The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had been a source of derision when they debuted at 0-14 in 1976, but three years later the laughter subsided as the Bucs rode a 6-0 start to an overall record of 10-6, placing them atop the NFC Central. On December 29, 1979 they faced the Philadelphia Eagles in the first postseason game in franchise history.
Coached by John McKay, the Buccaneers featured the league’s best defense, both overall and against the pass. Utilizing a 3-4 alignment, the solid unit was anchored by formidable DE Lee Roy Selmon. The ball-control offense operated behind a good line, which was a big help to second-year QB Doug Williams as well as FB Ricky Bell (pictured above), who rushed for 1263 yards. Still, there was a perception that Tampa Bay had taken advantage of a relatively easy schedule and not much was expected in the postseason.
The Eagles were in the playoffs for the second straight year under Head Coach Dick Vermeil, having placed second in the NFC East with an 11-5 tally and securing a Wild Card spot. Ever-improving QB Ron Jaworski directed the attack that featured HB Wilbert Montgomery and WR Harold Carmichael. The defense had lost star ILB Bill Bergey to a knee injury but benefited from the arrival of rookie OLB Jerry Robinson. Philadelphia had rallied past the Bears in the first playoff round to earn the trip to Tampa for a NFC Divisional playoff game.
It was a sunny and pleasant day at Tampa Stadium with a sellout crowd of 72,126 in attendance. The Buccaneers set the tone with their first possession, driving 80 yards in 18 plays. Doug Williams completed passes to TE Jim Giles for 18 and 16 yards and Ricky Bell ran the ball effectively. It was Bell sweeping around end from four yards out for a touchdown that finished the series and, with Neil O’Donoghue’s extra point, the home team was ahead by 7-0.
The teams traded punts before the Eagles mounted a threat during a possession that extended into the second quarter. While facing a heavy pass rush, Ron Jaworski still managed to complete a throw to TE Keith Krepfle for 12 yards on a third-and-11 play, but when the series stalled and the Eagles lined up for a field goal attempt while facing fourth-and-four at the Tampa Bay 30, holder John Sciarra took off on a fake for a seven-yard gain, only to have it called back due to a delay-of-game penalty. With the ball set back five yards, Tony Franklin tried to kick a field goal for real from 52 yards and it fell short.
The Bucs followed up with a 10-play, 43-yard drive. On second-and-12, Williams threw to WR Larry Mucker for 34 yards to the Philadelphia 33. After Bell and HB Jerry Eckwood carried the ball for a total of nine yards, Bell converted a fourth-and-one with a five-yard run. Two plays later, Williams connected with WR Isaac Hagins for 26 yards. A holding penalty backed Tampa Bay up and a pass to Giles in the end zone was controversially ruled incomplete due to the receiver not having control of the ball before stepping out of bounds. O’Donoghue kicked a 40-yard field goal and the Buccaneers still increased their lead to 10-0.
The Bucs got a break when Wilbert Montgomery fumbled at his own five yard line and MG Randy Crowder recovered. It took four plays, but Bell blasted into the end zone from a yard out on fourth-and-goal and, with O’Donoghue’s kick, the score was 17-0. Philadelphia appeared in danger of being routed.
Following a short series and punt, the Eagles got a big defensive play when Jerry Robinson intercepted a Williams pass and returned it 37 yards to the Tampa Bay 11 with 1:37 left in the half. Two plays later, Jaworski threw to WR Charlie Smith for an 11-yard TD and, with Franklin adding the PAT, the score was 17-7 at halftime.
Philadelphia further narrowed the Bucs’ lead with the first possession of the third quarter. A long completion to Harold Carmichael was nullified by a clipping penalty, but with Montgomery running for 20 yards on three carries, the Eagles reached the Tampa Bay 25 and Franklin booted a 42-yard field goal that made it a seven-point game.
After an exchange of punts, the Eagles again advanced into Tampa Bay territory thanks to a Jaworski-to-Montgomery pass completion that gained 30 yards. But after reaching the 38, Lee Roy Selmon sacked Jaworski on back-to-back plays for a total loss of 20 yards and Philadelphia had to punt.
Heading into the fourth quarter, both teams went three-and-out and punted before the Bucs put together a critical scoring drive of 57 yards in nine plays. Bell had a 26-yard run on a third-and-two play and Williams converted a third-and-four situation by rolling out and keeping the ball himself for an eight-yard gain to the Philadelphia nine. From there, Williams rifled a throw to Giles (pictured above) for a touchdown and, adding on the extra point, the Buccaneers had a formidable a 14-point lead.
With seven minutes left to play, Jaworski filled the air with passes on the next series. A pass interference penalty picked up 20 yards and a fourth-and-five throw to Krepfle was good for six yards. The Eagles converted another fourth down when Jaworski connected with Smith for 13 yards and then a pass to Carmichael resulted in a 37-yard touchdown. Franklin’s conversion made it a seven-point game once more.
The Eagles attempted an onside kick that went out of bounds, but the rookie placekicker Franklin chose to try again and the second kick was recovered by the Buccaneers and gave them possession at their own 48 – much to the fury of Coach Vermeil, who had instructed Franklin to kick deep. The Bucs punted, but the Eagles had to start deep in their territory for one last opportunity with the clock down to 2:11. Jaworski threw to Carmichael for 16 yards and, on fourth-and-15, to Smith for 25 yards to the Tampa Bay 45. But that was as far as the visitors could get. Heavily pressured by the inspired defense on each play, Jaworski threw four straight incomplete passes and the Buccaneers were winners by a final score of 24-17.
Tampa Bay had the edge in total yards (318 to 227) and first downs (17 to 15). The Bucs ground out 186 yards of their total on 55 running plays, while the Eagles managed just 48 yards on 18 attempts. Each team turned the ball over once. The Tampa Bay defense was fired up and displayed uncharacteristic emotion throughout the game.
Ricky Bell rushed for 142 yards and two touchdowns, setting a NFL playoff record with 38 carries (broken by Lamar Smith of the Dolphins in 2000). Doug Williams went to the air just 15 times and, while he had only 7 completions, they were good for 132 yards and a TD, with one interception. He also ran the ball 6 times for 19 yards. Jim Giles was Tampa Bay’s top receiver with three catches for 43 yards and a touchdown. Lee Roy Selmon (pictured above, closing in on Ron Jaworski) had the two key sacks on defense and, along with DE Wally Chambers, was consistently disruptive.
For the Eagles, Ron Jaworski was successful on a mere 15 of 39 throws for 199 yards and two touchdowns with none intercepted. Wilbert Montgomery had 35 yards on 13 carries and gained another 35 yards on his team-leading four pass receptions. Harold Carmichael contributed 92 yards on his three catches that included a TD.
The Bucs hosted the NFC Championship game against the Rams, where the run ended in a 9-0 defeat. They dropped to 5-10-1 in 1980, but returned to the postseason in ’81. Philadelphia recovered to go 12-4 in 1980 and reach the Super Bowl, falling to the Raiders.