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TGS SPECIAL REPORT...CHASING INFAMY WITH THE JETS

by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

We suppose there would be nothing more appropriate in the crazy year of 2020 than for an NFL team to complete the rare lose-‘em- all schedule. We have witnessed such a few times in recent memory. And, counting teams that did not do better than one tie, we’ve actually done the winless thing a bit more during the 64-season history of TGS (dating to 1957) than some might realize. Five times, to be exact.

A new entrant to that pantheon of the absurd, however, might be seeking entry, as the New York Jets hit the half-mile pole of 2020 well on their way to a winless, 0-16 slog. (That particular feat of 16 losses in a season has only been achieved by the 2008 Lions and 2017 Browns). Some other teams have come close, with the collection of one-win entries rather lengthy. Interestingly, the same Brownies came dangerously close to back-to-back 0-16s, as they lost their first 14 games of 2016 as well before beating the Chargers 20-17 on Christmas Eve. A result which has caused some to joke that San Diego didn’t even want the Bolts thereafter; the franchise would move 100 or so miles north to Los Angeles the following season.

Which brings us to the J-Men, who brought an 0-8 straight-up mark into last Monday’s game at MetLife Stadium vs. Bill Belichick’s Patriots. Into that matchup, the Jets were giving every indication that they could match the 2008 Lions and 2017 Browns in the 0-16 club, especially as their negative scoring margin (-144 thru 8 weeks, an average of -18 pg!) was on course to be the largest in NFL history. New York had also covered just once in its first eight games, proving almost as adept losing against the spread as it has been in the straight-up category.

Of course, handicappers are paying attention, because the shrewd amongst them know that playing against bad teams can be every bit as profitable as going with the hottest teams. Especially as the sports books in Nevada and elsewhere are never going to take a pro football game off of the weekly board because one team is so wretched; there are always plenty of wagering opportunities involving these bad teams. Not every lousy team, however, is a go-against bet; look at the other New York team, the Giants, who entered last Sunday at 1-7 before a win at Washington marked the sixth straight game in which they haven’t endured a spread loss. Even at a lowly 2-7 straight up, the G-Men have only lost one of their last eight vs. the line! Perhaps the latest example of oddsmakers discounting a bad team to the point where at some point it begins to offer pointspread value. (Maybe the Giants aren’t even that bad!). A few such examples will be noted below.

In the meantime, a quick look back at the winless pro football entries in TGS publishing history... an “elite” group that includes just five teams.

1960 Dallas Cowboys (0-11-1)... The original Cowboys team had a legit excuse as the first NFL expansion entry of the modern era. Tom Landry had been plucked from the Giants’ staff to build the new team (which was originally called the “Rangers” for the first three months as an entity, but changed to “Cowboys” in March of 1960) , but it would take several years for his blueprint to materialize. The 1960 Dallas roster consisted mostly of cast-offs that were culled from the first expansion draft, though Landry and GM Tex Schramm would add via trade QB Eddie LeBaron (from the Redskins) and end Bill Howton (from the Browns), plus pick up a handful of others released by other teams, to form the core of the team. About the only name that endured until the franchise turned the corner in the middle of the decade was rookie QB Don Meredith, the SMU product who spent much of 1960 caddying for LeBaron. Occasionally competitive, Dallas lost its first 10 of the 12-game season in which it would compete in the Western Conference (the move to the East came in the subsequent 1961) and played one game vs. each of the other 12 teams in the league. But in the penultimate week against the 14-point favorite Giants at Yankee Stadium, the Cowboys battled to a 31-31 draw, rallying from a 21-7 deficit as LeBaron would toss a trio of TD passes to former Colts HB L.J. Dupre, and another to tie the game to Howton with just over 2 minutes to play. With the Eagles beating the Cardinals the same day, New York would surrender the Eastern crown it had won the previous two seasons. Buoyed by the draw, Dallas played well again in the finale at Detroit vs. a Lions team still in contention for the West crown; as 13-point underdogs, the Cowboys, though unable to slow Lions FB Nick Pietrosante, who gained 142 YR, lost honorably, 23-14, netting another spread cover to close the season.

