“Thank goodness for little return people,” Big Red head coach Gene Stallings said after the Cardinals defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 21-17 to close out the 1986 season.
The “little return people” Stallings was referring to was 5 foot 8 inch Vai Sikahema who had just become the fifth player in NFL history to return two punts for TDs in one game.
The Cardinals and Buccaneers were arguably the two worst teams in the NFL in 1986 and they certainly lived up to that billing on this cold Sunday afternoon at Busch Stadium. The teams combined for 15 punts, 6 turnovers, and 500 total yards.
The Cardinals struggled on offense, turning the ball over three times and missing three easy field goals. They converted on only one of 10 third down plays and entered Tampa territory nine times, coming away with only one offensive touchdown.
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.