In 1979, the Bucs jumped from last place to the NFC title game. Participants still remember the glory and the heartbreak.
By HUBERT MIZELL
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 20, 2000
Twenty years later, now-graying Buccaneers who lost the other NFC Championship Game to the Rams can't help but ask, "What if ... ?"
Doug Williams, a quarterback with a howitzer arm, was Tampa Bay's most lethal 1979 offensive weapon.
"What if," says today's Grambling State (La.) University coach, "a hit by Mike Fanning of the Rams hadn't torn my biceps muscle, taking me out of the game early in the second half?"
Then, as now, Tampa Bay's offense was insufficient. Los Angeles chose to play ball-control. Kicking field goals and sitting on its leads, however minimal.
Lee Roy Selmon, a Tampa Bay defensive end who made the Pro Football Hall of Fame, had a similar retrospective on that 9-0 loss so many seasons ago.
"What if my Achilles' tendon hadn't been messed up in the second quarter," posed the University of South Florida associate athletic director, "taking me out of my biggest NFL game?"
Mike Rae, a so-so journeyman, replaced Williams. Bucs couldn't get off zero. Being outthrobbed on Jan. 6, 1980, by low-voltage Frank Corral field goals from 19, 21 and 23 yards.
Before getting hurt, Williams was well shy of sizzling, completing 2 of 13 passes for 12 yards. "Even so, we trailed just 6-0 when I left," he said. "Coach (John) McKay always said, if we could stay close, Doug can get us back into it with one big play."
Vociferous public/media debates involved shortages in Bucs passing yardage and touchdowns. Sound familiar? Rae hit 2 of 13 passes against the Rams for 42 yards. Tampa Bay was outgained 369-177 in total yards. Los Angeles led 23-7 in first downs and controlled the football 151/2 minutes more than the Bucs.
"Statistics don't much matter if you're still in striking distance," Williams said. "We did score a touchdown against the Rams, a pass to (tight end) Jimmie Giles, but it got called back due to a penalty. Another part of a frustrating offensive afternoon. We thought we had a real chance to go to the Super Bowl."
Based in Los Angeles at the time, headed for Anaheim the next season, the Rams advanced to Super Bowl XIV, where they lost 31-19 to Pittsburgh.
On both those historic Sundays two decades ago, All-Pro defensive end Jack Youngblood of the Rams was something beyond heroic. Bordering on maniacal.
A former University of Florida player from Monticello, blood-and-guts Youngblood worked four quarters against both the Bucs and Steelers with a broken leg.
It got busted in Dallas, when L.A. upset the Cowboys to make the NFL final. "They carted me into a Texas Stadium locker room before halftime and did X-rays," said Youngblood, who now lives in Orlando and works for the Arena Football League. "I told our team doctor, "It's only a fibula. Just tape it up and let me get back on the field.' "
Medics were confounded. Youngblood bullied them into suppressing news of the fracture. "It had snapped like a pencil, but I couldn't damage it any further," he recalls. "It was just a matter of dealing with the pain. They taped me together. I took a lot of aspirin, then returned to chase Roger Staubach.
"A week later, in the NFC Championship Game, I managed to get by against the Bucs. Lots more aspirin. But being on four losing teams in NFC finals, I wasn't about to miss my last shot at the Super Bowl. I was maybe 60 percent. Never been sorry I did it."
Did he say aspirin?
Mark Cotney is owner/operator of a dry cleaners in northern Hillsborough County, but on 1/6/80 he was a Bucs safety known for fierce hitting, not unlike John Lynch, the franchise's modern All-Pro.
"Wendell Tyler ran a draw play for the Rams, but I came through untouched and leveled him," Cotney said. "Tyler got up groggy. David Lewis, one of our linebackers, told me later that Wendell came to him and asked, "Who in the hell is that white boy in the secondary?' We really were a tough, proud Tampa Bay defensive unit."
Dave Green now operates 33 acres of greenhouses in Pinellas Park, but in 1976-78 he was the first Bucs punter. He too was a "what if" subject.
"After punting hundreds of times as we struggled through the first three seasons, plus kicking a field goal against Buffalo that scored the first Bucs points in history," Green said, "I got hurt and put on injured reserve in '79. I know how Paul Gruber must feel, having endured so many troubling Sundays only to miss the big fun."
Williams, after departing the Bucs in frustration over 1983 contract negotiations, would experience Super Bowl sweetness with the Washington Redskins. He passed for four touchdowns and 340 yards in a 42-10 smearing of Denver on Jan. 31, 1988.
After a bitter separation from the Bucs, especially former owner Hugh Culverhouse, there would be no makeup for Williams until Tony Dungy became Tampa Bay coach in 1996. A few weeks ago, the Grambling guy came to Tampa to be honored with the '79 team.
"I just talked with Tony on the phone," Doug said this week. "I wanted to wish him well against St. Louis."
Like the whole pro football world, Williams saw a gifted, blistering Rams offensive terrorizing Minnesota in the playoffs Sunday.
"Man, do the Rams have a load of speed," he said. "I think the Bucs defense can pretty much run with them, but this can't be a 14-13 game (like last week's beating of Washington). Tampa Bay must score some points.
"Their offense has been conservative. I believe Shaun King can do more than he's been allowed to show. If the Bucs are to have a chance in St. Louis, they've got to score a minimum of 24 points."
Since we're talking what ifs, it seemed natural to ask Bucs from 1979 how, in their prime, they might've matched up in competition with Dungy's 1999 squad.
"I'm not going there," the eternally reserved Selmon said. "Let's just say this is a really good Bucs team now. Bigger, stronger and faster than we were. You can read between the lines. I wouldn't have been anxious to take them on."
Cotney somewhat agreed. "Their athletes are bigger, stronger, faster; but that doesn't mean I'm saying Warren Sapp is better than Lee Roy Selmon or that Lynch is better than Cotney. Defensively, I think the two eras are pretty even."
Williams, not unexpectedly, was more blunt. "It wouldn't be close," the old quarterback said. "Too many athletes now. They would be far too good for the 1979 Bucs. Back then, we played a lot on guts and didn't have a load of talent."
You wonder, late in the season of 2019, if any of today's Bucs, depending on what happens Sunday in St. Louis, will be prone to pose, "What if ... ?"