1987: Revisiting Greatest Big Red Comeback

The NFL was coming off another strike and the Big Red were on a three-game losing streak. They were facing a bad Tampa Bay team and owner Bill Bidwill was talking about leaving town. It’s a wonder that even 22,449 fans showed up to see the Cardinals play the Buccaneers on a dreary, rainy Sunday in early November.

And like many fans, the Cards were no-shows themselves for the first three quarters of the game spotting the Bucs a 28-3 lead. As St. Louis Post Dispatch columnist Kevin Horrigan wrote, “As the fourth quarter began, the Bucs are up by 25 points and it’s so quiet you can hear the cheerleaders, which is a bad sign. NFL cheerleaders are designed to be seen, not heard.”

But the game was far from over. The Big Red erupted for four touchdowns in the final 12:42 to win the game 31-28. It was the largest fourth quarter comeback in NFL history.

“Just another laugher,” said Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill who was accompanied by detectives after receiving a death threat prior to the game.

KEY PLAY OF COMEBACK

Early in the fourth quarter, the Big Red faced a pivotal fourth and one at the Tampa 43-yard line. Lomax faked a handoff to Earl Ferrell and dropped a deep pass over two defenders into the arms of Stump Mitchell who was hauled down at the three-yard line. On the next play, Lomax rolled to his left and hit rookie tight end Robert Awalt in the back of the end zone to cut the lead to 28-10.

The 39-yard fourth down pass to Mitchell was a daring play that ignited the Big Red comeback.

“The way the play is designed, Rob (Awalt) is going to run a route that is going to take some defenders to the corner and Stump is going to break across the middle,” Lomax said. “At fourth and short, we were hoping to catch them in a short-yardage defense, playing tight coverage. Then again, down 28-3, we kind of said, ‘What the heck.’ We called the play, and it was kind of daring, and we went with it. It got us started.”

TAMPA GIVEAWAY

It didn’t take long for the Cardinals to get back on the scoreboard. Just two plays after the Big Red kicked off, former Mizzou star and Sikeston, MO native James Wilder was hit hart and stripped of the ball. Niko Noga scooped it up and took off down the sideline for a 24-yard touchdown. The score cut the Tampa lead to 28-17 with 11:39 left in the game and the few fans who remained were going nuts.

Niko Noga returns a James Wilder fumble 24 yards for a touch down.

“The defense needed to go out there and get the ball,” Noga told the Tampa Tribune. “And when the ball was on the ground, I just had to make a play so that we might have a chance to come back.”

“When Niko Noga scored that touchdown,” Lomax told the Post-Dispatch, “I knew we could win this game. It changed everything. Our guys were going crazy, and the feeling in the huddle changed dramatically.”

“We scored, then Niko scored that touchdown, and that just gave us momentum,” said J.T. Smith. “After that, there was no stopping us.”

DEFENSE SHINES IN FOURTH

Tampa quarterback Steve DeBerg had his way with the Cardinal defense the first three quarters. The Bucs converted on 11 of 12 third downs and DeBerg threw for over 275 yards and three touchdowns. However, the Big Red defense came alive during the fourth quarter comeback. The Bucs ran only eight offensive plays and gained only 20 yards their first three possessions of the quarter.

“It came down to a gut-check,” Big Red safety Leonard Smith said. “We could have either packed up and went home, or we could make something happen. The defense scored the touchdown after being on the deck all day, and that helped get us going.”

J.T. SMITH SHOW

After a Tampa three-and-out, Lomax led the Cards down the field with a couple of completions to Awalt and then hit J.T. Smith with an 11 yard TD pass that cut the Buc lead to 28-24.

“That J.T. is some kind of pro,” head coach Gene Stallings said. “And Awalt has been just super.”

Smith had been battling injuries coming into the game and was removed early in the fourth quarter with a knee injury, but came back strong finishing with 8 catches for 96 yards.

