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1981 Buccaneers Season 6 Schedule

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1981 Tampa Bay Buccaneers Season 6 Brief

The 1981 Tampa Bay Buccaneers season began with the team trying to improve on an 5–10–1 season. The team was considered to be superior to the 1979 team that finished the season one game shy of the Super Bowl. With the running game and special teams ineffective, the Buccaneers depended heavily on the pass, and particularly on the big play. Jimmie Giles returned to form, establishing numerous team receiving records. Doug Williams became (with Jim Zorn) the second active quarterback to need only four seasons to reach the 10,000 career passing yards mark. The defense improved over the previous season, a change that McKay attributed to less reliance on blitzes, and a general improvement in speed due to changes in the secondary and the drafting of Hugh Green. Their defense allowed the fewest touchdowns of any NFL team, and was described by opponents as "outstanding" and "almost awesome". The team was dogged by inconsistent play throughout the season. Players and coaches believed the Buccaneers to be a playoff-worthy team, but a tendency to self-destruct kept them on the edge of the playoff race, thanks in part to a failure of any other team to take control in either the NFC Central division or the NFC wild-card chase. "We make more mistakes at crucial times than any team I've ever been associated with", said ex-Buckeyes, -Raiders, and -Dolphins safety Neal Colzie. Opposing coach Dick Vermeil said, "I'm not sure they know how good they are", after his Philadelphia Eagles team beat the Buccaneers despite having been outplayed. Nevertheless, the team developed a maturity through the season which allowed them to remain competitive instead of collapsing when behind or when being outplayed.

Late-season coaching adjustments improved the effectiveness of the offense and cut down on opposing teams' ability to control the ball against the defense. This resulted in their playing with more confidence, and less predictability. It also resulted in a three-game winning streak that put them in control of the division race. The regular season culminated in a season-finale matchup between the Buccaneers and the Detroit Lions, two 8–7 teams vying for the division lead in the Pontiac Silverdome, where the Lions had gone undefeated all season. The Buccaneers won and entered the playoffs as the number three seed in the NFC, where they lost to the Dallas Cowboys in a 38–0 rout which tied the NFL record for largest margin of victory in a playoff game.


Draft Trades

The Buccaneers' third-round pick was traded to the Los Angeles Rams in 1978, for guard Greg Horton. Their fifth-round pick had been traded to the Oakland Raiders in 1978 as part of the trade for quarterback Mike Rae. Their sixth-round pick was traded to the New Orleans Saints in 1979 for punter Tom Blanchard. Finally, their seventh-round pick went to Dallas as part of the previous season's trade for Dave Stalls.

Draft Selections

Pittsburgh defensive end Hugh Green was a surprise selection, as the Buccaneers were considered to need help in the secondary, and were expected to pick either USC safety Ronnie Lott or UCLA safety Kenny Easley (who had already been taken by the Seattle Seahawks by the time of Tampa Bay's selection). Green's Pittsburgh team produced eight NFL starters, believed to be the most by far from any single college team. By contrast, the Georgia team that finished ahead of them in the national championship race produced only two NFL players, neither of them a starter. Personnel director Ken Herock described Green as "dominating...a heavy hitter...an impact player" and said that there was no choice but to draft him. Scouting services described him as a 220-lb linebacker with the lateral movement of a 180-lb cornerback. It was doubly surprising that, considering their fondness for ex-USC players, the Buccaneers would pass over Lott to select a player at a position at which they already were so deeply stocked with talent. However, the staff did not deliberate long before calling his name, and soon felt him worthy of Rookie of the Year honors. With no premier defensive backs available in the second round, and with running back having been identified by the coaching staff as a problem area of the team, they selected Missouri running back James Wilder. Wilder's selection and subsequent training camp performance made starting fullback Johnny Davis expendable, and he was traded to San Francisco for James Owens. With their middle-round picks traded away, West Texas A"M cornerback John Holt became the Buccaneers' last selection of the first day of the draft. When McKay saw cornerbacks Holt and Johnny Ray Smith return punts, he immediately cut original Buccaneer Danny Reece, who had handled nearly every punt return in the team's first five years. Reece, who had set a league record by calling for fair catches only twice in the previous two seasons, had fallen out of favor due to several fumbles during the previous season, and never had the speed expected of a return man. Smith did make the team, but was immediately placed on injured reserve. Eighth-round pick Denver Johnson left camp unexpectedly shortly before the first preseason game, despite strong prospects of making the squad. It was later revealed that he had been accepted to law school, and chose that over a football career.


