Ricky Bell was given an NFL playoff-record 38 handoffs in Tampa Bay's 1979 postseason win over Philadelphia
By Andrew Mason, NFL.com
As the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made their unlikely rise from Johnny Carson punch line to Super Bowl contender during the 1979 season, perhaps one sign, hanging above one of the field-level portals to enter the stadium, best summed up Bucs' fans faith in their newly successful heroes.
"We believe in the unbelievable."
Two decades later, as the Bucs finally awoke from a 14-season slumber, the phrase re-emerged in a shortened form - "We believe." At many Bucs games nowadays, home and away, one can find some fans holding up signs with that simple but memorable message.
But never did the unbelievable seem more real than on Dec. 29, 1979, when the Bucs, just two years removed from a 26-game losing streak, hosted - and won - an NFC divisional playoff game, defeating the Philadelphia Eagles, 24-17.
In winning, head coach John McKay and his team brought a region together. The previously disconnected communities comprising the greater Tampa Bay area finally had something to rally around, and turned a once half-empty stadium into a sea of orange.
"John McKay is the only professional coach ever to survive a 26-game losing streak, the only coach to go from nothing in four years to a playoff," Jack Whitaker said on CBS' broadcast leading up to the Bucs-Eagles kickoff. "And in the process, the Tampa Bay Bucs have solidified the towns that fringe on the edge of Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
"These communities now share something else than just a drive to the airport."
The frenzied locals saw the Bucs open the game with a methodical 18-play, 80-yard march downfield. On nine of those snaps, quarterback Doug Williams handed the ball to fullback Ricky Bell, who concluded the drive with a four-yard touchdown run.
That drive set the Bucs' game plan in motion. Over the course of the day, Bell ran.
By the afternoon's end, the Bucs had run on 55 of 70 snaps. On an NFL playoff-record 38 of those running plays, the Bucs called on No. 42. He ended the game with 142 yards, in spite of the fact that the Bucs made no secret of their play-calling intentions.
"When you hand off to Ricky Bell, you know you are going to get 195 percent out of him," Williams told The Tampa Tribune after the game.
This was why the Bucs took Bell with the No. 1 pick in the 1977 draft ahead of Tony Dorsett - because of his ability to control the ball, the clock and, by extension, the game as a whole.
Bell never had a finer moment in football. Unbeknownst to anyone, it marked the beginning of the end. After posting six 100-yard games in the 1979 regular season, followed by his smashmouth masterpiece against the Eagles, he only had one more 100-yard game, while enduring injury-plagued seasons in 1980 and 1981. He would die in 1984 of a rare muscle disease.
But for that one day, Bell and the Bucs ruled the world.
"I love it," Bell told the Tribune. "We're reaching for the sky now."
"Everybody everywhere is learning that Tampa Bay is no fluke," tight end Jimmie Giles told the St. Petersburg Times. "We're convincing America that the Bucs have ceased being a joke."
But Giles' optimistic prediction didn't quite come true. Eight days later, the Los Angeles Rams limited the Bucs to just 177 yards, dealing Tampa Bay a 9-0 NFC Championship loss.
Less than four years later, the jokes returned as Tampa Bay collapsed to 2-14 in 1983. It began a stretch of 14 consecutive losing seasons. The Bucs would finally win their second playoff game on Dec. 28, 1997 - one day short of the 18th anniversary of their most magical afternoon.
MORE BUCS-EAGLES MOMENTS
1988: To the ire of Bucs fans, the Eagles successfully turned a third-quarter fake punt into a touchdown after grabbing a 34-0 halftime lead. To the frustration of those same fans, the Bucs had just 10 men on the field for the trick play.
1991: In spite of being down to their fourth quarterback - Brad Goebel, a rookie from Baylor - Philadelphia had a 13-0 lead with 4:59 remaining in the final quarter. But when Jeff Feagles dropped a punt snap, giving Tampa Bay first-and-goal, the Bucs' greatest fourth-quarter comeback began. Chris Chandler tossed a touchdown pass to Robert Wilson, then after an Eagles three-and-out, threw another to Bruce Hill with 1:09 left. Rod Harris fumbled the ensuing kickoff and Sam Anno recovered for Tampa Bay, giving the Bucs their first win of the year after an 0-5 start.
1995: Trent Dilfer threw two touchdown passes as the Bucs throttled the Eagles 21-6 to begin the year and open the Ray Rhodes era in Philadelphia. For Dilfer, the two touchdowns equaled his total for his next 17 starts.