Buc-ing a long history of losing
January 10, 2003
Patience pays off for hardy fans who weathered bad years in Tampa
THEY TRADED Steve Young to the 49ers and got rid of three other quarterbacks who later went to the Super Bowl -- Doug Williams, Trent Dilfer and Chris Chandler.
They drafted Bo Jackson and didn't sign him. They once had a coach, Ray Perkins, who traded away a future first-round draft choice because he figured that, by the time the pick came, he would be fired, anyway.
They hold the NFL record for consecutive losses. They once lost at least 10 games a year for 12 seasons in a row. A national publication once identified them as the worst franchise in professional sports.
And yet, here come the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the 49ers' opponent in Sunday's divisional playoff game, with the NFL's best defense, playing in a spanking, new stadium, led by a hot young coach, with a loyal fan base and judged by Forbes magazine to be the seventh most valuable franchise in professional sports.
"One thing our franchise should do is give hope to anybody who thinks their team can't ever win," said Rich McKay, the Bucs' general manager.
McKay's father, John, was Tampa Bay's first coach in 1976. The Bucs began in the NFL by losing their first 26 games. That was a harbinger. But the senior McKay never lost his sense of humor. Asked one time what he thought of his team's execution, he said, "I'd be in favor of it."
Around here, fans have the patience of a 3-year-old and panic when the 49ers don't win big. These front-runners never could have survived in Tampa.
"No fan base should have to go through what we went through," Rich McKay said this week. "That fan base stuck with the franchise through thin and thinner."
The Bucs, in their first season under Jon Gruden, are in the playoffs for the fifth time in six years. They are enjoying a renaissance led by McKay and former coach Tony Dungy that began when they parlayed the seventh choice in the 1995 draft into trades that brought them Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks.
Most of their seasons, however, have ended the same way. Their past three playoff games ended without a Tampa Bay touchdown. Nonetheless, what defines this franchise is not so much its futility on offense, but its laughable history.
It started with that 26-game losing streak. A decent defense eventually made the Bucs respectable and, by their fourth year, they were in the NFC Championship Game. Then, Williams left over money, and decay set in.
"A cloud immediately developed over the franchise," McKay said. "They went on Mr. Toad's Wild Ride trying to replace him."
Young came a couple of years later. He was the quarterback for part of the 1985 season and most of 1986, but the Bucs were 2-14 both years under coach Leeman Bennett, who later went to work selling recreational vehicles. Young said this week he was so miserable in Tampa that he wanted to go back to the United States Football League, where paychecks bounced and the team's bus driver refused to drive until he got paid.
McKay, whose father retired following the 1984 season, recalls Young's years in Tampa Bay as the depth of the team's depression.
"It was the one time you can actually say they were not a competitive team in any way, shape or form," he said. "Literally, they had no way to win games. The only way they could win a game was if the other team self-destructed. To go 4-28 is hard to do."
In the middle of that run, the Bucs held the first pick in the draft. They were warned they needed to sign Jackson before the draft if they were going to get him. They didn't sign him, drafted him anyway and got nothing to show for it. Bennett was succeeded by Perkins, who chose Vinny Testaverde with the first pick of the next draft and later had the brilliant idea of trading a future first-round pick for Chandler.
"If Chandler can help us," Perkins said at the time, "it's a good trade. If he can't, it's somebody else's first-round pick to worry about."
It was Sam Wyche's pick, as it turned out. Both Perkins and Chandler were gone from the team by the time it came up.
The Bucs, McKay said, kept looking for a "savior," and struck out on stiffs like outside linebackers Keith McCants and Broderick Thomas, drafted in the first round in successive years. They never developed Testaverde, who's still in the league. It wasn't until new ownership re-structured the front office under McKay in the mid-'90s that the Bucs developed a plan.
McKay speaks fondly of the original owner, Hugh Culver- house, but says that while Culverhouse wanted to win, "It wasn't in the top five priorities." Until the team was sold, McKay was promoted and Dungy arrived, the best winning percentage among the previous five Bucs' coaches was .359 by Wyche. Good batting average. Lousy winning percentage.
Some believed the Bucs were simply a cursed franchise and, until recent years, they appeared to be. But McKay says it wasn't a curse; it was simple incompetence.
"They just had no plan for success," he said. "It wasn't luck that was dooming this franchise. This was consistent (losing), and for a reason."
Now the Bucs have achieved consistency of a different type; they are the only team in the NFL that has been in the playoffs each of the last four seasons.
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