Tailback having been a problem spot the previous season, the Buccaneers attempted to accommodate Ricky Bell's desire to play in California, but were unable to work out a trade. The contract of Jerry Eckwood, who had received much criticism for fumbling at key moments the previous season, was renegotiated in accordance with his 1979 production, rather than his 1980 production. His agent's statement that "he will either play and do well, or he's not gonna be here" was interpreted to mean that Eckwood would be paid too highly to remain as a backup, but would not feel underpaid should a Bell trade place him in a starting role. The decline in Bell's performance was such that Eckwood moved ahead of him on the depth chart. The existence of the muscle disease that would soon lead to Bell's retirement and death was not yet known. Bell cited McKay's criticism as a reason for requesting a trade, but smoothed over differences in a meeting with McKay. Defensive line became an area for concern during preseason, as Reggie Lewis and two rookies walked out of camp. This was the second year in a row that the highly regarded Lewis left camp, but this time he sent word of his retirement through his agent. Extra security had to be assigned to Neal Colzie during camp, as his life was being threatened by anonymous phone calls believed to be related to the gangland-style slaying of his two stepsisters in Atlanta.

Injuries quickly became a challenge, as the team lost more players to injuries in their first preseason game than they did during the entire 22-game (preseason through playoffs) 1979 season. The secondary, particularly the safety position, was hit especially hard. Mark Cotney was lost for the season with a knee injury, Curtis Jordan suffered a broken collarbone, and Cedric Brown missed some time with a bruised shoulder. Cotney was expected to have lost his starting role to Colzie, but was valued as a backup. Jordan was lost to the team when, upon being activated from injured reserve later in the season, he was claimed off of procedural waivers by the Washington Redskins. An injury to Dave Reavis during the same game required arthroscopic surgery that left him sidelined into the regular season, and left the team with only two offensive tackles. As the team had opened training camp with a small roster, McKay had to trade draft picks to the Philadelphia Eagles and Los Angeles Rams to augment the roster with safeties Zac Henderson and Jeff Delaney, and tackle Rick Dozier. Ray Snell was also sidelined, for the second consecutive year, with severe headaches which were attributed to high blood pressure. Rick Berns, the 1979 third-round draft pick who was a capable runner but ineffective as a blocker and passer and who had never been able to recover from McKay's public criticism the previous season, was released late in camp. An unexpected shakeup of the receiving corps took place when ex-Steeler Theo Bell and ex-49er James Owens, both among the NFL's leading returners, were brought in with an eye toward improving the special teams. This resulted in the displacement of former FSU star Mike Shumann and original Buccaneer Isaac Hagins, who were promptly released with the hope that they would still have time to catch on with another team. Owens, an Olympic sprinter, came to the team in a late trade, as did Dallas Cowboys starting cornerback Aaron Mitchell, a tough tackler brought in to fill Cotney's role in run support. Adjustments were made to the team's defensive philosophy, with the secondary moving to a more aggressive style of play intended to cut down on opponents' success in the short passing game. The secondary also benefited from an improved pass rush, with Hugh Green's presence preventing blockers from concentrating their efforts on Lee Roy Selmon. James Wilder emerged as a reliable receiver, leading the team in catches during the preseason. McKay reported being happy with the team's preseason performance, saying that they were playing with the intensity and enthusiasm that had been missing the previous year.

