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TGS SPECIAL REPORT...THE PANTHEON OF THE WINLESS

by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


Forgive us for once upon a time thinking the pro football world revolved around Detroit. In the 50s, it mostly did, and certainly 1957, the TGS debut season, when the Lions would win the NFL title, bombing Paul Brown’s Cleveland Browns 59-14 to win the title at old Briggs Stadium, before they would change the name to Tiger Stadium a couple of years later. Four TD passes by QB Tobin Rote highlighted the Motown party that also featured seven takeaways from the careless Browns. The napalm job on Cleveland followed a dramatic Western Conference playoff win at old Kezar Stadium against the 49ers, a game the Lions trailed 27-7 at the half before rallying to win, 31-27.

Fast-forward 64 years, and we’re still waiting for another Lions title. And since beating the Browns for the the '57 crown, Detroit has won just... one...playoff game.

Oy Vey!
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We suppose, then, that any travails of the current winless Lions should not be totally unexpected. Heck, Detroit also did this winless thing not too long ago when finishing 0-16 in 2008. Though they have a tie on their 2021 record thanks to a 16-16 draw at Pittsburgh in mid-November, the Lions are nonetheless once again approaching pro football infamy, closing in rapidly on another rare winless campaign. Should Detroit take this all of the way to January and finish 0-16-1, the Lions will technically join the expansion 1960 Dallas Cowboys as a no-win-but-tie entry (Dallas finished 0-11-1 that initial season at the Cotton Bowl). Rest assured, however, in the pantheon of the pro football absurd, room will be made for the current Detroit debacle if the Lions can’t notch that elusive W.  (To find out what we think about Detroit's ongoing quest for winless infamy, and our opinion of this week's game vs. the Vikings, check out this week's NFL Analysis).

Earlier this season, we noted that the sleeves on the Lions jerseys are adorned with the letters “WCF” in honor of late owner William Clay Ford, Sr.  This added decoration has been on Lions sleeves since the 2017 season; the previous three years, a commemorative WCF patch was on the front of the Lions’ jerseys before being moved to the sleeve. All originally prompted by the passing of the franchise patriarch in March of 2014. This decoration reminds of the “GSH” on the sleeve of the Bears’ jerseys since the mid 80s, honoring franchise founder and NFL pioneer George S. Halas, who also coached Chicago thru 1967.

In football terms, however, initials on the sleeve are about as far as we can go with comparisons between Halas and Ford. 

While it is certainly within the franchise’s purview to honor a longtime owner (especially as his heirs still operate the team), many Lions fans hardly believe Ford stewardship worth celebrating. In fact, it would be hard to find a pro sports organization run with less competence over the past 60 years as control of the franchise has passed from Ford Sr., to his son William Clay Ford, Jr., to Ford Sr.’s widow Martha Firestone Ford, and now to daughter Sheila Ford Hamp. Under Ford ownership the past 58 years, the Lions have the aformentioned mere one playoff win, a Division Round success (38-6) vs. Jimmy Johnson’s Cowboys in 1991. Even the much-maligned Bidwill regime of the Cardinals has outpaced Lion performance the past six decades. 

Indeed, the postseason drought effectively coincides with Ford ownership; as noted above, the Lions won their last NFL title in 1957, but as a contending team would qualify for, and win, three consecutive NFL “Playoff Bowl” games (pitting the second-place finishers in the Eastern and Western Conferences) after the 1960, ‘61, and ‘62 seasons. All pre-Ford ownership. On the watch of the Fords, beginning seven years prior to the 1970 merger, Detroit has made the playoffs 13 times, but only once (the aforementioned 1991 vs. Dallas) managing a win.

Adminitative and coaching instability has been a trademark of the various Ford regimes. Not counting interim coaches, current HC Dan Campbell is the 17th head coach in the Ford era (the number swells to 20 when including interims Gary Moeller 2000, Dck Jauron 2005, and Darrell Bevell last season). The colorful Wayne Fontes is the only playoff-winning Ford era Lions coach, from 1991, and Fontes actually made four playoff appearances in eight full seasons.. When dismissed after the ‘96 campaign, Fontes had recorded a 66-67 W-L record, hardly an embarrassment, but the fact the Fontes era is recalled rather fondly by backers of the Honolulu Blue and Silver reminds just how low the bar has been set for decades in Motown.

The best teams of the Ford era probably belong to Joe Schmidt, who after his retirement as a HOF Detroit linebacker would serve one year on Harry Gilmer’s staff before getting the top spot in 1967. Schmidt’s 1969 and especially ‘70 teams might have been the best of the Ford era, compiling a combined 19-8-1 mark across those seasons, qualifying as the NFC’s original wild card team in 1970 before losing a bitter playoff game to the Cowboys at the old Cotton Bowl, 5-0.  Only a couple of the best Bud Grant Vikings teams stopped the Schmidt Lions from controlling the old Central Division in those years.

