Joe Gibbs' Time in Tampa Bay
The 1978 Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense finished the season ranked as the 25th overall offensive unit in the then 28 team NFL. The Bucs “O” possessed the 28th ranked passing game and the 19th ranked rushing game.
Not a stellar showing but the 1978 season was an improvement over the 1976 and 1977 offensive units, which finished 28th both seasons. On the surface there isn’t much reason to remember the 1978 Tampa Bay offense. But upon closer inspection, slightly under the surface, this largely forgettable unit played a key part in the development of one of the greatest coaches the NFL has known.
The offensive coordinator for that Tampa Bay team was none other than the future Hall of Fame coach of the Washington Redskins. It was Gibbs’ first experience running an offense after spending the previous five seasons as the running backs coach for the St. Louis Cardinals. Ironically, Gibbs’ hiring by the Buccaneers was precipitated by Tampa Bay’s victory in the 1977 season finale.
Shortly after the Bucs defeated the Cardinals 17-7 for the first home victory in franchise history, Don Coryell and the rest of the St. Louis coaching staff were dismissed. This left Gibbs in need of employment and two former friends were more than happy to help him out.
“I arranged that,” recalled former Buccaneer general manager Phil Krueger, the Bucs special teams coach in 1978. “I said, ‘What about Joe Gibbs?” And Coach McKay said, ‘Yeah, go bring in ol’ Joe.’”
The three men had worked together at USC in 1969 and 1970 when Gibbs acted as McKay’s offensive line coach. The three men got along very well according to Krueger. “Joe and I roomed together on the road at USC,” Krueger said.
As a new employee of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Gibbs was presented with a very important assignment early in the 1978 off-season. Gibbs was instructed to travel to a small college in Louisiana to scout a prospective Buccaneer quarterback. The quarterback was Grambling’s Doug Williams.
As a small-school quarterback, Williams’ production was questioned because of the level of competition he faced. Added to this consideration, Williams was in line to be the first African-American quarterback to be selected in the first round with the express intent of playing quarterback in the NFL.
The Bucs needed to know if Williams’ abilities were worthy of a high choice and if Williams could handle the scrutiny such a history-making choice would engender. Gibbs was the Bucs’ choice to write a scouting report. Former personnel man Ken Herock explained Gibbs’ assignment.
“We had a guy on our staff named Joe Gibbs,” Herock recalled. “I said, ‘Joe, I want you to go down to Grambling and I want you to stay with Doug Williams for one whole week. Wherever he goes, you go. He goes to class, you go to class. He goes to dinner, you go to dinner. Just don’t sleep with him. I want you to be with him for as long as you can for one week.’”
“Joe comes back after a week and we ask him, ‘What do you think?’” Herock continued. “Gibbs says, ‘All I can tell you is he can do it. He is a number one draft pick and will be a good quarterback.’”
The Bucs put a great deal of stock in Gibbs’ opinion and Herock arranged a trade with the Houston Oilers that would dramatically re-shape both franchises. In exchange for the Bucs number one pick, Houston sent Tampa Bay their 17th selection in the first round, multiple other picks and a tight end by the name of Jimmie Giles. The Oilers took Texas running back Earl Campbell. It was a rare win-win trade for both participants.
Behind Gibbs’ tutelage the young Williams went through the typical ups and downs expected of a rookie quarterback. One of Williams’ downs led directly to an event that Gibbs would good-naturedly refer to as the most humiliating of his career.
In a mid-October game at Giants Stadium the Bucs had a chance to improve their record to 4-3. With a 14-3 lead heading into the final quarter it appeared all the Bucs had to do was continue to pound the ball away on the ground to run out the clock.
Tailback Jimmy Dubose had rushed for more than 100 yards on the day but was severely injured and unavailable. Instead of turning to Ricky Bell, Gibbs chose to throw the ball much to John McKay’s chagrin as Phil Krueger recalled.
“It looked like we had the game won late in the game,” Krueger said. “Then Joe called a short pass over the middle and Harry Carson intercepted it and they turned it into a touchdown. They ended up beating us 17-14. Coach McKay was a little upset about that.”
The catastrophic 4th quarter was just the beginning of a very bad day for Gibbs. As Phil Krueger explained, the plane ride home for Gibbs would be even worse.
“On the plane Coach McKay and I usually sat together,” Krueger said. “For that game Gibbs had been sitting with McKay on the flight over, going over the offense. Usually on plane trips, the way you went over would be the way you came back.”
“Well, coming back I started to walk down the aisle to sit,” Krueger said. “Coach McKay grabbed my arm and said ‘Sit down here, Phil.’ Now Gibbs’ name is on the seat on a piece of paper. Coach McKay was mad about the game and the call and he threw the piece of paper out in the aisle.”
“I’m sitting there and Gibbs’ name is out in the aisle being walked over by the players,” Krueger said. “Here comes Joe thinking he is going to sit in the seat next to McKay. I know the mood McKay is in. I know he is not in the mood to talk. So, I’m pointing at the floor of the aisle and waving my hand at Joe. He looks and goes to sit somewhere else.”
Gibbs later claimed the snubbing on the plane was the most embarrassed he had ever been. “Joe said his most humiliating day was when he lost his seat on the plane to Phil Krueger,” Krueger said chuckling.
While Gibbs was embarrassed, Krueger states that the future Redskins coach and John McKay had a great working relationship for the rest of the year. “That was a minor thing,” Krueger said of the plane trip. “I never sensed there was any problem with that.”
At the end of the year Gibbs left the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to accept an offensive coordinator position with the San Diego Chargers. When asked if Gibbs left because he was still angry at McKay, Krueger said no. Instead Gibbs left to be reunited with the man that gave him his start in coaching.
“Gibbs had the chance to go to San Diego,” Krueger said. “He had lived in San Diego and Don Coryell had been his college coach and he had the opportunity to work again for him.”
Indeed Gibbs’ first experience as a coach had been on Coryell’s San Diego State staff. Gibbs had been Coryell’s offensive line coach with the Aztecs from 1964-1966, a position he held under McKay at USC.
While Gibbs’ time in Tampa Bay was short, the future Hall of Famer can be remembered for two wonderful stories in the tapestry of Buccaneer history. His scouting report on Doug Williams helped convince the Buccaneers to choose the man that would lead them to a division title in 1979. Also, Gibbs’ experience on the flight back from the Giants game would provide him and Krueger with after-dinner speech material for years to come.