You Think the Jags Have it Bad? It Could Be Worse
This Sunday’s game in Denver between the 0-5 Jaguars and the 5-0 Broncos is anticipated to be a mismatch of historic proportions. This week The MMQB is exploring what it’s like for the Jaguars to be the NFL’s biggest underdog ever, whether there’s hope for the season—and the future—in Jacksonville, and how the Jags and the league’s other winless teams might turn things around. Read the entire series, and check back each day this week for more.
I come before you today to defend the honor of the 1976 Bucs, the historically inept team of my youth. They are rightfully remembered as the ’62 Mets of the NFL, and I won’t have their legacy tarnished by the Johnny Come Lately Jaguars of Jacksonville.
There’s all sorts of chatter and buildup this week about the 0-5 Jaguars playing at the 5-0 Broncos, with Vegas setting the point spread for this monumental mismatch at 28, the largest recorded for an NFL game since the merger. Everybody’s buzzing about it, and seems to be preparing for a view to a kill by Peyton Manning and Co.
Sure, it could get ugly. But when it comes to over-matched football teams, I’m convinced no team was ever as over-matched as those first-year expansion Bucs going into Pittsburgh in early December 1976, to face the two-time defending Super Bowl champion Steelers. With apologies to Senator Lloyd Bentsen, I knew the ’76 Bucs. I lived and (mostly) died with the ’76 Bucs. And you, Jaguars, are no ’76 Bucs.
I’m to believe Jacksonville has less of a chance to win in Denver than Tampa Bay did that day at frosty Three Rivers Stadium? Don’t make me laugh.
Despite growing up in St. Petersburg, Fla., and following those early-year Bucs avidly (I even attended three home games in 1976), I really didn’t know prior to this week that Tampa Bay was the biggest underdog in NFL history before Jacksonville’s trip to Denver came along. But it makes perfect sense. Depending on which betting line is cited, the mighty Steelers were either 26- or 27-point favorites that day, and for very good reason.
Tampa Bay entered 0-12, on its way to a miserable 0-14 season that for my money still sets the standard for NFL futility, and slapstick. Pittsburgh entered 8-4, with those two Super Bowl rings, and on a historic and hellacious defensive roll. After starting the season a surprising 1-4 amid a wave of injuries, the prideful Steelers had pulled themselves together like no one before or since. In winning its subsequent seven games, Pittsburgh had allowed just 28 total points, with three shutouts, and three more games of surrendering six points or less.
I can sympathize with what Jacksonville is going through. You know how hard everyone practices and preps for these games, and it’s not like you want to go in there and lose by that kind of margin. It’s just the way you match up.
The Steelers were beating teams by an average of more than 20 points per game during that winning streak, while the bumbling Bucs had lost their first dozen games of 1976 by more than 18 points on average. Vegas did the math and came out with that outlandish spread of almost four touchdowns. And Tampa Bay didn’t disappoint, getting demolished 42-0 by the Steelers, in the Bucs’ most lopsided loss of the season.
“Is that all it was, 42-0?’’ Dave Green, the Bucs’ punter, kicker and team jester in 1976, asked Wednesday morning. “I thought that was the halftime score. It was no fun going in there that day. It just felt like it was 4th-and-80 every time I went in to punt. It was just frightening. I do recall Pittsburgh was at its peak at that point, and we were at the very bottom of things.’’
In truth, the game could have ended much worse for Tampa Bay. The Steelers led 42-0 in the third quarter, and essentially called off the dogs after Terry Bradshaw found receiver Lynn Swann for a pair of touchdown passes in that quarter. Pittsburgh ran the ball a whopping 58 times for 222 yards and four rushing touchdowns, with the Steelers trying to put the Bucs out of their misery as quickly as possible. The Steelers threw just 15 passes, completing 12 for 163 yards and those two scores.
Current Falcons president Rich McKay, the then-teenaged son of Bucs head coach John McKay, said his dad was grateful for the mercy shown his overwhelmed troops. “I remember the game,’’ McKay said, via text. “Afterward, my dad said Coach (Chuck) Noll was the ultimate gentleman or they would still be scoring. It was cold, and the Bucs were overmatched.’’
As Swann recalls it, despite the raw 23-degree early December conditions that prevailed, Pittsburgh was red hot and did anything it wanted to do in the game against Tampa Bay.
“We could have probably scored 60, or scored 70,’’ Swann said by phone. “I scored two touchdowns and we were a run-first, run-second, and pass-only-if-you-had-to football team. But at that point, with our backs against the wall after that 1-4 start, we couldn’t afford to lose anything, two Super Bowls or not. We had to go out and get it, and it was like, ‘Look out, we’re bringing everything we have.’ Tampa Bay, in its first year, just happened to get in the way.’’
Like a speed bump. Which is probably how the reeling Jaguars might be feeling about now, heading into Denver, where the Broncos are fresh off that 51-48 thriller in Dallas, and average 46 points per game with a league-leading 230 points scored. Jacksonville is scoring only 10.2 points per game, and giving up 32.6 on defense, so a beatdown looks likely, I’ll grant you. But not an embarrassing 42-point rout like the Bucs suffered against Pittsburgh, not with Denver’s defense allowing 27.8 points per game this season through five games. Those Bucs were so bad they didn’t even practice the victory formation, because they were certain they wouldn’t need it.
It was a tough day, but going into the game you have to feel you can beat them. Are you going to go out there and whimper and cry and think, ‘Well, they’re favored to beat us,' or are you going out there to play a football game?
“We were a lovable, struggling bunch,’’ Green said. “I remember we drank lots of the beef bullion they had in the locker room that day, so we were not only bad, we were filled with salt, too.
“But I can sympathize with what Jacksonville is going through. You know how hard everyone practices and preps for these games, and it’s not like you want to in there and lose by that kind of margin. It’s just the way you match up, and we weren’t matching up well with anyone at that time.’’
They say the talent gap between teams in the NFL is so close that just a few plays determine every game. But the use of the word “every’‘ in this case is just hyperbole. Sometimes the difference can occasionally tilt toward night and day. And grow as sizable as this week’s Jaguars-Broncos point spread.
“I’m not going to lie about that, there was a talent gap between us and those Steelers,’‘ said Bucs linebacker Richard Wood. “You had Hall of Famers on offense for them, you had Hall of Famers on defense for them. There you are, playing against one of the greatest football teams of all time.
“It was a tough day, but going into the game you have to feel you can beat them. Are you going to go out there and whimper and cry and think, ‘Well, they’re favored to beat us,‘ or are you going out there to play a football game? But once the game started, (the Steelers) knew they were in control. I think they were in control before we got there.’’