The pros fumble, throw interceptions, drop passes, miss blocks and get penalized. Hell, we did all that in college.
—JOHN MCKAY, 1976
During their eight years of existence, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Seattle Seahawks have had one common trait: inconsistency. That is the way of expansion teams. But until last season it could be said that despite the Bucs' abysmal joke of an 0-26 start, they had emerged from the first seven years as the better team of the two. That order has been reversed because of the actions of two men, neither of whom is John McKay, the only coach the Bucs have known and one in no immediate danger of being inducted into the NFL's Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. That was the site of the Bucs' latest disgrace, a 38-0 drubbing at the hands of the Seahawks last Saturday. And the two men responsible? Seattle coach Chuck Knox and Doug Williams, who, aptly, is now an Outlaw quarterback.
Granted, this was only the first exhibition game of 1984. But the way Tampa Bay lost—fumbling, throwing interceptions, dropping passes, missing blocks and getting penalized—so disgusted McKay that after the last of five Buc turnovers, he turned his back on the action and pulled his white golf skimmer down over his eyes. He should have stopped watching a lot earlier. Late in the first quarter, Buc quarterback Jack Thompson was intercepted by Seahawk rookie cornerback Terry Taylor near midfield. Seattle promptly marched 48 yards, scoring on a 16-yard slant-in from Dave Krieg to Byron Walker. On the Bucs' next possession Thompson threw to Seahawk safety John Harris. Six plays later a five-yard run by Zachary Dixon made it 14-0, and the rout was on. The score reached 27-0 just before halftime when Buc punter Frank Garcia fumbled the snap, then whiffed on his punt attempt, and Seattle's Greg Gaines subsequently fell on the ball in the end zone.
Last year was bad enough for Tampa Bay—2-14, the worst NFL record since the 2-12 of the 1977 Bucs. But have things got worse? The day before the Seattle debacle, McKay, 61, whose life was far more harmonious when he was a four-time national championship coach at USC, had seemed very comfortable reposing in robe and slippers at the Parke Hotel in Canton. "I didn't like it, I accepted it," he said of 1983's futility. "I didn't beat my dog. But then, I don't have a dog."
By contrast, Knox—hired in January '83 by '84 Hall of Fame inductee and Seahawk president-general manager Mike McCormack—isn't a man to turn a phrase, but he can turn a team around. Last season his Seahawks advanced to the AFC title game before losing to the L.A. Raiders, in the process winning more postseason games (two) than Tampa had in three trips to the playoffs (one). "Seattle is the stronger team now, by far," said one Hall of Famer in Canton. "Knox knows how to get on-field results. McKay is a great innovator, a great assembler of personnel, but he's always short of the top. Bud Grant was like that."
Whoever calls the signals has the coach's life in his two bare hands. I don't like to give up that responsibility unless I'm pretty sure he'll do a good job.
—JOHN MCKAY, 1976
Doug Williams was a Tampa Bay rookie from Grambling in 1978. Like most young quarterbacks, he was erratic, but he was also good at winning. From 1979 through '82, Seattle was 23-34, while the Bucs were 29-27-1 with three playoff appearances. Then, after a bitter contract dispute, Williams sailed out of Tampa Bay last summer for the USFL's Oklahoma Outlaws.
Last year the Bucs endured many injuries and also paid dearly for McKay's ability to pick only clunkers when he used high draft choices for offensive linemen. All-Pro defenders Hugh Green and Lee Roy Selmon were banged up, and the Bucs' first three offensive tackles were injured in the first half of the season's very first game. In addition, the patchwork line provided little protection for Thompson, who had been brought in to replace Williams. He was sacked four times in that '83 opener, and even though he finished with 11 touchdown passes in the last four games, he lacked Williams's strength, quick release and talent to elude sackers. Against Seattle on Saturday, Thompson was jittery in the pocket, as if he expected his protection to break down as it had all last season. Steve DeBerg, whom McKay acquired from Denver in June for a 1984 fourth-round draft choice and a conditional choice in '85, may be the Bucs' starter soon.
