by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

There’s a part of pro football history that resides in the NFC South that none of its members probably wish to remember. Keep in mind that all four of them (Atlanta, Carolina, New Orleans, and Tampa Bay) entered the league as expansion franchises, and each has endured some Dead Sea-like lows in their lifetimes. Now, the Carolina Panthers, who have mostly avoided mention in any all-time worst discussions (although their 1-15 side in 2001 deserves some mention), might be threatening to author a new chapter in that NFC South book of woes.

Indeed, history tells us that the current 0-3 Panthers have a long way to go to match the most inept of offenses in modern pro football history. Even if Carolina continues scoring at the 7 ppg pace of its last two games, the Panthers will finish the season on 123 points, which would keep them .2 ppg ahead of the 1977 Tampa Bay Bucs, who dented the dish that season to the tune of 7.4 ppg.

But, for our history segment this week, we’ll debate whether those Bucs of 33 years ago were really the worst offense of the modern era. Others will maintain that the 1974 Atlanta Falcons deserve the honor. In either case, the current Panthers are going to have a lot to live “down to” in order to invite any eventual comparisons.

John McKay’s early Bucs teams have long been regarded as some of pro football’s most inept. In particular, the 1976 expansion entry, which had the dubious distinction of being the first side to lose every one of its contests in a 14-game season. Entering the league along with the Seattle Seahawks in ‘76, those Bucs were placed in the AFC West, while Seattle would nest in the NFC West in its debut campaign. Although the division designations were somewhat meaningless in 1976 and ‘77; in order to provide a more level playing field for the rest of the AFC and NFC, each expansion team would play all of the other 13 teams in its conference, plus each other, for the 1976 & ‘77 seasons. The Bucs and Seahawks would flip-flop conferences in 1977 (Tampa Bay to the NFC Central, and Seattle to the AFC West), and eventually stay in those divisions until the league realigned in 2002.

Of course, Tampa Bay’s aforementioned 0-14 in 1976 was at the top of pro football infamy until eclipsed by the 2008 Lions, who lost all 16 of their games. But for pure ineptness, especially on the offensive side, it would be hard to top the next year’s 1977 version of the Bucs.

McKay’s second team endured problems from the outset. After jettisoning QB Steve Spurrier (yes, that Steve Spurrier) following the winless ‘76 campaign, McKay acquired a Florida State product, Gary Huff, from the Bears as well as ex-Stanford QB Mike Boryla, from the Eagles, to compete for the QB job. But McKay’s biggest offseason splash came on draft day, when he opted for Southern Cal RB Ricky Bell, whom McKay coached in college, over Heisman winner Tony Dorsett from Pitt as the first pick in the draft. This was consistent with the USC theme on the Bucs staff and roster, which was overpopulated by ex-Trojans (11 ex-SC players would eventually be on the ‘77 team).

Before the preseason (still six games long in ‘77) reached its third game, however, McKay was in trouble at QB, as both Huff and Boryla were down with knee injuries, leaving only rookie Randy Hedberg (from Minot State) and erratic holdover Parnell Dickinson as the options as the regular season approached. McKay then acquired Jeb Blount, who at Tulsa had thrown passes to a WR named Steve Largent, on waivers from the Raiders to compete for the job. Meanwhile, McKay was nonetheless excited at the prospect of his most recent RB stars at SC, Bell and Anthony Davis, teaming in a Trojan-themed backfield.

From the outset, McKay’s '77 defense played heroically, with Lee Roy Selmon and Dave Pear anchoring a stout DL in McKay’s 3-4 that would bottle up most opponents throughout the season (indeed, Chicago’s Walter Payton, who had emerged as the league's premier RB, was the only opposing rusher to crack the 100-yard barrier). But the offense was somewhere in neverland, failing to generate any continuity whatsoever. Injuries ravaged the unit beyond the QB position, with TE and the OL also victimized. Hedberg earned the starting QB call in the regular-season opener at Philadelphia but was hopeless, and not until Huff returned from injury in game three vs. Dallas (a 23-7 loss) did the Bucs manage to score a TD. Huff, however, would be in and out of the lineup with knee problems, forcing McKay to eventually turn to Blount, who like Hedberg was woefully overmatched. Meanwhile, without much of a downfield passing threat to worry about, opponents began to mass their defenses against Bell, Davis, and ex-Florida RB Jimmy DuBose (shown running in a preseason game vs. the Dolphins, above left).