Regular Season

Coach McKay said, "if we had a high bridge here, I'd jump off it", after an early loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in which the Buccaneers achieved only 12 yards rushing and the special teams "completely collapsed". He promised changes, which could mean either personnel changes or scrapping their balanced offense in favor of a passing-dominated attack. The offensive line was unable to block effectively on running plays, with both starting tackles injured. Changes came after week 3, with Garo Yepremian's release resulting in an acrimonious dispute in which Yepremian accused the Buccaneers of lacking organization, compared the move to "taking your car to get the tires changed when the transmission needs fixing", and said that "they must know what they're doing, they're in first place" (a point of ridicule, as the entire division was tied at 1–2). McKay in turn accused Yepremian of acting childishly, asking "what is he, 12 or 37?" Coaches had soured on Yepremian due to his short kickoffs and low, easily blocked field goals. Punter Tom Blanchard was placed on injured reserve with a hamstring injury the same week. The two kickers were replaced by ex-Cardinals and -Lions punter Larry Swider, and kicker Bill Capece, holder of FSU's single-season scoring record. There was a measure of irony in both signings, as Swider had at one time been on the Buccaneers' roster, but was claimed by the Lions off of procedural waivers when the Buccaneers tried to activate him as Dave Green's injury replacement during the 1979 season, while it was Yepremian's mentorship a decade earlier that had given Capece the encouragement to pursue professional football. After some undisclosed discipline problems, Dave Lewis was replaced by Andy Hawkins, who played well enough to take Lewis' spot permanently.

The coaching began to be criticized after a pair of midseason losses to the Minnesota Vikings and Denver Broncos. Denver players stated that shutting down Jimmie Giles was all it took to stop the Buccaneer offense, while the defense was still vulnerable to a short-yardage, ball-control attack. McKay felt that the team had become an "aerial circus" and that Williams' performance was being affected by trying to do too much, and so made a decision to establish a running game, taking over playcalling responsibilities on running plays. Having lost 4 of their last 5 games, there was concern that, about to face a Green Bay Packers team on a three-game win streak, the Buccaneers were about to repeat the late-season slides of the last three seasons. After breaking their two-game losing streak by routing the Packers, the Buccaneers demonstrated a newfound ability to continue to stick to and execute their game plan when playing with a deficit. Quarterbacks coach Bill Nelsen correctly predicted that the Buccaneers' performance against the Packers would cause the Vikings to underestimate the Packers, and thus lose their matchup the following week. Nelsen admonished the team not to miss a chance to take charge of the division, and they responded with an uncharacteristic rebound from a 14-point deficit against the Saints. A Week 14 last-minute victory over the Atlanta Falcons, combined with upset losses by the Lions and Vikings the same day, left the Buccaneers needing to win only one of their last two games to make the playoffs. They were one of only five teams in Week 15 who were capable of winning a division championship without help from another team. The season ended with a matchup against the Detroit Lions in front of a Pontiac Silverdome-record crowd of 80,444, with the Buccaneers and Lions tied for the division lead at 8–7. A season-ending New York Giants win against the Dallas Cowboys left the Giants at 9–7, guaranteeing that the winner of the Buccaneers-Lions game would win the division (the Packers were still in contention, but required an improbable set of circumstances that included a Buccaneers-Lions tie), while the loser would miss the playoffs entirely. Although the Lions outplayed the Buccaneers in most statistical categories, numerous Buccaneers stepped forward with key plays at crucial moments in the game, resulting in an upset victory. A crowd of over 8,000 gathered at team headquarters to greet them on their return from Detroit. The Buccaneers traveled to Dallas for a matchup with the Cowboys, where they suffered an embarrassing 38–0 shutout.