1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-14)... Pro football expanded for the first time in eight years in 1976 when the Bucs and Seahawks were added. With the dispersal draft diluted by a pair of new teams, there were few available vets who could provide much help for HC John McKay, who left from his highly-successful 16-season run at USC. When the carnage finally ended in December, the Bucs had set a new standard for futility, not only losing all fourteen of their games, but also getting blanked an astounding five times in the process while scoring only 125 points, just 8.9 ppg, an NFL-low for a 14-game schedule (though the record stood for only one season, as McKay's next edition in '77 tallied only 103 points, a mere 7.4 ppg!). The '76 Bucs also put a staggering 17 players on injured reserve, including six defensive starters. A few times, Tampa Bay came close to scoring a win, playing Buffalo tight at the old "sombrero" in early October before falling 14-9, and then in the epic showdown vs. fellow expansionite Seattle, a game that drew plenty of national curiosity as both entered at 0-5, looking for their first-ever W. The visiting Seahawks would hold on for a 13-10 win, with a Jim Zorn-to-Sam McCollum TD pass highlighting a 2nd Q "explosion" when Seattle would score all of its points. (The Seahawks would finish at 2-12, adding a 30-13 early-November win over the Falcons at the Kingdome.) The following week the Bucs pushed downstate Miami into the final minute before losing 23-20. But in the last six games of the '76 season, Tampa Bay would not come closer than 17 points.  (More on the '76 Bucs below.)

1982 Baltimore Colts (0-8-1)... The ‘82 Colts might deserve an asterisk for appearing in this grouping as their winless campaign coincided with the strike-shortened ‘82 season, which was almost cut in half (down to nine games) due to a two-month work stoppage. Week Two was played the weekend of September 19; the next action would not commence until November 21. With new HC Frank Kush adjusting to pro football after a long and successful run (and controversial ouster) at Arizona State, and a brief, winning stint in the CFL, the Colts were outgunned, having traded away Bert Jones in the offseason and going with rookie QB Mike Pagel, who had been recruited to ASU by Kush. After a couple of competitive losses to the Patriots and Dolphins to open the season, Baltimore did not adjust well after the conclusion of the strike, blanked in its first two return games vs. the Jets and Bills, though did manage spread covers in their next three, including the lone non-loss of the season in a rare overtime tie (20-20) against the Packers on December 19 at old Memorial Stadium, when the Colts scored twice in the 4th Q to erase a 20-6 deficit. The postscript to 1982 was that Baltimore seemed in such disarray that the consensus top draft pick, Stanford QB John Elway, did not want to play for the Colts, with the presence of Kush one of the reasons. (We highlighted these developments regarding Elway, which eventually resulted in a trade of his draft rights to Denver, in last week’s publication). By 1984, the Colts were gone from Baltimore altogether, having escaped to Indianapolis in dead of night on March 28 of that year.

2008 Detroit Lions (0-16)... An injury-ravaged ‘08 Lions team proved that preseasons mean little after winning all four of their exhibition games before proceeding to lose every one of their regular-season contests. Though Detroit only came close to winning outright on two occasions (both against Minnesota), the Lions were hardly the worst spread team of all-time. Not even close; Detroit was a respectable 7-9 vs. the number, covering 6 of 7 times when posted as a double-digit underdog. (Hence the caution scenario against betting opposite bad teams as the spreads adjust.) On the field, the Lions ran thru three starting QBs (Dan Orlovsky, Jon Kitna, and Daunte Culpepper), and didn’t play much defense, either, allowing more than 32 ppg, which was the third most in NFL history. Hardly an endorsement for HC Rod Marinelli, supposedly a defensive expert, who was predictably removed at the end of the season. Though as mentioned, Detroit was a fairly comeptitve team against the spread. Postscript: as 0-16 garnered the top pick in the 2009 draft, it allowed the Lions to select Georgia QB Matthew Stafford, who remains the cornerstone of the roster and an enduring dividend from the ‘08 debacle.

