughed.

Actually, Doug Williams could not enjoy the slaughter to the fullest because the game on TV was not Tampa Bay-Green Bay, it was Minnesota-Dallas. But the network updated the score frequently (it had to to keep up) as the Packers piled it on. When it reached 21-0 in the second quarter Williams cried, "Oh, yeah!"

The house, a gift from Williams to his family, bought with the money he had made as the late, near-great Tampa Bay quarterback, throbbed with the ebb and flow of relatives and friends. Doug's older brother Robert, now a junior high school principal, popped in and out, and there was a seemingly endless parade of pretty little girls in starched white Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes. The phone rang incessantly. Doug's mother, Laura, monitored the calls. His infant daughter, Ashley, dozed in a portable crib in the living room, oblivious.

The score against Tampa Bay reached 35-7, and the phone rang again. Williams giggled and cupped his hand over the receiver. "He says he hopes Green Bay gets 75," Williams said of the caller.

Then it was 42, still in the first half. A pig-tailed girl stood before him. "How come you don't play no more?"

"I play."

"Number 12?"

"Yeah."

"I don't see you on TV no more."

"I'm in the other league. Tulsa [the USFL Oklahoma Outlaws] is my team now."

By halftime, the Buc-kicking had reached 49-7 and Tampa Bay had nailed down its fifth straight defeat. Williams said justice was being served. Once, he said, he thought being a Buccaneer "was the greatest thing in the world," but he learned "in a hurry" that pro football was strictly business. He said the business was what he got when he and the Bucs could not come to contract terms and he had gone to the USFL in August for "a better deal." From now on, he said, "I play for the paycheck."

He said he'd be lying if he said he hadn't wanted to stay in Tampa. And, yes, he was bitter. "You get slapped in the face enough, you get bitter. I bit my tongue for five years."

He said there was no turning back, even if the USFL folds: "Too much emotion involved. The fans had signs for the first game in Tampa: 'Doug who?' Well, they'll remember Doug Williams. A lot of people came to see me play. Attendance is down. In 63 years of NFL football, a black quarterback had never done as much as Doug Williams."

But he said he was not just a novelty. "Doug Williams was the guy the Bucs looked to to get it done," he said. "Maybe with Doug Williams they wouldn't be 0 and 5. Maybe they'd be 5 and 0. Maybe they really would be going to the Super Bowl."

He blamed the Tampa Bay "organization," its intransigence in contract talks. He blamed Hugh Culverhouse, the owner, for not making him feel "wanted." To make him feel wanted, he said, would have required only $600,000 a year for three years, not the $875,000 he was publicly demanding. Culverhouse, he said, had drawn the line at $400,000. He blamed racism. ("If I was white, don't you think I'd have gotten what I wanted?") And, finally, he blamed John McKay.

"I'll always be grateful to Coach McKay for the opportunity he gave me," Williams said. "It took guts to make me his quarterback my rookie year and then stick with me through all the criticism. But he could've done something, as much power as he has. He said, 'It's a fair offer.' If I was the owner, and John McKay told me that, I'd do what Mr. C. did, too."

Ashley now was groping for the railing of the crib, trying to pull herself up. Williams bent down tenderly and lifted her, turning her to reveal the lettering on her I LOVE TULSA T shirt.

"Janice would have wanted us to stay in Tampa," Williams said. Janice was his wife. She died of a brain tumor last April. Janice, he said, "didn't like controversy. She would have made me stay. But it wouldn't have been right. Next year, I'll be in Oklahoma, and it won't matter so much, but it would hurt me to the heart if Tampa Bay went to the Super Bowl without me. I can't be a hypocrite about it. I hope they go 0 and 16. I'll always have respect for Coach McKay, but I hope they go 0 and 16."

The second half had been kinder to Tampa Bay; at the end the score was 55-14. The next morning McKay sat subdued in the backseat of a company car, shrouded in his own cigar smoke as he was being driven to the taping of his weekly television show. After the game he had threatened to punch a Milwaukee columnist for asking, simply enough, why Tampa Bay had played so miserably. Past nightmares were being recalled.

In his first two years in Tampa, after a supernal college career at USC, McKay had suffered through 26 straight defeats without losing his wits. (Or, for that matter, his wit. "What about the Bucs' execution?" he was asked then. "I'm in favor of it," McKay replied.) But in those days he was putting life into dreams. This was different. This was dreams dying.

This was the year he thought Williams would get the status McKay had predicted for him through a protracted, often painful learning period. Maybe even carry the Bucs to the Super Bowl. The morning before the trip to Green Bay, McKay had nursed a pre-breakfast cup of coffee on the sun porch of his home on Tampa's Bayshore Drive and discussed how one coach will handle his quarterback differently from another. He said he was never one to get too close to players. But with Williams, he said, the rapport had been extraordinary. If you could possibly characterize a short, white football coach and a tall, black quarterback as soul mates, McKay and Williams were that: Williams, the 6'4", 215-pound heavenly body with the rifle arm, and the unflappable, innovative McKay, whose record for indifference to color has bordered on the legendary. At USC, almost all of McKay's star players were black. He had two black quarterbacks there. And from the start his Buccaneer teams have been well marbled. The official Buccaneer poster last year was a montage of seven players, one of whom was Williams. They were all black.

