A Clash Of Turkeys

The loser was also the winner when Houston met Tampa Bay
December 05, 1983

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We're also talking backward, and for a reason. The sreliO notsuoH underplayed the sreenaccuB yaB apmaT 24-33 last Sunday to lay claim to the title of the worst, the sorriest, the most awful team in the NFL.

The game was played in Tampa Stadium, where nearly two months from now the best teams in football will meet in Super Bowl XVIII. Sunday's game was billed as Repus Bowl I—Repus being Super spelled backward—because it matched the league's two leading dogs, each 1-11. It wasn't a great attraction. In fact, it drove people away. Of the 59,099 ticket purchasers, 20,474 chose to stay home on a beautiful, sunny afternoon. Some fans who did show up had a banner that summed up the event: OUR WIVES THINK WE'RE AT A PRO FOOTBALL GAME.

Yes, this was the Small One, the battle of the beatens, the movable object meeting the resistible force. There were only tomorrows. When these two teams get together, nothing can happen. This game was for a marble.

But that cat's eye was the No. 1 choice in the 1984 NFL draft. May the worse team lose. So Houston had much more incentive to accentuate the negative because Tampa Bay had already given up its rights to the No. 1 pick. If the Oilers had prevailed, Sunday's real winner would have been their AFC Central rivals, the Cincinnati Bengals, who have the Buccaneers' top choice as a result of a trade last June for Quarterback Jack Thompson, who was needed to replace Doug Williams, who left the Bucs for the USFL, which also stole Herschel Walker, who would have been the top prize in the '84 draft. The whole thing is hard to follow, but now you know how the Houston defensive backs felt Sunday.

The Oilers still have to lose their last three games to get first dibs, but if they can play down to last week's level, they should have no problem. The Oilers have been so underwhelming on offense this season that when the Buccaneers won the coin toss Sunday, they elected to give Houston the ball. Sure enough, the Oilers screwed up their initial possession by getting called for illegal motion on a pass play that would have produced a first down, and then by allowing Tampa Bay Defensive End Leroy Selmon to pounce on Quarterback Oliver (Rotten) Luck. If the Oilers didn't have him on the team, they'd have no luck at all.

But the Buccaneers weren't about to let the Oilers give the game away without a fight. In the first quarter Thompson, the Overthrowin' Samoan, led Tight End Jim Obradovich too much on a sure touchdown pass. Then Placekicker Bill Capece, who had missed on 10 of his 19 previous field-goal attempts, avoided the uprights—wide right—from 41 yards out.

Houston stalled, but Tampa Bay, momentarily forgetting itself, drove down-field. Oh, the Bucs got called on a false start to negate one apparent touchdown pass and Thompson fumbled a snap at the Houston six, but he recovered and the opening period ended with the Tampa Bay offense second-and-goal—and threatening to break its string of 10 consecutive scoreless quarters.

On the first play of the second quarter, the Oilers left Buc Fullback Adger Armstrong free in the right flat, and Thompson found him with a short TD pass. Actually, Houston left Armstrong free earlier this fall when they released him in training camp. Capece, really getting into the true spirit of things, pushed his extra-point attempt to the right.

Carl Roaches returned the ensuing kickoff to the Tampa Bay 47, but never underestimate the Oilers: Avon Riley was called for holding and that put the ball at the Houston seven. The Bucs soon had the ball back, and when Oiler rookie Cornerback Steve Brown let Wide Receiver Kevin House get a step on him on a post pattern, Thompson hit home with House. But the Bucs still hadn't given up. On the extra-point attempt, the snap flew through the holder's hands, and Capece was tackled before he could do anything with the ball.

A few minutes later, the strangest thing happened: Houston crossed mid-field. Actually, the Oilers' best play was a double penalty against the Bucs, a combination pass interference on Cornerback John Holt and unsportsmanlike conduct on Defensive Coordinator Wayne Fontes for arguing the call. The infractions moved the ball from the Houston 36 to the Tampa 46 and led to a 51-yard field goal by the ferociously named Florian Kempf.

Buccaneer Coach John McKay had been steaming all week, mainly at The Tampa Tribune, which had been ballyhooing the Oilers-Bucs game as Repus Bowl I. The papers had even come up with an elaborate logo in the style of Super Bowl logos. When the writers for The Tribune got to the press box Sunday, they found their seats labeled TAMPA ENUBIRT.

But The Tribune was hardly alone. The sports comic strip Tank McNamara did a series on the two teams in early November. In one episode, a son asked his father, "What if I'm a bad boy?" And the father replied, "Daddy will trade you to either the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or the Houston Oilers." As the child hid under his bed, the mother said, "Great, now the kid will have nightmares for a week."

NBC was broadcasting the game to a whopping 3% of the U.S. TV market. That included Houston, parts of south Texas and Lake Charles, La., although what Lake Charles did to deserve this nobody knows.