2017 Cleveland Browns (0-16)...On the heels of the aforementioned one-win campaign of 2016 that narrowly missed the big donut when winning in the penultimate week vs. the Chargers, the Brownies removed all doubt in the following 2017 by losing ‘em all. The most remarkable development of 2017 might be that HC Hue Jackson survived after a 1-31 two-year mark and was retained until midway in 2018, lasting longer than predecessors Eric Mangini, Pat Shurmur, Rob Chudzinski, and Mike Pettine, plus successors Gregg Williams (interim 2018) and Freddie Kitchens (just one season in 2019). Unlike the 2008 Lions, who did not fare too badly against the spread, Cleveland didn’t cover many pointspreads, finishing just 4-12 vs. the number, and only twice coming close to straight-up wins in overtime home losses to the Titans and Aaron Rodgers-less Packers, with Brett Hundley at QB. It seems a long time since we mentioned QB DeShone Kizer, the Notre Dame product who piloted the Brownies almost all of the way as a rookie in 2017, tossing 22 picks and only 11 TDs along the way. (Kizer hasn’t taken an NFL snap since limited work with the Packers in 2018; he has been on-and-off the Raiders roster the past two seasons, not participating in a game). Cleveland did manage to parlay these bookend disasters of 2016-17 into first picks in successive drafts, netting DE Myles Garrett and Heisman QB Baker Mayfield.


Still, hardly anyone recalls anything about any of the above-mentioned teams because there was nothing remotely interesting about them other than being bad. Bad and interesting, and more memorable, were the 0-14 Buccaneers of 1976, the flagship entry for NFL losers prior to 2008.

Unlike the 2008 Lions or 2017 Browns, the ‘76 Bucs had a legit excuse to be bad, as they were an expansion team, entering the league along with the Seattle Seahawks. Which created some awkwardness in the mid 70s, as the additions of Tampa Bay and Seattle would expand the league from 26 to 28 teams, and the NFL had to decide where to place the expansion franchises, as well as figure out how to fit the new teams into the pre-arranged schedules of the day. It took a couple of years to find full-time landing spots for each, with the Seahawks dropping into the AFC West, and the Bucs into the then-called NFC Central, ostensibly to provide a warm-weather site for the old "black-and-blue" division of the Bears, Lions, Packers, and Vikings (though Detroit had already moved indoors to the Pontiac Silverdome by 1975).

The schedules in the '70s were another matter, however, as at the beginning of the decade and the merger, the league announced both inter-and intra-conference foes in advance...five years worth at the outset! So, beginning in 1970, every team knew what its schedule would look like, as far as opposing foes were concerned, thru 1974! Thus, for a few years, the NFL was not much different than college football as far as advance scheduling (though the pros would not announce dates and locales of the games until the spring of each year, much as it continues to do today). Scheduled foes-in-advance for later in the decade were announced a few years later, but the addition of the Bucs and Seahawks caused some concerns for the schedule-makers, who didn't know how the new teams would fit, or how they might disrupt the carefully-crafted list of foes for each team.

The solution, for 1976 and '77, was for the Seahawks and Bucs to flip-flop conferences after the first season. In each year, the 14-game schedules for Seattle and Tampa Bay would include one game vs. each of the other 13 teams in their respective conferences, plus a game vs. each other. To accommodate the Seahawks and Bucs in the 14-game schedules of the day, one intra-conference game was sacrificed for each of the other teams. For 1976, Seattle was placed in the NFC West, and Tampa Bay in the AFC West (yes, the Bucs were once in the AFC West!). For 1977, the Seahawks flipped to the AFC West and the Bucs to the NFC Central, where they would remain from 1978 (when the regular-season schedules were also increased to 16 games) until the league re-alignment of 2002.

Tampa Bay's first edition, however, would become the butt of jokes for decades to come because the Bucs couldn't win a game, finishing 0-14. It was a sobering development for HC John McKay, hired away from Southern Cal after a fabulously-successful 16-season run with the Trojans. But in his NFL debut, McKay would lose more games than he did over an eight-season span from 1967 thru 1974 at SC, when he lost only 13 times. (McKay's last Trojan team in 1975 started the season 7-0 but promptly lost its last four regular-season games after it was announced that McKay would be leaving the following year for the NFL.)