To put the Bucs’ 1977 offensive futility in perspective, consider that with the exception of a 23-point outburst in a mid-October loss to fellow second-year expansionite Seattle (a 30-23 winner at the Kingdome), the ‘77 Bucs scored a total of 30 points in the other 11 of their first 12 games. On six occasions the team was blanked. In a stretch of five games from week 8 thru week 12, the Bucs were blanked four times. The ineptitude reached its nadir in a 17-0 week eleven loss to the Falcons, who held the Bucs to 78 total yards, and limited QBs Huff and Hedberg to 5 completions in 23 pass attempts, with four interceptions. When the season was complete, Huff, Hedberg, and Blount had combined for 30 interceptions and just 3 TD passes (all credited to Huff); Hedberg and Blount combined for 17 picks and 0 TDP.

That’s a lot for Carolina’s Jimmy Clausen and Matt Moore to live down to in 2010.

There was, however, something of a happy ending for the ‘77 Bucs, who finally stopped their protracted, record 26-game losing streak when whipping the unsuspecting Saints, 33-14, in the penultimate game, effectively ending Hank Stram’s career as a head coach. The Bucs liked the feeling of that win so much that they went out and did it again in the final week, beating the reeling St. Louis Cardinals, 17-7, ironically also preceding Big Red owner Bill Bidwill dismissing HC Don Coryell. Losing to those Bucs was apparently dangerous for a coach’s career. Although the “D” contributed heavily to the win over the Saints with three TDs of its own, the “O” did play much better in the last two games, amassing two of its highest yardage totals of the season (238 and 279 yards, respectively). And by scoring 50 points over their last two games, the Bucs almost matched the 53 points they produced in the first twelve weeks combined!

But can you believe there might have been an NFL offense even more unsightly than those ‘77 Bucs?

Although the stat book might give a slight "advantage" to the ‘74 Falcons, who scored 7.9 ppg over their 14 game slate compared to the ‘77 Bucs’ 7.4 ppg, it can be argued that the ‘74 Falcons were certainly the most disappointing offensive team of the modern era. And perhaps the ugliest attack end performers in memory as well.

In retrospect, it is hard to believe the ‘74 Falcons actually won three games, which was a credit to their hard-nosed defense. Entering the campaign, however, a lot more was expected. Unlike the ‘77 Bucs, of whom nothing was expected in their second season, the ‘74 Falcons were a chic Super Bowl pick by some, off a breakthrough 9-5 campaign in 1973 in which they seemed to uncover a winning QB in Bob Lee, the U of Pacific grad who had been an understudy to Joe Kapp and Fran Tarkenton at Minnesota. But the seeds of discontent were planted even before the ‘74 campaign commenced during a player’s strike during the preseason, in which veteran players stayed out of camp for the first few exhibition games. This caused more internal friction within the Falcons than most other teams, likely because of cantankerous HC Norm Van Brocklin, who was furious at the developments. Pulling one veteran out of the training camp picket line, Van Brocklin expressed his displeasure. “You and your picket sign,” said the Dutchman, “have been traded to New Orleans.”

Van Brocklin’s authoritarian demeanor, which always threatened to trigger mutiny even in calmer times, proved a particularly bad fit that summer with the backdrop of the labor strife, to which Van Brocklin had no sympathy. Subsequently, the Dutchman quickly lost his team by the time they returned from their walkout. The regular season began awkwardly and went downhill from there, with Atlanta blanked 24-0 by Dallas and managing only 108 yards in the process.

The offense, which had shown so much promise in several explosive efforts in 1973, suddenly couldn’t get out of its own way. Van Brocklin panicked with Lee, off to a slow start, and began juggling him and Auburn’s 1971 Heisman winner Pat Sullivan in the lineup. The offensive line, despite the presence of quality performers such as C Jeff Van Note and T George Kunz, couldn’t block anybody. Star RB Dave Hampton was injured to begin the season. The Falcons managed to pick up a 14-7 win in their fourth game at the Yale Bowl against the Giants only because DB Ray Brown raced 59 yards with an interception off Giants’ QB Norm Snead for the winning TD. A subsequent unsightly 13-10 win over Chicago was thanks almost completely to the Bears’ ineptness.

