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Those 1976 Buccaneers know all about losing

TAMPA, Fla. -- Pat Toomay has had enough.

For more than three decades, the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers set the modern standard for NFL futility by going 0-14. Now, Toomay would just as soon let someone else -- the 2008 Detroit Lions, for example -- finish winless and spend the next 30 years answering questions about sheer ineptitude.

"The luster wears off," said Toomay, a defensive end on the expansion team that was shut out five times and outscored 412-125 in the franchise's inaugural season.

"I would like the torch to be passed," he added. "At the same time, you don't want to wish that on anybody."

Several teams have flirted with winless seasons since the 1976 Bucs, who wore creamsicle uniforms and helmets bearing a winking pirate logo and were trounced by an average of almost three touchdowns per game.

The 1980 New Orleans Saints were 0-14 before winning in the 15th game. The Baltimore Colts went 0-8-1 during the strike-shortened 1982 season and were 0-13 on the way to finishing 3-13 in 1986. Several other teams, including last year's Miami Dolphins, have won one game since the NFL adopted a 16-game schedule in 1978.

The 1976 Bucs, playing in the AFC West, which eventual the Super Bowl champion Oakland Raiders dominated with a 13-1 record, had a number of close calls, including two three-point losses to fellow expansion mate Seattle and to Miami.

Tampa Bay lost to the Kansas City Chiefs by nine the following week, then dropped its last six games by an average of nearly 30 points.

The defending Super Bowl winner Pittsburgh Steelers pummeled the Bucs 42-0 in Week 13, and Toomay will never forget the scene in the players' parking lot before a season-ending 31-14 loss to the New England Patriots.

"By the time we got to the last game of the season, we had so many injuries that we didn't feel we had much of a chance. Everybody was so sick of the season that they showed up packed and ready to get out of town," said Toomay, now a freelance writer living in New Mexico. "It looked like a bunch of Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl. ... I was living in Dallas at the time, and I know my goal was to be out of the state by midnight."

Richard Wood, a hard-hitting linebacker who played for John McKay when the first Bucs coach was building an impressive resume at USC, has been closely following the Lions because he knows Rod Marinelli from the Detroit coach's days as an assistant in Tampa Bay.

Wood began his career with the New York Jets in 1975 and was acquired by Tampa Bay in a trade at the end of training camp.

McKay won four national titles at USC and annoyed some NFL players and coaches with brash comments about the prospect for success in the pro game.

"It was a brand-new organization. Who cared about us? They wanted to devastate us, beat us in the ground," Wood recalled. "And with coach McKay coming from college, they wanted to maybe even play us a little harder."

But unlike Toomay, who has mixed emotions after whether to root for Detroit against the Green Bay Packers this week, Wood hopes the Lions don't finish 0-16 and have to live with the humiliation of being on the wrong side of history.

He remembers turning on the television late at night, wondering what Johnny Carson would have to say about Bucs, who also lost the first 12 games of 1977. The 26-game losing streak is still the longest in NFL history.

"I always felt we could win. That was just the type of player I was. I never went into a game where I didn't think we could win, even in '76," Wood said. "As impossible as it was, looking back on it, I still felt we could surprise somebody."

He has empathy for the Lions, but he still finds it amazing that during this age of free agency and high salaries that a team is on the verge of supplanting an expansion team as the measuring stick for futility.

Although there were some recognizable names on the 1976 Bucs such as Heisman Trophy winner Steve Spurrier and future Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon, who was a rookie, the Bucs mostly were a collection of castoffs in the twilight of their careers.

"I'm not saying the Lions aren't fighting," Wood said. "I know they're working hard. But come on, guys. You've got to finish. You can't just talk about it. You have to go out and do it."

Toomay points out that Spurrier is a successful college coach, that Selmon and Wood were important components of the defense that helped Tampa Bay reach the 1979 NFC Championship Game in the franchise's fourth season, and general manager Ron Wolf built a Super Bowl winner around Brett Favre in Green Bay.

Toomay also had his best season as a pro, leading the AFC in sacks after being traded to Oakland the following season.

The lesson the Lions can take out of that, he said, is that players who persevere and play hard to the often bitter end eventually will prosper. He also believes he and other members of the '76 Bucs are stronger because of the experience.

"It gives you perspective on winning, losing, life -- what it is really about. It was invaluable in that respect," Toomay said.

Count Spurrier among those rooting for the Lions.

"I want that record," the South Carolina coach said during a recent visit to Tampa for an Outback Bowl contract signing ceremony.

"I think they'll win a game. I'm pulling for them, sure," Spurrier added. "That's the American thing to do, isn't it?"

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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