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Joe Henderson Columns

'76 Bucs Sympathize With Winless Lions

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Published:   |   Updated: May 22, 2013 at 06:32 PM
TAMPA -

As bad as this season was for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it could have been worse. At least the Bucs only went winless in December. The Detroit Lions went winless for 2008.

Of course, some of us have been around long enough to recall when the Bucs went through a season - almost two of them, actually - like the one the Lions just endured. That was that magic autumn of 1976, when the Bucs set the standard of futility in the NFL by going belly-up 14 times in 14 games.

The Bucs almost did it again in 1977, losing their first 12 before to stretch their streak to an incredible 26 losses in a row before beating New Orleans. Detroit has lost 17 straight, dating to 2006.

"I'm of mixed feelings. You don't wish that on anybody but at the same time I'm happy to have passed the torch," former Bucs defensive end Pat Toomay said. "It helps to have a sense of humor about it and I'm sure in time they'll get there, but right now I'm sure they just want to get out of town. You feel for those guys. But I think 0-26 is unreachable."

The Lions probably would drop the torch anyway. Heaven knows those early Bucs dropped enough things. They would reach the NFC Championship Game in just their fourth season, but along the way there were plenty in the league who enjoyed the struggles of the Florida upstarts and their cocky college coach, John McKay.

"McKay was coming off four national championships at Southern Cal and he had made several ill-advised comments that were raising eyebrows at league headquarters. He was going to get schooled. If ever there was a situation that called for a break, it wasn't going to us. They were going to make him pay every way possible," Toomay said.

"I knew it was going to be rough, but then we had a meeting and McKay was saying that he had seen the films and was all excited. He said No. 54 for the Cowboys couldn't play for us. Well, No. 54 was Randy White and [McKay] was looking at film of an exhibition game and White was playing a new position or something. That's when I first thought we wouldn't win a game. Zip."

He was right. They were shut out their first two games (and five times overall) and didn't score a touchdown until the fourth week. They were beaten 42-0 in an icebox at Pittsburgh (it could have been 82-0 if the Steelers had chosen). In the last six weeks of the season, they were outscored 228-50.

"Our 0-14, there was certain charm to it. We had a very close-knit group of guys internally. We didn't start fighting or biting at each other," said wide receiver Barry Smith, now a Tampa businessman. "I still have fond memories of that '76 team because of the friendships."

Smith is friends with Steve Spurrier, one of three quarterbacks to start for the Bucs that season. Spurrier is in town to coach South Carolina in the Outback Bowl and Smith said they were reminiscing about '76 just the other day.

"When you're in a foxhole with somebody and there is a lot of ammo firing over you, it will bring you closer," Smith said.

The season was as funny as it was futile. Toomay recalled coming into the players parking lot at old Tampa Stadium for the last game that season against New England.

"Everybody showed up for the game with their cars packed. There were U-Hauls out in the parking lot and pick-up trucks with furniture piled high. It reminded me of the Oklahoma dust bowl days. I lived in Dallas and my goal was to be out of the state by midnight.

"I made it."

Those Bucs can certainly empathize with the Lions. Many of them, including Spurrier, were rooting for Detroit to win a game just to avoid the stigma of what they were labeled with for these last three decades.

"I know I never went into a game expecting to lose," quarterback Parnell "Paydirt" Dickinson said. "We had the same mindset as the guys in Detroit. We always prepared to win because nobody wants to lose like that, but, to be honest, I don't look back on those days much, It's something that happened and there's nothing I can do about it now.

"What stood out most to me about that season what I learned about myself. I learned that regardless of the circumstance I could still work hard and have faith."

Smith was in a suite at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, watching the new Bucs while keeping an eye on the scoreboard. The Lions lost 31-21 at Green Bay to complete the winless season.

"Back in '76, we had excuses built in. We were an expansion team. The Lions don't really have any excuses. With us, it was easy to go 0-14 but there is no excuse to go 0-16. But the problem is, they did," he said.

"To me, it's a worse nightmare for the Lions. With us, it was almost comical. There are a lot of fun stories from that first year, but with the Lions, bad is bad. I feel bad for anybody who didn't win a ball game. It's kind of that red badge to win the rest of your life. Yes, my heart goes out to them. I'm actually very surprised they didn't win. Everybody wins a game."

Well, not everybody.

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