When the Buccaneers were born as the National Football League's 27th franchise in April of 1974, it was a huge victory for the Tampa Bay area. However, when the actual roster was being formed two years later, team architects found the NFL's expansion landscape to be cruel terrain indeed.
An "veteran allocation draft" between the Buccaneers and their sister expansion team, the Seattle Seahawks, failed to build a useful core; only 23 of the 38 players Tampa Bay landed in that draft made the team and only 10 were still around a year later. Street free agents and one (admittedly good) college draft didn't exactly fashion those '76 Buccaneers into a contender. Or even a competitive team, on many Sundays. The NFL's 27th franchise infamously lost its first 26 games before first tasting victory in December of 1977.
The detailing of those expansion woes isn't offered here as a complaint, however. Rather, it puts into stark relief that in December of 1979, just three years after a winless inaugural season and just two years after their very first victory, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were somehow, incredibly, in the playoffs. In contrast, it would be four more years before Seattle would qualify for the postseason.
The 1979 Buccaneers shocked the league and landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated – a somewhat forgotten honor these days – by opening the season with five straight wins. Some bumps in the road followed, but Tampa Bay would defeat Kansas City on the final weekend, 3-0, in a torrential downpour that turned the Tampa Stadium stairs into dozens of mini-waterfalls. That victory clinched the team's first division title and, of course, its first playoff berth. The reward was a home game against the Philadelphia Eagles, who had won one more game than the Bucs and were in the middle of a four-year playoff run that would lead to a Super Bowl berth in 1980.
The Eagles, led by Ron Jaworski, Wilbert Montgomery and Harold Carmichael, came into town as favorites to win the Divisional Playoff Game. The Buccaneers did have the NFL's top-ranked defense, led by Defensive Player of the Year Lee Roy Selmon, but common wisdom was that the Eagles' firepower would carry the day. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers' offense had generated the eighth-fewest points in the league and was helmed by a quarterback in Doug Williams who, while talented and very highly-regarded as on offensive leader, had a completion rate of 42.2% and a passer rating of 52.8. The Eagles had only lost the NFC title to Dallas on a tiebreaker and had won five of their last six games.
As it turned out, the Buccaneers didn't need a flashy passing game to take care of the Eagles. That top-ranked defense was in fine form, holding the Eagles to 227 yards and four-of-16 efficiency on third downs. Selmon had a pair of sacks and Jaworski was pressured on 18 of his 39 passes. Meanwhile, Williams spent much of the day turning around and handing the ball off to running back Ricky Williams.
In fact, Bell carried the ball an incredible 38 times, setting a new single-game NFL playoff record that stood until 2000 and has still only been topped once. Those 38 totes produced a rugged 142 of the Buccaneers' 186 ground yards, plus a pair of touchdowns. A 26-yard breakaway by Bell in the fourth quarter also set up Williams' nine-yard touchdown pass to Jimmie Giles, one of only seven Buccaneer completions on the day. That final score proved to be the winning points as Jaworski rallied the Eagles with a touchdown pass to Carmichael with three and a half minutes still to play.
Jaworski got the ball back one more time and had the Eagles just across midfield with a minute to play after converting a fourth-and-15 after a fourth-and-10 completion was erased by a penalty. But the Bucs' defense turned up the pressure on the next four downs and forced four straight incompletions to bring the threat to an end.
After the game, Eagles coach Dick Vermeil voiced what the victory had made clear: The expansion "Yucks" were a thing of the past. The going was tough early, but the league's 27th team had grown up fast and now belonged with its more established counterparts.
"This is not an expansion team," said Vermeil. "It is a pro football team, a conference championship football team that won 10 games. They beat the Los Angeles rams when they were healthy. They were definitely the better football team today. The credit goes to [Head Coach] John McKay and his staff and his players. There was no question about who was the best football team today. The game wasn't as close as the final score."
Later, Bell would admit that the original game plan didn't call for him to set a new record for carries. The Buccaneers simply stuck to what was working, and that grinding offense was the perfect complement for their suffocating defense. Like Vermeil, Bell saw the game as a validation that the Bucs belonged.
"Of course we played a weaker schedule than Philadelphia and they have more experience," he said. "They were in the playoffs last year. But it really doesn't matter. When you put those 11 men on the field, it is who makes the [fewer] mistakes…We just played a sound game and we didn't make many mistakes and that was the reason we were on the top at the end."
Victory in their first-ever taste of the playoffs sent the Bucs to an even grander stage, their first NFC Championship Game. That contest was also held at Tampa Stadium, but the home crowd had less to cheer about this time as the Rams used three field goals to grind out a 9-0 victory and a spot in Super Bowl XIV against Pittsburgh. Still, the win over Philadelphia was a watershed moment in Buccaneers history, a graduation from the humbling days as an expansion team to a spot among the contenders. Tampa Bay would also go on to make the playoffs in two of the next three years. Given its historical significance and the incredible way in which the franchise handled its first exposure to the postseason, it might even be the greatest moment in franchise history.