"People said we couldn't win with a black quarterback," McKay said. "People said there were 'rumors' about Doug's intelligence. The rumors were wrong. He's a smart young man. They used to 'rumor' about Terry Bradshaw's intelligence, too. Bradshaw took Pittsburgh to four Super Bowls. I'd love to have a quarterback dumb enough to take me to four Super Bowls."

In 1978, Williams was the first black quarterback ever to be drafted in the first round. McKay's scouts told him Williams was raw talent. He was an All-America, but at Grambling the opposition was not big time. A knock was that Williams had no "finesse" passes in his arsenal. He threw mostly downfield, what coaches call "haul-ass stuff," never to his backs.

But McKay saw films and liked what he saw—"the kind of player you go with for the long pull," he said. "The future of the franchise." And he said something else, remarkable in its appositeness: "I'm 55 years old. If Doug Williams isn't the future, we'll have to start over, and I'm too tired to start over."

The best quarterbacks are not an extension of the coach on the field. They are more than that. Play-calling is overrated. If the quarterback is on the same wavelength as the coach, he will usually call the same plays the coach would anyway. It is after the play starts, when he is on the run facing a myriad of alternatives—keying on defensive backs, reading coverages—it is at those crucial moments that a quarterback must shine.

"Doug had started to get that," McKay said on the sun porch. "He was becoming—not there yet, but on the way—one of the better quarterbacks in the game. The biggest thing he had to control was his emotions. That thing about being the first great black quarterback might have been the problem, but I thought he was controlling that. I had to tell him, 'No matter what happens, Doug, you're the quarterback. Nobody's going to come out there and take your place.' "

McKay told that to Williams through the giddy highs and through the abysmal lows, when the coach took so much heat he began to think his full name was McKay You Idiot. At times Williams was so brilliant he took your breath away. At other times he played like a man without a coordinating bone in his body.

He did have trouble throwing to the outlet man or players coming out of the backfield, but his space shots downfield won games; he played hurt; and the Bucs in 1979 became the youngest team ever to reach the playoffs. And made them two out of the next three years.

But although it was a colossal improvement over what Tampa had done before, Williams was, in five years, only a .500 pitcher—won 33, lost 33. He never made the Pro Bowl and never ranked among the leaders in the quarterback ratings. Sometimes he made bonehead plays, and sometimes he made bonehead remarks. Early on, after being roundly booed, he said, "Let 'em boo; I'll still be taking my money to the bank." A fan wrote in: "I just hope Doug's not required to throw his money in the door. He'll only hit it one out of five times."

But through it all, McKay stuck by him. And after the '82 season, McKay even fired his quarterback coach, Bill Nelson, because he thought Nelson and Williams "weren't getting along." Williams worked hard in the off-season, said McKay, "and he learned. Last year our leading receiver caught 53 passes—and he was our fullback, James Wilder. I knew then that Dougie was on his way."

But now Williams was not only on his way, he was gone, and in the car heading for the television show, McKay said the Bucs' play in Green Bay was "the worst I have ever seen, college, pro or high school. We keep playing that way and we will go 0 and 16, no trouble at all."

He said Williams' leaving had "put us out of sync. In the pros, you can't just recruit a guy to step in. Denver tried to do that with John Elway, and he couldn't throw the ball past the line of scrimmage. Jack Thompson [whom the Bucs acquired from Cincinnati in a June trade] could be the answer for us, but it could take a while, too. Maybe it'll take three or four years. But if we have to, we'll start over. I'm not going to quit."

He blew smoke.

What worries him now, he said, is that the Bucs themselves seem to believe Williams is right, that they can't win without him. "If you start thinking you can't make a putt," he says, "you won't make the putt. If they feel they can't play without Doug Williams, then a lot of these guys are stealing money."

More smoke, and a long pause.

"But what really hurts is I pick up the paper in Milwaukee, and Williams is saying he wants us to lose. He's saying he's not mad at the team or the coach, but he wants the Bucs to lose. Hell, we are the Bucs. I'm on this team, too. Hurt? You're damn right it hurts. He had a friend."

How could it happen? How could this most fortunate of unions—the ultimate passing machine and the coach that Bear Bryant once said "understands the passing game better than anybody"—go so radically wrong so quickly?

Some of his friends say Doug Williams "changed" after the tragic death of his wife. Doug says as much: "I learned you can't replace the things you hold most dear." Others say the long contract dispute hurt his pride, that he believed from the start he should have gotten bonuses for his play "with no strings attached." His first contract, five years escalating from $50,000 to $120,000, had been embarrassingly low for a starter. Still others say he found the "black quarterback" burden intolerable. They point out that in 1982 his ratings had dropped.

