The 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers were the first team in NFL history to lose all 14 games on their schedule.
Hugh Culverhouse was a Florida tax attorney who made his fortune in real estate. In 1972, Culverhouse struck a handshake agreement with Los Angeles Rams’ owner Dan Reeves to buy the team for $ 17 million. In an about face, Reeves changed his mind and sold the Rams to Robert Irsay, for $ 19 million. Irsay then traded franchises with Carroll Rosenblum, who owned the Baltimore Colts. When the NFL awarded expansion franchises to Tampa and Seattle two years later, Culverhouse got the Tampa franchise. To broaden the fan base by including the nearby towns of St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Bradenton and Sarasota, Culverhouse used “Tampa Bay” and a name-the-team contest resulted in the nickname Buccaneers — in homage to the pirates who had once inhabited the area.
On the recommendation of longtime confidant Bear Bryant, Culverhouse hired USC’s John McKay as head coach. The winningest coach in USC history and two-time Coach of the Year, McKay had won eight Pac-8 titles and four national championships in 15 seasons in Los Angeles, but had never coached at the professional level. McKay, who was chosen over Hank Stram, Ara Parseghian and Joe Paterno, was awarded the richest contract in league history, which created animosity among other NFL coaches. Culverhouse guaranteed McKay “employment for life.” Ron Wolf was hired as G.M., and McKay added John Rauch as offensive coordinator, former USC assistant Wayne Fontes, and former Purdue teammate and Chicago Bears head coach Abe Gibron to join his staff.
In March, Seattle and Tampa Bay participated in the expansion draft, in which both franchises would select 40 players each from NFL rosters. Existing NFL teams were allowed to protect all but five players, leaving nothing but aging vets and marginal players for the expansion franchises. Tampa obtained defensive lineman Dave Pear from the Colts, who would go on to be named the team’s MVP for the ’76 season. The Bucs also picked up McKay’s son, J.K., who had played wide receiver for his father at USC before spending the 1975 season with the WFL’s Southern California Sun.
The 1976 NFL Draft featured one of the worst classes in history. With only eight quality NFL prospects [rather than the usual 27 or 28], the pickings were slim. The popularity of the wishbone offense at the collegiate level left the draft void of pro-style quarterback prospects. The Bucs picked first, selecting Oklahoma’s Lee Roy Selmon, a defensive end who would become one of the best players in franchise history en route to the NFL Hall of Fame. Tampa took 1975 SEC Player of the Year Jimmy DuBose in the second round [in 1978, DuBose became the first Bucs running back ever to gain 100 yards in a game. Four plays after achieving the milestone, he tore ligaments in his knee and retired]. Needing a quarterback, the Bucs traded for New Orleans Saints backup Larry Cipa, who was waived after failing a physical. Tampa then obtained former Heisman Trophy winner Steve Spurrier from San Francisco for a second-round draft pick and two players Tampa had selected in the expansion draft.
To call Tampa Bay’s NFL debut inauspicious would be an understatement. In their opening game in Houston, and after getting lost coming out of the locker room and milling about the cavernous Astrodome for 20 minutes before kickoff, the day went downhill from there. Starting tackle Dave Reavis was injured during pregame warmups and was lost for the season. The Bucs averaged less than two yards per offensive play and their starting running backs combined for 12 yards on 15 carries. “We didn’t block real good,” said McKay following the game, “but we made up for it by not tackling.” To add insult to injury, the team’s charter plane bounced and rolled before righting itself upon landing back in Tampa.
Kicker Mirro Roder was cut after missing three field goals in the first two games and was not replaced, with punter Dave Green taking over his duties. Rauch walked out during the Week Five game against Cincinnati and McKay took over play-calling duties. When asked what he thought of his offense’s execution after getting shut out by the Bengals, McKay quipped, “I’m all for it.” New uniforms had to be ordered when it was discovered that fans could not tell the players apart because the white numerals on the white jerseys could not be seen from the stands. Only five Bucs started all 14 games during the season, and they finished with 17 players on injured reserve. Wide receiver Rick Jennings was with the team for a shorter amount of time than any Buc player in 1976. Obtained on waivers from Oakland on a Tuesday, he was released Thursday.