After the defense forced yet another punt, Lomax and company took over at their own 31 yard line with 5:41 remaining in the game. Lomax connected with Don Holmes who made a leaping catch for a 23 yard gain, and then went down the middle for a 27 yard completion to Awalt. On third and 8, Lomax floated a perfect pass to J.T. Smith in the back of the end zone for their first lead of the day, 31-28 with 2:01 left.

J.T. Smith gets a high-five from Ron Brown after scoring the go-ahead touchdown. (Photo source Odell Mitchell-St. Louis Post Dispatch)

“It shows a lot of character, the way these players hung in after all those bad things had happened to them,” Stallings said.

Lomax had a stellar fourth quarter completing 10 of 13 passes for 164 yards and three touchdowns. After being sacked four times in the first three quarters, the offensive line stiffened and gave him time to throw down the stretch.

“The guys were really with me.” Lomax said. “We have a lot of tough people. They all kind of said, ‘That’s it, we’re going to give Neil more time,’ and that got me aggressive.”

LAST CHANCE FOR TAMPA

The Bucs offense, who had done nothing the entire fourth quarter, took over at their own 8 yard line with 1:51 remaining in the game. Running the two minute offense, the veteran DeBerg nearly threw three interceptions and then got a gift spot on a fourth and four pass to Jeff Smith that kept the Bucs alive. On third down, DeBerg stepped up into the pocket and completed a deep pass to Gerald Carter to the Big Red 40 yard line. A quick 6 yard pass to Jeff Smith set up a 53 yard field goal attempt by Donald Iqwebuike with 5 seconds left. The kicker from Nigeria got all of the kick, but it surprisingly hit the crossbar and bounced back out onto the field. Game over. Big Red win 31-28.

Steve DeBerg (17) reacts in disbelief as Niko Noga (57) and Freddie Joe Nunn (78) celebrated Donald Igwebuike’s missed 53-yard game-tying field goal attempt. (photo Associated Press)

“Everything was perfect,” Igwebuike told the Tampa Tribune. “It was just a short kick. It wasn’t long enough. that was a field goal I should have made.”

“If he would have made it,” Big Red tackle Luis Sharpe said, “I would have broken down and cried like a baby.”

“I was calling to God,” Cardinals safety Lonnie Young said. “I was watching that field goal travel and I was shaking all over. I just clutched my chest and called for divined intervention.”

Stallings added, “My heart stopped and started a few times.”

AFTERMATH

“There was no way that I thought they were going to come back and make a game of it, let alone win it.” DeBerg said after the game. “I can’t believe it.”

“Did we really have a 28-3 lead?” Buccaneers linebacker Ervin Randle said. “We did, didn’t we? Oh, man. I looked up at the scoreboard and I couldn’t believe it. We gave up 28 points in the fourth quarter. That’s unbelievable.”

The Buccaneers who entered the game 4-3 (two wins were with replacement players during the NFL strike) would not recover from this loss. They went on to lose their last seven games, including a December rematch with the Cardinals and finish 4-11.

As for the Cardinals, spirits were high after the victory.

“We didn’t have many fans, but we knew that before the game so there wan’t anything we could do about that,” J.T. Smith told the Tampa Tribune after the game. “But for the 22,000 that did come out, my hat’s off to them. They made a lot more noise than those that had come out before.”

“This win showed a lot of character,” said Coach Gene Stallings. Our team never gave up, even when some bad things were happening.”

“If this doesn’t boost our confidence, nothing will,” said Lomax after the game.

Unfortunately, the Big Red would blow a 10-point second half lead to a one-win Rams team the following week at Busch Stadium and finish the season 7-8, their last in St. Louis. They would pack their bags and move to the desert a few months later.

But that was the last thing on anyone’s mind this early November afternoon at Busch Stadium. The Cardinals had improved to 3-5, finally won a close game and were feeling good.

1 thought on “1987: Revisiting Greatest Big Red Comeback

  1. Thanks for revisiting this amazing game. The quotes from Luis Sharpe, Lonnie Young and Gene Stallings regarding their emotions as Donald Igwebuike attempted a tying field goal at the end are so vivid I felt like being transported back in the moment.

    Liked by 1 person

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