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No shame here: Original Bucs still the essence of awful

John Romano | Jacksonville’s 20-game losing streak was snapped Sunday, which means the 1976-77 Bucs remain the NFL’s standard for losing.
It was not uncommon to see Bucs fans in Tampa Stadium wearing paper bags on their heads in the 1970s and '80s.
It was not uncommon to see Bucs fans in Tampa Stadium wearing paper bags on their heads in the 1970s and '80s. [ UNKNOWN | St. Petersburg Times ]
Published Oct. 18

TAMPA — Like any precious keepsake, I picture the paper bag being in the bottom of a family trunk along with baby booties, dried-out corsages, and the musty smell of mementos and memories.

You’ve had no reason to go looking for it in recent years, but this moment feels like it needs to be recognized. Even celebrated.

The Jacksonville Jaguars ended a 20-game losing streak Sunday, which, of course, means nothing to a fan of the Buccaneers. Except for this:

We’re still the worst!

So, go ahead, pull out the paper bag with the cutout eyes and the colored-in frown, and slip it over your head for old times’ sake. Soak in the memories of football’s most infamous losing streak. Revel in the knowledge that no NFL fan has ever suffered the way you suffered in 1976-77.

Am I being facetious? Maybe, but just a little.

If you were around here to live through the 26-game losing streak of the expansion Bucs, and to see fans with paper sacks on their heads in Tampa Stadium, you understand exactly what I’m talking about.

There is something special about being a witness to history. To knowing that you shared an experience that others will never know in their hearts.

If the surviving Dolphins of 1972 can still celebrate with a champagne toast every time the last undefeated team falls in the NFL, then surely Bucs fans of the 1970s can commemorate their winless streak with a bag over their heads and a cheap can of wine.

Because — and trust me on this — today’s Jaguars have nothing on those old Bucs.

Did you know Tampa Bay failed to score a touchdown in 14 of those 26 games? That they averaged 6.8 points a game across nearly two full seasons? That they were outscored 614-178 during the streak?

The Bucs started six different quarterbacks (Steve Spurrier, Terry Hanratty, Parnell Dickinson, Jeb Blount, Randy Hedberg and Gary Huff) before winning their first game. And not a single one of those quarterbacks went on to throw a pass for another team in a regular-season NFL game.

This was the epitome of putrid. The essence of awful. The Bucs were nightly punch lines on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show, as well as on sitcoms and in newspaper columns across the country.

Legendary coach John McKay turned his wicked sense of humor on his own players, though it didn’t seem quite so funny in the midst of all the losing.

In fact, it wasn’t always this easy to reminisce.

Though the Bucs quickly got better with Lee Roy Selmon anchoring the defense and Doug Williams running the offense, that original heyday ended too quickly to erase the stain of the losing streak.

While the Bucs had three postseason appearances and two division titles from 1979-82, they followed with a 14-year slog of ineptitude and ridicule that just cemented the perception that they were the most woebegone franchise in North American sports.

It took an ownership change, as well as the hiring of Tony Dungy and a new generation of defensive stars, to finally right the ship in the 1990s. Super Bowl titles in 2002 and 2020 seasons now mean the Bucs have scaled the NFL’s summit more times than two dozen other franchises since 1976.

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And that success means Tampa Bay can finally look back without shame.

The Detroit Lions of 2008 went 0-16, but they didn’t come close to 26 losses in a row. (And the Lions have never won a Super Bowl!)

The Jaguars of today have the second-longest losing streak in league history at 20, but they also have a franchise quarterback already in the pocket. (And the Jaguars have never won a Super Bowl!)

In other words, the Bucs remain unique. They have enjoyed more championships than most teams during their 45-year history, and they have also survived the NFL’s most embarrassing stretch of losing.

So while the rest of the football-playing world congratulates the Jaguars for winning, fans in Tampa Bay should quietly appreciate a decades-old team for losing.

After all, we did it better than anyone before or since.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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