The Lions stayed competitive for Schmidt thru 1972, though Joe was suffering from football burnout. As an intelligent sort, Schmidt had also started an auto parts business that had become quite lucrative, and resigned after ‘72 with a 43-34-7 mark, finsihing his six-season run with four straight winning campaigns. Jim Caldwell’s four-year stint that ended after 2017 produced a 36-28 record, a tick ahead of Schmidt for best win percentage in the Ford era, though most vet Lions watchers don’t believe Caldwell’s best team (11-5 in 2014, losing to Dallas in the wild card round) rates above Schmidt’s 1970 entry as the top of the Ford era.  No Lions coach since Buddy Parker in the early-to-mid 50s has had four straight winning season as did Schmidt, either.

But there’s another angle to this tale of woe in Motown to which the modern masses might not be aware.

Indeed, we have long surmised that the die was cast of the Ford era with the Lions from the day WCF's purchase of the franchise was approved. For the specifics, we reprint the AP story that reported upon the sale, which at the time set a record purchase price for an American sports franchise by then 38-year-old Ford...

“As expected, Detroit Lions stockholders wasted little time Friday in accepting William Clay Ford’s $6 million offer to purchse the National Football League club.

“There were 55 of the 144 stockholders present at Friday morning’s meeting at a Detroit hotel (the Statler-Hilton). Less than an hour after the doors were closed, it was announced that the offer had been approved.

“It was reported that 94 percent of the stockholders approved the sale. Only 75 percent approval was needed to make the offer binding on both parties.”

Added the Detroit Free Press, “Thus the 15-year group ownership fo the Lions was dissolved and Ford, 38, youngest of the late Henry Ford’s grandsons, became sole proprietor of the professional football club.”

Here's where it gets eery.  The above stories ran on Saturday...November 23. Ominously, the “Friday” mentioned above happened to be...November 22, 1963. The sale of the team to Ford was indeed approved roughly about an hour before President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas!

So, if ever wondering why there always seems to be a dark cloud hovering above the Lions during the Ford era, there might be your answer.

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Chasing the rare winless season still causes a curious anticipation among on the national sport scene. Epic losers are apt to generate an almost cult-like following because of their ineptitude. There are baseball fans who still talk about the 40-120 expansion Mets of 1962, as well as NBA folk who still mention the 9-73 Sixers of ‘72-73 when the subject of all-time worsts are mentioned. There can be rewards for being so bad, as those Mets and Sixers are still recalled, almost fondly, and have been the subjects of various stories, and even books, dedicated to their plight in the decades since. The "lovable loser" fraternity also includes long title droughts, including the MLB Red Sox and Cubs, at least until each won the World Series after a near century-long litany of misses.  The single-season worsts, however, seem to exist in their own category.

Football infamy is a bit different, as we maintain there were certain 1 or 2-win teams during the TGS era that might have indeed been worse than some of the winless teams that are still recalled. Within recent memory are two 0-16 entries, 2008 Detroit (Ford era again!) and 2016 Cleveland. Perhaps because we have experienced winless seasons rather recently, the novelty has worn off a bit. After all, prior to 2008, we hadn't ever seen what an 0-16 NFL team looked like (the few previous winless seasons happened before the NFL expanded its schedule to 16 games in 1978...now, of course, 17 games).  Thanks to the 2008 Lions and 2016 Browns, now we know.

Still, hardly anyone recalls anything about the 2008 Lions or 2016 Browns, because there was nothing remotely interesting about either of them other than being bad. Bad and interesting, and more memorable, were the 0-14 Tampa Bay Buccaneers of 1976, the flagship entry for NFL losers prior to 2008 and pro football’s enduring contribution to the select sports company that would include the aforementioned 1962 MLB Mets and 1972-73 NBA Sixers..

Unlike the 2008 Lions, or the 2016 Browns, or this year’s Lions, the 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 45 years ago, as the addition 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. Amazingly, 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 inter-conference game was sacrificed for each team. 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, as noted above, 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 of the 60s and 70s, though the '76 "expansion draft" was supplying players for two teams, not just one, as had been the case with most previous expansions in the '60s (Atlanta and Miami both would debut in 1966, but at that point still played in different leagues, and their dispersal drafts within the NFL and AFL, respectively, were held before the merger announcement in July of '66). 

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.

A few times, expansion Tampa Bay actually did come 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 expansion team Seattle, a game that drew plenty of national curiosity as both entered at 0-5, each looking for its 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.

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 2008 Lions, or the 2016 Browns, for that matter, 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 (when time permits one day soon maybe 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 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."

More McKay-isms from the early Bucs days...

"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 45 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.


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