Paul Stewart, Buccaneers Review , published 2008|
There are three phrases that really sum up the amazing 1979 season of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “Unbeaten, untied, unbelievable” was the cover of Sports Illustrated after the Bucs 5-0 start to the year.
“From worst to first” was the motto of the season and the title of NFL Films’ review of the campaign. And for all the retro disco music lovers out there, “Ain’t no stopping us now” by McFadden and Whitehead was the players’ anthem for the season.
And then there was one more word. “Blat” – the apparent sound of a blocked kick. For this was the game in which it played a bigger part than any other in franchise history.
The 1976 Buccaneers lost every game they played. The following year’s edition only won two, and by the end of the 1978 season, Coach John McKay had a career record in the NFL of 7-37. Most pundits had the Bucs finishing fifth in the NFC Central Division again in 1979 and expected that McKay would be fired and then return to the college game.
But McKay had been building himself a pretty useful defense over the previous three seasons. The 1976 draft had brought the Brothers Selmon, and the likes of LB Richard Wood and SS Mark Cotney had been present since the outset of the franchise. Key veterans such as DT Bill Kollar and DE Wally Chambers added to the youthful exuberance of LBs Cecil Johnson and David Lewis, and every NFC offense knew that every yard against the orange defense was hard earned.
But when the Bucs jumped out to a 5-0 mark, everyone in the nation was stunned. A picture of LB Dewey Selmon decapitating a Ram runner made the cover of Sports Illustrated, and suddenly America woke up to the fact that the joke franchise of the NFL was now serious and meaning business.
The Minnesota Vikings had won the NFC Central Division each year the Bucs had been in the NFL and still harboured thoughts of making the post-season again when they came to Tampa for their Week 13 match-up. The Bucs were now 9-3 and needed just one more win to not only clinch their first play-off berth, but also take the NFC Central title from the defending champions.
As Brent Musberger welcomed the nation with his traditional “you are looking live at Tampa Stadium” comment, the first image television viewers got to see, was that of the goal-posts being covered in oil to stop fans climbing on them in expected celebration as had happened after the franchise’s first home win in December 1977.
And it was no wild dream when the Bucs jumped out to an early 9-0 lead on the back of a Neil O’Donoghue fieldgoal and Ricky Bell touchdown run. The only drawback was the Vikings blocking the PAT following Bell’s score, an art form they were well known for around the NFL.
By half-time, the boo birds were out in Tampa as the Bucs found themselves trailing 14-9 on a pair of Tommy Kramer touchdown passes as the old bad Bucs made error after error to hand the initiative to their visitors.
Rick Danmeier’s early third quarter fieldgoal extended the lead after hitting the crossbar and bouncing over. Did the oil on uprights make a difference? It certainly had no effect on O’Donoghue when his attempt was once again blocked by the Vikings later in the half.
With 2:23 remaining, the Bucs trailed 23-16 and had one last drive to save the game. Doug Williams, having had one apparent TD to WR Morris Owens called back on a penalty, dived head-over-heels into the endzone himself with 27 seconds left and knocked himself woozy in the process.
Back-up QB Mike Rae was already warming up on the sideline for the apparent overtime, when O’Donoghue heard that awful “blat” noise for the third time on the day, Wally Hilgenberg being the Viking to block this attempt. One failed onside kick later, and the Bucs were losers on the day that was supposed to be their crowning moment.
John McKay, master of the post-game quote, was in truly magnificent form after this one. “We blocked bad. We played terrible on defense and our kicking game made up for it by being absolutely horrible.”
When asked if he was happy with any part of his team’s performance, McKay simply replied “We ran on the field very well” and left the locker room.
“Different teams rush different ways,” G Darrell Austin said in explaining that the Vikings line multiple people on LS Charley Hannah. The effect of which was Hannah being bowled over, allowing a great deal of pressure up the middle on placements. “I told Charley I would try to get as much of his guy as I could, but I had a guy over me, too.”
Fellow kick team blocker Greg Horton concurred, “They had a big surge up the middle. They had two guys jumping up at the same time. All I heard was a double thud (the sound of the kick and the sound of the block),” said Horton.
Neil O’Donoghue defended his blockers and pointed some of the blame at himself. “I felt like I hit the ball well all day. You win together and you lose together, but I accept the blame for my part in this.”
The Bucs would go on to lose badly the following two weeks against Chicago and San Francisco, before clinching their division title during a torrential downpour at Tampa Stadium against the Kansas City Chiefs. O’Donoghue’s 19-yard field-goal was the only score of that game and took the Bucs into the post-season where they would defeat the Philadelphia Eagles before losing in the NFC Championship Game to the Los Angeles Rams.