Oh, that Tampa Bay still had Williams. On the last weekend of the '81 season he threw an 84-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Kevin House that helped beat Detroit 20-17 for the Central Division title. The next week Tampa Bay lost in the playoffs to Dallas 38-0. In that game McKay split both ends, looking for quick access into the vulnerable Cowboy secondary. It was questionable strategy because it left only five men—that porous offensive line—to protect Williams. Ed Jones and Harvey Martin had a party on Williams's head.
"Doug wasn't the same after that game," says one Buc official. "He felt everybody had let him down." The next week, using a seven-man line to protect quarterback Joe Montana, Bill Walsh and the San Francisco 49ers exposed the Cowboys' weaknesses and won their way to the Super Bowl, 28-27.
After one more season and another loss to the Cowboys in the playoffs, Williams and the Bucs split over money. McKay told Williams that Tampa Bay's offer of $400,000 a year plus a reported 5% interest in Buccaneer owner Hugh F. Culverhouse's proposed TampaSphere development was fair. And at the time it probably was. It was said Williams would have accepted $600,000, and he finally did, but from the Outlaws.
"I feel good about our quarterbacking now," McKay said Friday, "better than I ever have." But the trade that brought Thompson from Cincinnati cost the Bucs their No. 1 pick in 1984. Tampa could have used that choice to draft ex-BYU quarterback Steve Young. As it turned out, Cincinnati couldn't sign Young, who went to the USFL; curiously, the Bucs now own the NFL rights to Young, having selected him in a supplemental draft of USFL players.
The Bucs have signed all their key players for at least two years. House got a $300,000-a-year, three-year contract extension, a $100,000 bonus and a $100,000 loan. Linebacker Green signed a four-year, $3 million extension. Unfortunately, this was a case of closing the barn door after the stud horse had left. The Bucs lost nine games last year by seven points or less. Williams was usually worth seven points.
Culverhouse insists McKay is the master of his own fate. "I won't have to fire John," Culverhouse says. "Because of his integrity, he'll let me know when the time is right." McKay, when asked if he will coach beyond this year and next, the run of his contract, says, "I have no idea."
McCormack tried head coaching with the Philadelphia Eagles ('73-75) and Baltimore Colts ('80-81) with no success but now he has found his element at the top of the Seahawks' chain of command. McCormack came to Seattle after the '81 season as director of football operations, became interim head coach after Jack Patera was fired in '82 and then, in January '83 succeeded general manager John Thompson when he, too, got the ax.
"Mike's made the difference," says one Seahawk. "The atmosphere around here before him was surly." McCormack's first priority was to acquire Knox, who is a longtime golfing buddy of McKay's and had used McKay's I formation to great advantage in Buffalo with Joe Cribbs. Knox repeated that success formula in Seattle, setting rookie Curt Warner loose for 1,449 yards last year.
Now Seattle is a more cohesive and far deeper team than Tampa Bay. Warner and two other All-Pros, wide receiver Steve Largent and safety Kenny Easley, didn't even play in Saturday's blowout. Krieg, from a tiny, defunct college called Milton, in Wisconsin, took over last year and went from $70,000 to $250,000 per; he sent Jim Zorn to the bench with his $600,000 salary. Krieg also went from a Pinto to a BMW 325e and from bachelorhood to wedded bliss in the offseason. "A lot of coaches know X's and O's," Krieg says, "but Chuck knows how to get you to play it his way. We believe in him."
While the Seahawks believe, the Bucs are beyond belief. The bodies are there, but the heart of the team was lost somewhere on a lonely highway to Oklahoma.
"Seattle was no fluke last year," says McKay. "They're a force in their conference. I feel we're definitely a factor, too."
John McKay remains an optimist.
Oh well, gentlemen, well be back. But maybe not in this century.
—JOHN MCKAY, 1976