|'76 Bucs relish being last team to finish season without a victory|
|Written by Admin|
|Thursday, 13 December 2007 13:08|
It's been more than 30 years since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, clad in ghastly creamsicle uniforms and helmets bearing a winking pirate logo, stumbled and bumbled their way to an 0-14 season that set the modern standard for futility in the NFL.
The Miami Dolphins have a chance to be worse, although many of those old 1976 Bucs don't want company in an exclusive spot as the only team since World War II to lose every game in a season.
``My guess is they'll beat somebody. I wouldn't really wish the experience on anybody,'' said Pat Toomay, a defensive end on the expansion team that was shut out five times and outscored 412-125 in Tampa Bay's inaugural season.
``There is a kind of reverse immortality that comes with playing on a team like that. The (1962) Mets with Marvelous Marv Throneberry are immortal in baseball in that way. I suppose we are too in a certain way.''
Count Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon, the first pick in the 1976 draft; Steve Spurrier, the former Heisman Trophy winner who started 12 games at quarterback; and Richard Wood, the hard-hitting linebacker obtained in an opening-week trade he initially didn't welcome, among those rooting for the Dolphins (0-13) to win at least one of their remaining three games.
Several teams have flirted with winless seasons since the Bucs dropped 14 by an average of 20.5 points per game.
The 1980 Saints were 0-14 before winning in the 15th game, the Colts went 0-8-1 during the strike-shortened 1982 season and were 0-13 on the way to finishing 3-13 in 1986. Several other teams have won one game since the NFL adopted a 16-game schedule in 1978.
The '76 Bucs, playing in the AFC West, which eventual Super Bowl champion Oakland dominated with a 13-1 record, had a number of close calls, including a pair of three-point losses to fellow expansion mate Seattle and to Miami.
They lost to Kansas City by nine the following week, then dropped their last six games by an average of nearly 30 points.
Even if the Dolphins finish 0-16, they'll have a ways to go to match the stretch of futility the Bucs didn't end until they'd lost their first 12 games in 1977. The 26-game slide is the longest in league history.
``I had lost six games in my whole life before I got to professional football. Even in Pop Warner little league we had some great teams,'' said Wood, who began his NFL career with the Jets in 1975, when New York was 3-11.
``My first three years, it was like: `God, is it that hard to win?' But then I realized, yes it is. ... We had some outstanding people on that team. But it's a team game. As a team, we weren't very good.''
Wood, who starred for Bucs coach John McKay at USC, was obtained in a trade at the end of training camp. He wasn't enamored of the move because he grew up in New Jersey rooting for the Joe Namath-led Jets, and considered it a dream come true when he wound up playing on the same team.
He also remembers sitting in the stands at the Astrodome, watching Tampa Bay lose the first game in franchise history, 20-0.
It wasn't pretty.
``I looked at everything going on and thought, `That doesn't look good.' But I said to myself, `I'm going to have a good week of practice and I'll be helping us win next week. It'll be different when I get on that damn field.' ``
The Bucs played better the following Sunday, but still lost 23-0 at home to San Diego.
``But we made it hard on them, I tell you that,'' Wood said. ``There were some games we should have won. They went right down to the wire. But when you're out of the field defensively for 100 plays, that's kind of bad. There were some games we played over 100 snaps!''
Injuries eventually took their toll. By the final game, Toomay looked around the defensive huddle and only recognized one player, safety Kim Stone, who also had been on the field for the opener.
Both players were from Vanderbilt, at the time a patsy for Southeastern Conference powers Alabama, Auburn, Florida and LSU.
``We knew what suffering was,'' Toomay said, laughing at the memory. ``And there we were.''
Losing was tough on the players, and especially humbling for McKay, who riled opposing teams with brash comments he made after Bucs owner Hugh Culverhouse lured him away from USC with a lucrative contract.
The Bucs became the laughingstock of the league and target of jokes by comedians and talk show hosts.
``That really bothered me. To be laughed at and be humiliated on national TV was hard to take,'' Wood said.
``You had your compadres in the NFL saying they don't want to lose to you, and you've got Johnny Carson making jokes. If it wasn't for my family, especially my wife, I don't know what I would have done. I'd have given up on the sport, but I knew in my heart and my mind I was a pretty good ballplayer.''
Toomay said McKay, who won four national titles at Southern Cal and was also known for his caustic sense of humor and one-liners, didn't make it much easier for the players with comments that opponents used as an excuse to run up the score.
Once asked about his team's execution during a game, McKay responded: ``I'm all for it.''
Toomay recalled Denver coach John Ralston running a reverse late in a game the Broncos won 48-13, and Patriots coach Chuck Fairbanks ordering a timeout in the closing seconds of the final game so that Steve Grogan could break the season record for touchdowns rushing by a quarterback.
``Payback came in interesting ways. ... All the sportsmanship stuff went out the window,'' Toomay said.
``I loved his sense of humor. He was hilarious. But he was deeply ironic and acerbic at times. As long as it was directed out, it was a release. He disarmed a lot of people. But after a while, it started to turn in. Now and then, it got a little dark. During the week we didn't see him after the third game. He would stand farther and farther away at practice, symbolically disassociating himself.''
Wayne Fontes, an assistant who later became the successful head coach of the Detroit Lions, describes the '76 team as mostly a collection of no-name players, many of whom were entering the twilight of their careers.
But many went on to be successful in and beyond the NFL.
Selmon, the only Tampa Bay player who's a member of the Hall of Fame, and Wood were part of the backbone of the Bucs team that reached the NFC championship game in 1979. Spurrier is one of the top coaches in college football, and general manager Ron Wolf later helped the Green Bay Packers assemble a Super Bowl-winning team around Brett Favre.
Unlike the 1972 Dolphins, who were a perfect 17-0 and gather every year for a toast when the NFL's last unbeaten team falls, the '76 Bucs have no such tradition. It doesn't mean they don't have a close bond.
``When you go through a season like that, you connect. It's not unlike the military in that regard,'' said Toomay, now 62 and a freelance writer in New Mexico. ``When you're in the trenches with somebody, and it's bad, you share that and it doesn't go away. Here it's 30 years later, and it hasn't gone away. It's as if it happened yesterday.''
One of his favorite moments was the team plane arriving home at 4 a.m. after a 49-16 loss at Oakland in Week 12.
Team officials promoted ticket sales for the inaugural season with the slogan: ``Bucs Fever. Catch It.''
``We start to file off the plane and there's three fans at the foot of the stairs, and they're totally wasted,'' he said, again erupting in laughter.
``As we come down the stairs, two of them unfurl this gigantic banner of the Bucs logo, and the most inebriated of the three steps in front of the other two and he starts the chant: `What have we got?' And all three in unison say: `Bucs fever!' I thought I was going to cry.''