If Ricky Bell's brief career proved anything, it's that, in the NFL, it's not who you are but where you play that counts.
At the University of Southern California — the Mecca for great college running backs — Bell finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting as a senior (third as a junior). He set a single-game record for the Trojans in a 1976 win over Washington State with 347 rushing yards and gained 3,308 rushing yards in his final two seasons. But in many ways the 6-2, 220-pounder peaked in the 1977 Rose Bowl win over Michigan.
Only a short while later, the back sure to be a superstar landed in pro football's equivalent of Siberia …
A pair of franchise quarterbacks have gone Nos. 1 and 2 a number of times since the start of the common draft, but in 1977 it was a pair of outstanding running backs — Bell and the University of Pittsburgh's Tony Dorsett — that had every scout drooling. Most favored Dorsett; Tampa Bay head coach John McKay favored Bell (whom he had coached from 1973-75 at USC). That pick forever haunted Bell as he'd always be compared to Dorsett, who won a Super Bowl title with Dallas in his first year and gained 1,000 or more yards in eight of his first nine NFL seasons. Of course, Dorsett had one of the best supporting cats in all of football, while Bell wasted away amongst a selection of talent as ugly as the team's uniform.
Bell didn't score his first NFL touchdown until Week 10 of the 1977 season. In a game that year against San Francisco he managed just 28 yards on 15 carries; the next week just 10 yards on seven carries.
While Dorsett flourished in Big D, Bell was getting booed in Tampa, and the comparisons stung — maybe McKay more than Bell. Said McKay in a 1980 Sports Illustrated column, "That first year the linemen should have carried the ball and Ricky should have blocked, because he always got to the hole first."
But 30 years ago Bell and McKay had quite a laugh together. Throughout the 1979 season the woeful Buccaneers took the league on one of the biggest Cinderella rides in the history of pro football, turning a 5-11 mark in 1978 into a first-place finish in the NFC Central (10-6).
The Buccaneers won their first five outings of the season, with Bell scoring five touchdowns during the stretch. He gained 167 yards on 28 carries in a win over divisional-foe Green Bay, and 152 yards on 22 carries in a win over the Giants a month later. In all, Bell rushed for 1,263 yards, caught 25 passes and found the endzone nine times.
But Bell saved his best for the end of the campaign. In the season finale, he carried 39 times for 137 yards to help Tampa Bay edge Kansas City and claim the 10th win of the year. In the Buccaneers' first-ever playoff victory, Bell carried 38 times against Philadelphia for 142 yards and two first-half touchdowns; Tampa Bay won that game, 24-17.
The ride came to an end against Los Angeles, however. The Rams' defense limited the Buccaneers to just 177 yards of offense (59 yards rushing for Bell, on 20 carries) and seven first downs, handing McKay's club a 9-0 defeat in the NFC title game.
Bell's play sharply declined during the remainder of his shortened career. His yards per carry dropped by more than a full yard in 1980 (from 4.5 to 3.4) and he carried just 32 times in 1981 and 1982 combined. Bell was later diagnosed with dermatomyositis, a rare skin and muscle disease that affects all of its patients differently. For Bell, it proved fatal; in 1984, at just 29 years of age, Bell passed away from heart failure due to the disease.
Ricky Bell the player never lived up to his No. 1 overall draft selection, and he never came close to the numbers Dorsett posted. But the Trojans and Buccaneers that played with him still speak highly of Ricky Bell the man.
Recalled Tampa Bay Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon in a 2004 Tampa Tribune article, "Every time he touched the ball in a drill, he ran it all the way to the goal line, never stopping, never loafing. That was the pace he set."