The Bucs' first pre-season victories
I have never been a big fan of pre-season football games. As far as I’m concerned August is the time for Major League Baseball pennant chases to really heat up. Don’t get me wrong. I’m as happy as the next guy to see the Buccaneers back on the field, but August football just doesn’t really invigorate me.
However, that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy learning a little bit more about Tampa Bay Buccaneer pre-season history. Recently, Paul added pre-season box scores to the “The Game Details” section of every Buccaneer season review. I must say, reading the box scores stoked my curiosity about some of these games and before you could say “Mirro Roder,” I was reading story after story about the first victories of the Buccaneer franchise.
No, not the December 1977 victory over New Orleans! That was technically the 4th victory in franchise history. I’m talking about an August 1976 victory over Atlanta and subsequent wins over legendary NFL franchises Green Bay and Baltimore at Tampa Stadium in 1977. True none of these games counted in official NFL standings, but the excitement generated by these victories was palpable.
On an August Saturday evening in Jacksonville the Buccaneers notched franchise victory Number One with a 17-3 triumph over the Atlanta Falcons. Granted only 11,342 fans packed into the cavernous Gator Bowl, but a win is a win. In the game Steve Spurrier looked the part of veteran quarterback, completing 11 of 19 passes for 147 yards and sneaking in for a 1-yd touchdown in the third quarter to give Tampa Bay a 10-0 lead.
Combined with a Mirro Roder field goal and a touchdown run by Essex Johnson, the Buccaneer offense gave little clue to how awful it would be during the regular season. Although a pre-season game, the Buccaneers were playing a desperate team that kept their starters in the game throughout the first three quarters and were blitzing until the very end.
Buccaneer players, two weeks removed from a humiliating 26-3 loss to the Rams in their NFL debut, celebrated as though they clinched a playoff berth. Coach John McKay closed the locker room to the media for about fifteen minutes and loud cheers and exclamations were heard by reporters forced to stand out in the hall way on the other side of a locked door.
There was a completely opposite reaction in the Atlanta clubhouse. The Falcons were in no mood to discuss their opinion of the game. Comments uttered by Atlanta players would be mirrored by New Orleans Saints’ players in December of 1977. Young Falcon quarterback Steve Bartkowski was particularly morose, lashing out, “Heck, we can’t even beat an expansion club and that hurts!”
The response to his first unofficial victory was classic John McKay. “Well, if I coach five years in the pros, I can always say I won at least one,” McKay quipped. “Oh my, another dynasty. We proved we can play with the Atlanta’s and the Green Bay’s. We’re not ready to take on Miami or Pittsburgh or Los Angeles. But we should be able to compete with teams of Atlanta’s caliber. If we don’t I’ll be disappointed.”
As we all know by now, McKay would be disappointed 26 consecutive times. Almost a year to the day following the victory over Atlanta, the Buccaneers defeated the Green Bay Packers 10-7 for their first triumph ever at Tampa Stadium. The game was astoundingly awful. The Packers turned the ball over five times in their own half of the field and the Bucs could only muster a short field goal by Tampa Bay Rowdies soccer player Derek Smethurst and a touchdown by Eddie Williams.
While McKay was frustrated over the state of his offense, he did view the victory as a welcome respite from the budding regular season losing streak. “We couldn’t hear anymore about how many we had lost in a row,” McKay told the Associated Press. “I’ve never seen a team as happy. Even though this was only a pre-season game, this one counts for our pride. It’s hard for me to keep telling them they’re better when they have nothing to show for it.”
In the 1977 pre-season finale, Tampa Bay posted a 14-0 defeat of perennial AFC East champion Baltimore at Tampa Stadium. This may have been the most impressive performance of the 1976 and 1977 seasons, regular season games included. The defense stymied a Colt offense featuring quarterback Bert Jones and running back Lydell Mitchell. The offense was buoyed by a strong showing by number one draft choice Ricky Bell. The controversial pick scored on a 7-yard pass from quarterback Randy Hedberg and an 11-yard sprint up the gut.
The performance of Hedberg, out of tiny Minot State, has become the stuff of legend. In the days after the game, the cry of “Why Not Minot?” cascaded throughout the Bay area as many felt the late round draft choice from an obscure North Dakota school just might be the man to lead Tampa Bay to its first official victory. History has proven that he wasn’t, but the Bucs should get credit for giving him the chance. After all, Hedberg showed poise and potential in leading the offense on two scoring drives against Baltimore’s well-regarded “Sack Pack” defense.
Hedberg had admirers on the Colts front four. “Even veteran quarterbacks, and I’m talking about some of the best in the league, panic when our defense comes after them,” said Baltimore defensive lineman Fred Cook. “We didn’t scare him. He hung in there.”
While merely a pre-season finale, the Bucs played arguably the most complete game the franchise would see until 1978. A shut-out of a Super Bowl contender by the lowly Bucs was national news. “Ricky Bell Leads Bucs to 14-0 Upset Over Colts” was the headline in the Los Angeles Times. The result led to a flurry of coverage in the next day’s local papers.
The head coach refused to allow any detractors to take away from his team’s accomplishment. Choked with emotion, McKay told the press not to be fooled by the Colts admonishments that they weren’t really trying. “They played their regulars and we played ours,” McKay said. “They laughed before the game, and we’re laughing now.”
Sadly, any confidence built by the dismantling of a Super Bowl contender in the pre-season finale dissipated rapidly in the glare of regular season play. No one can argue that the Bucs pre-season victories have any kind of historical significance. But for a brief time in 1976 and 1977, the fans of Tampa Bay did have victories to celebrate, even if they were unofficial.
Denis Crawford, August 2009