The ‘76 Bucs set a new standard for futility. They were the first pro team in 15 years to be shut out in their first two games. The Buccaneers did not score a touchdown until Week Four, when cornerback Danny Reece returned a fumble 44 yards in the fourth quarter of a 42-17 loss to Baltimore. In that game, Tampa Bay was outgained, 458 yards to 89. Said McKay afterward, “Field position hurt us badly, dropped passes hurt us badly, no blocking hurt us badly, injuries hurt us badly, and penalties hurt us badly. Otherwise, it was a perfect afternoon.” Tampa Bay lost by more than one touchdown 11 times. In five games, they never even scored a point. Upon learning that kicker Pete Rajecki became nervous playing in front of McKay, the head coach retorted, “That’s unfortunate, as I plan on attending all the games.”
In Week Five, the winless Seahawks visited Tampa. Dubbed the “Expansion Bowl,” the game was ugly and forgettable. Its 41 penalties was two short of the NFL record. All but one Bucs lineman was called for holding. Seattle linebacker Mike Curtis blocked a field goal that would have sent the game into overtime, preserving a 13-10 Seahawks victory.
Down 20-0 to Kansas City in Week Eight, the Bucs exploded for 19 fourth-quarter points, only to lose, 28-19. After that, they were blown out of every game for the rest of the season. After giving up 49 points to Oakland in Week 12, Tampa dug deep and regrouped. The following week in Pittsburgh, they lost to the Steelers, 42-0. The ’76 Bucs were last in the league in points scored, touchdowns and rushing yards. They scored 125 points and gave up 412. Tampa Bay was not much of a second-half team, allowing 221 points while scoring 65. The Bucs were especially inept in third quarters, scoring only 16 points on the season, while allowing 106.
When asked the difference between coaching at Southern Cal and Tampa Bay, McKay replied, “It’s a three-hour time difference.” The team’s bright orange uniforms were almost as bad as their record. Featuring a white helmet adorned with “Buccaneer Bruce” decals on each side, the eye-sore orange tops and white pants became known as the “Creamsicle” uniforms. As bad as Tampa Bay’s uniform was in ’76, it is even more dreadful today, as their pewter pants-and-pirate flag look is one of the worst in NFL history.
The 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers were inept. With the exception of the great Lee Roy Selmon, they had a roster full of rejects. Tampa Bay was woeful in all three phases of the game. The Bucs made only five of 14 field-goal attempts beyond 30 yards, featured the consummate “three and out” offense, and had a defense that was constantly on the field. Half the teams Tampa Bay lost to finished with losing records, including 2-12 Buffalo, 2-12 expansion Seattle and the 3-11 New York Jets, who buried the Bucs in a Week Ten matchup, 34-0. Are they the worst team in pro football history? Hard to say. The 1934 Cincinnati Reds were 0-8 and the 1943 Chicago Cardinals finished 0-10. An argument can be made that the Detroit Lions were more putrid. In 1942, Detroit went 0-11. It got worse. More than six decades later, the 2008 Motor City Kitties went 0-16 to set a new all-time mark for futility.
Tampa Bay did not win a regular-season game until Week 13 of the 1977 season, when they beat the Saints, 33-14, in New Orleans. Following the game, New Orleans fired head coach Hank Stram. In the season finale one week later, Tampa beat the St. Louis Cardinals, who fired their coach, Don Coryell, days later. The win over New Orleans ended the longest losing streak in NFL history at 26 games. John McKay led Tampa Bay to two Central Division championships before retiring following the 1984 season. Coach McKay was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1988. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have an overall franchise record of 256-402-1 in 41 NFL seasons.