The glory in being the worst
by John Romano of The St.Petersburg Times
Even with no games left to be played, the losing continues. For members of the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, there has been no end to the worst season the NFL has known. In case you hadn't noticed, Cincinnati won a game Sunday. Nothing meaningful about it, except the Bengals had been the season's last winless team. Which means the '76 Bucs remain alone in their infamy. The first, and only, team to go 0-14. "I watch every year," former Bucs linebacker Richard Wood said. "And I keep waiting for somebody to break that record. It'd be nice to see, after all these years."
The frustration is understandable, but it is misplaced. Enough is enough. Instead of enduring their misery, I say the Bucs should embrace it. Revel in the horrid and take pride in the unique. A 1-13 team is merely awful. An 0-14 team is majestically awful.
"I don't foresee sitting in some bar 10 years from now and telling stories about being a member of the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers." -- Tight end Bob Moore on Dec. 12, 1976 after loss No. 14.
They gather every year in Miami. A group of former Dolphins who watch, and wait, as the NFL's unbeaten teams fall. When the last threat is gone, and Miami's 17-0 record in 1972 is safe again, the players celebrate with a champagne toast. Now that is a worthy tribute to perfection. But why stop there? Were the Bucs not as perfect in their own imperfection? So maybe they lost a season, but they gained a legacy. "There ain't nothing special about losing, but I did learn a lot that season. I learned a lot about never giving up," former Bucs quarterback Parnell Dickinson said. "I met a lot of guys that year that I've become friends with. Close friends. That's what I remember most."
Is that not worth a champagne toast? Or, at least, a six-pack of Pabst?
"My mother told me there would be days like this. But not every day." -- Coach John McKay in a postseason address.
The memories are not the same for everyone. There were some players, such as Steve Spurrier, who had long NFL careers before becoming Bucs. Others, such as Lee Roy Selmon, went on to greater success and were around for Tampa Bay's breakthrough 1979 season. They can at least remember '76 as the beginning of something grand. Or maybe an appropriate time to end.
It hurts the most for the players who had one shot at the NFL. And wasted it on history's most unproductive team. There were a lot of those players. By the time Cedric Brown signed in late December, 139 players had passed through One Buc Place in five months. In those days, the NFL was not terribly interested in parity or fair play. Not only was there no free agency, but the expansion draft was stacked against Tampa Bay and Seattle. The new teams had only hours to study the list of available players before the expansion draft began. That meant no medical reports and no way of knowing what condition the players were in.
The '76 Bucs had a remarkable string of injuries and most were because they had been saddled with a brittle collection of veterans. "We talked about it a lot after the success of '79, but I don't know that "fond' would be the right word for it," said Bucs general manager Rich McKay, who was a ballboy for his father's team in '76. "More than anything, my dad was frustrated by the process. He felt like they really didn't give the team a chance to compete. It was a depressing year to be around. Monday was always the best day of the week, because you knew you were six days away from the next game. As the week went on, it got progressively worse."
"Tampa Bay is playing like the 1965 Steelers. They're probably using the same players, too." -- Pittsburgh center Ray Mansfield, a member of the Steelers' 2-12 team in 1965, after beating the Bucs 42-0.
For a team that was outscored 412-125, the Bucs managed to provide a few moments of suspense. In Week 3, they were beaten 14-9 by Buffalo. In mid October, they lost by a field goal in consecutive games against Seattle and Miami. Appropriately enough, they saved the worst for last. The 0-13 Bucs finished at home against the 10-3 Patriots. New England was headed to the playoffs and coach Chuck Fairbanks rewarded the players by bringing the team to Tampa Bay several days early for some fun and sun. Whether the Patriots were distracted by their mini vacation, or the Bucs just played that well, Tampa Bay had a 14-7 lead late in the third quarter.
Even after the Patriots scored a tying touchdown, the Bucs had a chance. Tampa Bay drove into New England territory with seven minutes remaining before Spurrier threw an interception that was returned 68 yards for a touchdown. Not only would the Bucs go on to lose, they suffered one more humiliation before the season was complete. New England's Steve Grogan was one score away from setting the NFL record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback. With a 24-14 lead and 6 seconds remaining, the Patriots called a timeout so Grogan could score from 1 yard out and set the record with 12. And, still, it was not enough. Linebacker Steve Zabel talked New England coaches into letting him kick the extra point. That was how Tampa Bay's '76 season ended.
"Living it was enough. I certainly don't want to re-live it." -- Author and defensive end Pat Toomay, when asked whether he was considering writing a book about the '76 Bucs.
Memories have faded and hairlines have receded, but the '76 season lives on. Sure, the NFL has seen other busts along the way. Baltimore was 0-8-1 in the '82 strike season, while several teams since have gone 1-15. But none has matched the Bucs for optimum misery. "In our last meeting, McKay asked how many of us were going to stay in Tampa during the offseason," punter Dave Green said. "I was rooming with his son (receiver J.K. McKay) at the time and we both raised our hands. He said, "Fine, stop by my office tomorrow and pick up some fake noses and mustaches so no one recognizes your sorry a----.' "We both dropped our hands real slowly."
Tampa Bay went on to start 0-12 in '77 to take the losing streak to an unprecedented 26. When it finally won, Dec. 11, 1977, at New Orleans, Green likened the celebration at One Buc Place to a Super Bowl party with fans climbing atop the team bus. It was, in retrospect, the end of an era. The final chapter for a team of loss and lore. No one, before or since, has traveled such a lonely road as the '76 Buccaneers. They were, in a word, perfect.