In Tampa, the Bucs had come to be known as the Yukaneers. Something called a Boo Bird, a glove that's a beak when clenched and is emblazoned with the word "Boo" when opened, became a popular item. A local coin dealer, Art Arbutine, took out an ad in the St. Petersburg Times offering McKay $1,200 worth of silver dollars if he opened up the offense with any of several suggested plays, including a double-reverse fake flea-flicker. Meanwhile another ad, in the Clearwater Sun, offered McKay a free membership to the Pine Crest Golf Club. There was a hitch: The membership was for Sunday afternoons only.

Perhaps all the Bucs should join up, because when it comes to finding ways to lose, they don't know the meaning of the word quit. They let Houston's Steve Brown return the second-half kickoff 81 yards, all the way to the Tampa Bay nine. The Oilers still had a hard time scoring, though, with Earl Campbell finally going in from the one on fourth down.

On the Bucs' next possession, on fourth-and-six from the Houston 47, Tampa Bay's Frank Garcia punted the ball into the end zone. But, wait, there's a flag. What's this? Twelve men on the field for the Oilers? Tim Joiner, a member of the punt-return team, was sick, so two different Houston coaches each sent a man in to replace him. Tampa went for it on fourth-and-one, and James Owens made it. On the next play, House beat Brown again and made a spectacular over-the-shoulder catch in the end zone. When Capece made the extra point to give Tampa a 19-10 lead, the Buc fans let out their loudest cheer of the day.

Houston was on a roll now. On the Oilers' next series, Luck was first sacked, and then he threw a beautiful screen pass to Booker Reese, who happens to be a defensive end for the Bucs. Reese returned the ball 11 yards to the Houston 13, and three plays later Owens slipped past a pile of Oilers into the end zone. Capece hit another one, and Houston was safely in the woods, 10-26, though the Oilers almost totally messed things up with a late rally that cut Tampa Bay's final margin to nine.

McKay was gracious in victory, saying, "The better team won, so you can knock off that manure you've been putting in the paper about whatever kind of bowl it was supposed to be."

In Houston, the fans had been more philosophical. One had suggested to interim Head Coach Chuck Studley, who had replaced the fired Ed Biles on Oct. 11, that the players 1) eat a chocolate bar half an hour before the game, 2) be sure and place their shoes under the bed the night before the game and 3) take plenty of vitamin E.

On Oct. 30 Houston, which has eight rookie starters, became the first team in NFL history to lose three overtime games in a season. The Oilers are last in the NFL in point differential and rushing yards allowed per game. Tampa Bay is last in first downs per game, points per game, third-down efficiency, average gain per offensive play and average gain per pass play.

Although both teams have been in the playoffs in recent years, they also have histories of serious ignominy. The '72-73 Oilers and '76-77 Buccaneers (both 2-26) were among the worst teams in NFL history. In fact, it was after the '77 season that the Bucs, having earned the first pick in the NFL draft, traded it to the Oilers for, among other things, their first pick. The Oilers, of course, chose Campbell, and the Bucs took Williams.

Now Williams is gone, and the Oilers are afraid Campbell will jump leagues, too. He has been unhappy this season. In a 55-14 loss to Cincinnati, he was taken out in the third quarter to protect a pulled groin. Campbell took offense, possibly because he has clauses in his contract calling for bonuses when he gains 1,000 yards in a season ($50,000), 1,200 ($25,000) and 1,400 ($25,000). After Sunday's game, in which he had 87 yards, Campbell had 940.

Campbell was also disturbed by talk that the Oilers were trying to lure Quarterback Warren Moon from the Edmonton Eskimos for $1 million a year, more than twice what Campbell makes. Moon would not only solve Houston's quarterback problem, but he would also enable the Oilers to parlay their first draft pick into many high choices. But if they don't sign Moon, the Oilers might have to use their pick to get Brigham Young Quarterback Steve Young. The Buccaneers have also expressed great interest in Moon.

Although the Oilers stood to gain by losing, they did try valiantly against Tampa Bay. The morning of the game Studley said, "Any talk of losing to Tampa Bay just to get the first draft choice makes me nauseous. I want to win so badly."

"We're proving that old adage wrong," said Luck after Sunday's game. "There is no silver lining in this cloud. Just a lot of rain."

Said Campbell, "It's like Tom T. Hall says: 'I like winners when they laugh, and losers when they cry." We'll laugh again."

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THREE PHOTOSThe fans in Tampa Bay had their feelings about the Buccaneers' head coach written all over them. ILLUSTRATIONTANK McNAMARA
by Jeff Millar & Bill Hinds
THREE PHOTOSCapece was disgusted after he missed his first extra-point try and was tackled when the snap for his second got away from the Bucs' holder, Jeff Komlo. TWO PHOTOSThe unprotection provided by Houston's offensive line helps to explain Oliver's rotten luck. PHOTOThese yards may help to enrich Campbell, but the touchdown couldn't save the Oilers. PHOTOEven in victory McKay was hanging his head.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)