McKay's earliest Tampa Bay edition was filled with an array of castoffs that was standard fare for any new entry, though the '76 "expansion draft" was supplying players for two teams, not just one, as had been the case with previous expansions in the '60s. Thus, the available player pools were a bit diluted for both the Bucs and Seahawks, especially compared to mid-to-late '60s expansion teams Miami, Atlanta, New Orleans, and Cincinnati (in particular the Saints, who stocked their initial roster with several familiar names and former all-pros, even as many were well past their sell-by dates). Though Tampa Bay had a handful of recognizable names on the downside of their careers (such as ex-Bengals RB Essex Johnson, ex-Steelers and Notre Dame QB Terry Hanratty, and a few others), the original Bucs roster was very non-descript, and was heavily populated by various castoffs and rookies who had played for McKay at SC.

Surprisingly, the Bucs did not select a QB in the dispersal draft and waited until the 7th round of the college draft before taking Parnell Dickinson from Mississippi Valley State. Thus, Tampa Bay's first-ever trade would be with the 49ers and net none other than Steve Spurrier, the one-time Florida Heisman winner who would be the Bucs' primary QB in their maiden voyage. (Spurrier started 12 of 14 games, with rookie Dickinson and Hanratty starting one each). Spurrier, however, was never on the same page as McKay, who preferred to establish his offense around the power running game he employed at USC. Spurrier, realizing the team did not have the personnel to feature that sort of attack, lobbied for a more pass-oriented offense, and clashed often with McKay, who also wanted his son John (J.K.) as the team's primary receiver, while Spurrier preferred Morris Owens, who would go on to some productive seasons for better Bucs teams in subsequent years and would catch 6 of the team's 9 TD passes in '76.

When the carnage finally ended in December, the Bucs had set a new standard for futility, not only losing all fourteen of their games, but also getting blanked an astounding five times in the process while scoring only 125 points, just 8.9 ppg, an NFL-low for a 14-game schedule (though the record stood for only one season, as McKay's next edition in '77 tallied only 103 points, a mere 7.4 ppg!) The '76 Bucs also put a staggering 17 players on injured reserve, including six defensive starters. As mentioned above. McKay did come close to a few wins in ‘76, but in the end could not avoid the big donut.

After the '76 campaign, McKay would release Spurrier, and the Bucs would proceed to lose their first 12 games of '77 before finally breaking their losing streak at New Orleans after dropping a stunning 26 games in a row to begin their existence!

Unlike the other four winless teams, however, there was something endearing about the '76 Bucs. Perhaps it was because they were behind the eight-ball from the start as an expansion team. Or perhaps it was McKay, to this day the most humorous after-dinner speaker of any sports personality of any era (perhaps when time permits one day soon we'll recount hearing McKay speak at a golf "smoker" in early 1973, and some of his jokes that stick with us to this day), and whose dry wit came in especially handy during those dark early days with the Bucs.

Indeed, "McKay-isms" became especially popular during Tampa Bay's rampant losing, as scribes couldn't wait to pen the latest McKay quips. Among the best were those that follow:

On hearing about kicker Pete Rajecki's nervousness at playing in front of McKay: "That's unfortunate, as I plan on attending all the games."

At a postgame press conference: "You guys don't know the difference between a football and a bunch of bananas." At the following week's press conference, after a member of the media left a case of bananas at his door: "You guys don't know the difference between a football and a Mercedes-Benz."

On former QB and NBC analyst John Brodie's comment that Steve Spurrier throws one of three passes into the ground: "That's OK, we'll just get shorter receivers."

When asked how he compared coaching in Tampa to coaching at USC: "It's a three-hour time difference."

When asked what he thought about his team's execution: "I'm in favor of it."

To players planning on staying in Tampa over the offseason: "Stop by my office tomorrow and pick up some fake noses and mustaches so no one recognizes you."

Plus some other nuggets, such as...

"We've determined that we can't win at home and we can't win on the road. What we need is a neutral site."

"We didn't block real good, but we made up for it by not tackling."

"Mr. (Hugh) Culverhouse has been a great owner. He hasn't come to the dressing room yet to give me any suggestions. Well, I need some advice. I called the Baltimore owner, but he was busy."

"We'll be back. Maybe not in this century, but we'll be back."

As for McKay, he at least offered some levity to the situation with the early-day Bucs. Which came in handy 44 years ago. While Tampa Bay 1976 produced some bad football, at least when we look back at those Bucs, thanks to John McKay, we manage to smile.

The real challenge, then, for the 2020 Jets, is if we can similarly smile at their plight decades down the road!  


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