Even though thoughts of a winless campaign were dispelled in early October, Atlanta was in serious trouble, underscored by an odorous 13-3 mid-October loss to a Saints team playing without injured QB Archie Manning. A pair of losses in those days to the Saints (who had also won a week three battle at Tulane Stadium, 14-13) was cause for alarm, and Van Brocklin could not contain his frustration. “All the @#% trouble started with the #@% strike,” the Dutchman roared in an obscenity-laced tirade to reporters after the second loss to the Saints. “It is a %#@ all-time low.”

If Van Brocklin hadn’t lost the team by this point, he lost it completely in the aftermath of a 24-17 Monday night loss at Pittsburgh in week seven, in retrospect one of the sloppiest games of the entire ‘74 NFL campaign. The Falcon offense was unsightly as usual, gaining only 167 yards and guilty of 5 TOs. The Steelers, however, were also in a giveaway mood that night with 4 turnovers of their own, giving Atlanta an opportunity to hang closer than it deserved. In the aftermath of the game, however, the prickly part of Van Brocklin surfaced in a team film session, when the Dutchman continued to replay a vicious hit a Pittsburgh defender laid upon Falcon RB Art Malone, rendering the ex-Arizona State Sun Devil injured. Rightfully so, team members took offense at this bit of sadistic behavior on the part of the coach. Owner Rankin Smith, who had become understandably disillusioned with developments, was getting closer to hitting the eject button on the Dutchman.

Events the following week at Miami sealed Van Brocklin’s fate. The angry Dutchman shoved a cameraman out of the hotel elevator, then proceeded to watch the Falcons get blasted by the Dolphins at the Orange Bowl, 42-7, in the one game that season where the defense caved. During a press conference a few days after the loss, Van Brocklin reacted angrily to a reporter who asked the Dutchman if he was still “a fighter.”

“Get out of that chair and try me if you don’t think I’m a fighter,” challenged the Dutchman. “I mean it. If anyone in here wants to try me, we’ll stack furniture.”

Owner Smith had seen enough, and after a testy meeting with Van Brocklin following the raucous press conference, canned the coach after 8 games, promoting d.c. Marion Campbell to the top spot.

The “Swamp Rat” was no offensive mastermind, however, and any thoughts that the Falcons attack might reignite after Van Brocklin’s ouster were quickly disspelled. The Falcs were blanked 21-0 by the visiting Rams in Campbell’s first game, and after a 17-7 loss to the Colts, Campbell turned to the overmatched Sullivan and the criminally inept Lehigh rookie Kim McQuilken at QB in a 27-0 loss at San Francisco. By this point, Atlanta’s offensive malaise was almost comical. Although the Falcon defense eventually presented Campbell with a 10-3 win over an equally inept Green Bay in the finale at a cold and windy Fulton-County Stadium, 48,830 Atlanta fans voiced their disenchantment by becoming no-shows for the season-ender vs. the Pack, a game the Falcons won despite McQuilken completing only 7 of 20 passes and suffering three picks. The memory persists of an almost-empty grandstand that day in Atlanta, watching two miserable teams perform on a cold and wet December day, one of the dreariest recollections we have of pro football in the ‘70s.

When the dust settled, the ‘74 Falcons never cracked the 17-point barrier, and passed for fewer than 100 yards in 9 of their 14 games. Their 111-point season total set a mark as the lowest-ever in the modern era, a record that stood until the ‘77 Bucs bettered it (or worsened it) by coming in at 103 points three years later. The QB combo of Lee, Sullivan, and McQuilken combined for 4 TD passes and 31 interceptions. (Amazingly, McQuilken would hang on for a few more years in the league with the Falcons and Redskins, getting a couple of more starts before finishing with 4 TD passes and 29 picks and 39.7% completions in a 5-season NFL career before briefly resurfacing a few years later with the Washington Federals of the USFL.)

Yes, we know the 2010 Panthers have been pretty unsightly thus far. But to scale the heights of ineptitude in the pantheon of the NFL absurd, Carolina’s offense still has a ways to go to top the ‘77 Bucs or ‘74 Falcons.

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