It is more likely that Williams had come to a point in life where he no longer knew who to believe. It's the cold, gray dilemma of the pro athlete in the age of the Stupendous Contract and bewildering, often bitter negotiations. Who do you believe? The agent who says you're worth the moon, or the people who pay you to keep your feet on the ground? And the questions beg for answers.

1) Was Williams getting shortchanged by the Bucs? Culverhouse's final offer was $400,000 for three years, then a raise to $500,000, then $600,000. If you compare that to the millions John Elway is getting from Denver, or to Dan Fouts's $750,000 per in San Diego, the answer is yes. The other side of the coin is this: Joe Theismann, the Super Bowl champion quarterback, is making $262,500, plus $52,500 in deferred money. Bradshaw, who has four Super Bowl rings, is making $300,000.

2) Is Williams justified in believing that McKay could have "done something" to turn Culverhouse around? Probably. Those who know Culverhouse believe his respect for McKay is so great he would have acceded to a reasonable demand. But in taking his contract demands to the press, Williams called Culverhouse's first offers "embarrassing" and "an insult." Culverhouse was not pleased. For such reasons, McKay says being in the middle of contract talks is "precisely the place a coach should not be. You're wrong both ways."

3) Were the differences racially motivated? Certainly Williams had heard his fill about race. And when his agent, Jimmy Walsh, speaks of the issues he invariably brings up geography. "We're talking about Tampa, Florida," he says, "not New Brunswick, New Jersey." And when Walsh quotes Culverhouse, he speaks in an exaggerated Southern accent. The implications are clear enough.

But given the racial epithets black athletes often endure (they are heard everywhere, not just in Tampa) and the early heat Williams got (McKay himself went into the stands after one heckler), it is still true that Williams enjoyed exceptionally good treatment in Tampa. A Doug Williams fan club sprang up his first year, and the Tampa press gushed his praises. One Tampa columnist suggested that Culverhouse "go find Doug Williams and pay him what he wants."

And, of course, McKay pushed hard for Williams' recognition—"not to prove my point, but to prove a point." That a black quarterback could cut it. What saddened him in the end was that Williams himself was obsessed with race. In their last meeting Williams told McKay how "proud" it made him that McKay played so many blacks. He said during the national anthem he "always counted the black players and coaches on the other team." (Williams later said he had been doing that since high school.) Far from being flattered, McKay was appalled. He said it broke his heart. Can you imagine, he said, if it were a white quarterback with that kind of thinking?

4) Could there have been more communication? Undoubtedly. At one point, McKay got Williams to agree to go see the Bucs' owner, "to sit and talk. I believed they could work it out. But then Doug changed his mind. I said, 'Why?' He said, 'That man could get me to sign anything.' " Williams said later he would have been overmatched, "like an ant against an elephant." But he'll never know. Culverhouse is a hard-nosed businessman but he enjoys being in sport, and in the right mood even McKay believes he would have been a "pushover."

5) Could a contract compromise have been worked out? It came down to one fateful day in June. McKay was "getting antsy." He had not drafted a quarterback; he was counting on Williams. Camp was about to open. To "do something," the Bucs shopped around and found Thompson, a second-stringer in Cincinnati with a $200,000 salary who was available for a first-round draft choice.

On June 2, with McKay and personnel director Kenny Herock sitting in his office, Phil Krueger, the Bucs' contract negotiator, called Walsh. Their versions of the conversation differ.

Krueger says he told Walsh that they had figured it up, and that if they added the $200,000 they would have to give Thompson to the $400,000 they were offering Williams, it would come to $600,000, and they could save the draft choice. He says he then said, " 'I can't say Mr. C. will go for it, but if we could get Doug the $600,000, would you go for it?' Jimmy said no, that his bid of $875,000 was final. I said, 'Then it would be good business on our part to make the trade?' He said, 'Yes.' "

Walsh says the $600,000 was never mentioned. Williams says it was but that the "if" made him believe "they'd make me settle for less than that. What I wanted all along was $600,000. The $875,000 was a 'sticker' price." No matter. That day Tampa Bay traded for Thompson. His salary and the loss of the draft choice hardened Culverhouse's offer at $400,000. On Aug. 9, Williams signed with the USFL's Outlaws to "make more money in two years than he would have made in three at Tampa," according to Walsh.

Williams, says Walsh, will now be allowed to prove how great he is. He says Williams "will break every passing record in the history of pro football." He actually says that, knowing the Outlaws have not yet signed a coach or a name pass receiver. McKay says only that "it's over. It's time to move on."

THREE PHOTOSWhile Williams builds an addition to his folks' home, McKay must rebuild the Bucs with Thompson, who's fumbling as a filler. TWO PHOTOSNow that he has signed on with Oklahoma, Outlaw fans hope Doug will do it in Tulsa. PHOTOMcKay coached Williams on short passes. PHOTOThis straight-arm from Ashley is the only contact Doug has had to face so far in '83.

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