NFC Divisional Playoffs: at Dallas Cowboys

Facing a Dallas defense that had allowed its previous six opponents an average of less than ten points per game, the Buccaneers were in immediate trouble. Doug Williams was sacked on the game's very first play. Field position was a problem, with the Buccaneers' first-half drives starting at an average of the 19-yard line. Tampa Bay was only able to advance beyond midfield four times during the entire game, and Williams was pressured into mistakes by a constant Dallas pass rush. The ground game was held to only 2 yards in the second half, with James Owens starting at running back in place of the injured Jerry Eckwood. The Dallas front four of Ed "Too Tall" Jones, Harvey Martin, Randy White, and John Dutton dominated the Buccaneers' offensive line, moving them backwards with 59 yards in sacks and forcing two intentional grounding penalties. They batted down several of Williams' passes, and Jones caught one of Williams' four interceptions. Tom Landry said that it was the best performance by a Dallas front four since their Super Bowl XII victory over Denver in 1978, and credited their intensity for the difference. Interceptions by Jones and Michael Downs set up two third-quarter touchdowns, helping the Cowboys to match their largest-ever margin of victory. Dallas committed no turnovers, and all tipped passes wound up in the hands of Cowboys players. It was the last time that an NFL playoff team had been shut out since the Buccaneers' NFC Championship loss to the Los Angeles Rams in the 1979 postseason. McKay had few comments after the game, telling the press, "I want to get the hell out of here".

Date   Opponent Week/Record Outcome
Aug. 8
Bengals Cincinnati Bengals
Tampa Stadium, Tampa Bay, FL
PS - wk 1
Lost 17-24
Aug. 15
Patriots New England Patriots
Tampa Stadium, Tampa Bay, FL
PS - wk 2
Lost 16-17
Aug. 22
Oilers Houston Oilers
Tampa Stadium, Tampa Bay, FL
PS - wk 3
Won 27-17
Aug. 28
Falcons @ Atlanta Falcons
Georgia Dome, Atlanta, GA
PS - wk 4
Lost 7-27

1981 Season Results

Record: 9-7, DIV: 6-2 (1st Won NFC Central)
Date   Opponent Week/Record Outcome
Sep. 5
Vikings Minnesota Vikings
Tampa Stadium, Tampa Bay, FL
RS - wk 1
Won 21-13
Sep. 13
Chiefs @ Kansas City Chiefs
Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City, MO
RS - wk 2
Lost 10-19
Sep. 20
Bears @ Chicago Bears
Soldier Field, Chicago, IL
RS - wk 3
Lost 17-28
Sep. 27
Cardinals St. Louis Cardinals
Tampa Stadium, Tampa Bay, FL
RS - wk 4
Won 20-10
Oct. 4
Lions Detroit Lions
Tampa Stadium, Tampa Bay, FL
RS - wk 5
Won 28-10
Oct. 11
Packers @ Green Bay Packers
Lambeau Field, Green Bay, WI
RS - wk 6
Won 21-10
Oct. 18
Raiders @ Oakland Raiders
Oakland-Alameda Coliseum, Oakland, CA
RS - wk 7
Lost 16-18
Oct. 25
Eagles @ Philadelphia Eagles
Veterans Stadium, Philadelphia, PA
RS - wk 8
Lost 10-20
Nov. 1
Bears Chicago Bears
Tampa Stadium, Tampa Bay, FL
RS - wk 9
Won 20-10
Nov. 8
Vikings @ Minnesota Vikings
Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, Minneapolis, MN
RS - wk 10
Lost 10-25
Nov. 15
Broncos Denver Broncos
Tampa Stadium, Tampa Bay, FL
RS - wk 11
Lost 7-24
Nov. 22
Packers Green Bay Packers
Tampa Stadium, Tampa Bay, FL
RS - wk 12
Won 3-37
Nov. 29
Saints @ New Orleans Saints
Louisiana Superdome, New Orleans, LA
RS - wk 13
Won 31-14
Dec. 6
Falcons Atlanta Falcons
Tampa Stadium, Tampa Bay, FL
RS - wk 14
Won 24-24
Dec. 13
Chargers San Diego Chargers
Tampa Stadium, Tampa Bay, FL
RS - wk 15
Lost 23-24
Dec. 20
Lions @ Detroit Lions
Pontiac Silverdome, Detroit, MI
RS - wk 16
Won 20-17
Date   Opponent NFC/Superbowl Outcome
Jan. 2
Cowboys @ Dallas Cowboys
Texas Stadium, Irving, TX
NFC Divisional Playoff
Lost 0-38

ALL Tampa Bay Buccaneers Season Links
1976 1977 1978 1979 1980 1981 1982 1983 1984 1985 1986 1987 1988 1989 1990
1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005
2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020
2021 2022 2023

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