The NFL's Game of the Weak was played in Tampa last Sunday, where the winless Seattle Seahawks and the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers clashed in Expansion Bowl I. "Hopefully, one of us is going to win," said Seattle Coach Jack Patera. "I'm sure both of us can't lose." Then Patera turned serious. "This game means that one of us won't go through the season without a win." Or as Tampa Bay Quarterback Steve Spurrier put it, "Nobody wants to be known as the worst, and certainly the loser of this game will be the worst."
Unfortunately for Spurrier, Tampa Bay won that honor by losing to Seattle 13-10. Naturally, the loss did not come easily. In fact, it appeared that the Bucs would force an overtime—and maybe even an ultimate standoff—as Dave Green lined up a dead-on 35-yard field-goal attempt in the final minute. But Seattle's Mike Curtis appeared from nowhere and blocked the ball. "It was perfect, it was fast," Green said of the snap and placement, "but nobody touched the guy. I can't block them myself."
The contest lived up to every expectation. It was terrible. The officials displayed the best offense, walking off a total of 310 yards while Tampa Bay managed 285 and Seattle only 253. Forty-one penalties were called in all, and 35 were accepted—the most in the NFL in 25 years and just two short of the league record. Offensive holding was charged 16 times. "I guess the officials wanted to make this look like the Mistake Bowl," said Tampa Bay Defensive End Council Rudolph. "It was a travesty," said teammate Pat Toomay. "The officials made us look like a bunch of idiots."
Still, the Buccaneers had something to cheer about: they scored their first "home" touchdown of the year and their first "passing" touchdown in history, all on the same play. Even that didn't come easily. Seattle led 13-3 at the time, and when Tampa Bay's Louis Carter seemed to be stopped just shy of the goal line, he two-handed a basketball-style pass to Wide Receiver Morris Owens, who was standing away from the commotion. Owens stared at the football in obvious disbelief, then recovered from the shock and stepped into the end zone. So much for history in Tampa.
October 24, 1976
Curtis, of course, helped make history for Seattle. "I was afraid of the overtime," he said. "I didn't think I could play anymore." Indeed, the 43,812 fans—27,588 short of capacity—probably could not have taken any more, although they undoubtedly did not expect very much in the first place.
Before the game Tampa Bay had the AFC's worst offense, Seattle the NFC's worst defense. The Seahawks had allowed their opponents more than 400 yards and 30 points a game. However, the Buccaneers had been shut out in three of their five games, and after one of those whitewashes, the opponent, Cincinnati, was so blasé that it didn't even bother to award any game balls. The Bucs did not cross the goal line until their fourth game, and then it was a defensive player, Cornerback Danny Reece, who scored the touchdown, returning a fumble 44 yards. In a lopsided loss to Baltimore, the Buccaneers gained an average of just 1.9 yards per play. In other words, if you gave Tampa Bay the ball for five straight plays, it would be sixth and one.
All this ineptness has proved very embarrassing to the two coaches. Patera spent 13 seasons as a defensive assistant in the NFL, and helped build Minnesota's Purple People Eaters, while John McKay used offensive innovations and flamboyance to gain fame and four national championships at USC. McKay's offensive woes have made him an inviting target for critics, who recall his penchant for belittling the notion that the pro game is more sophisticated and complicated than the college version. Before the Seahawk game, McKay surprised some writers with his humility. He called his new experience "painful and humbling," and added, "If we're not making progress in our third year, I'll tell our owner that he made a terrible error in me."
Nevertheless, the Bucs' offensive lapses have provided McKay with new material for his role as a stand-up comic. At a luncheon in Tampa last week he delivered these samples:
•"I thought all along we were going to win 14 games. Right after the opening kickoff I said, 'Well I'll be damned.' "
•"I've told our players, 'Let's have fun.' [pause] They took me literally."
•"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."
McKay's offensive coordinator, Johnny Rauch, resigned early last week, and McKay announced that he would assume Rauch's duties and also call plays for Spurrier. "I never had an offensive coordinator before," he said, "but I found out you're supposed to call someone that in the big leagues." In another move the Bucs signed former Pittsburgh Quarterback Terry Hanratty, but he was not activated for the Seattle game.
Unlike Tampa Bay, Seattle has had no quarterbacking problems. In the Seahawks' opening exhibition game, free agent Jim Zorn, a 23-year-old lefthander from Cal Poly, played the second half and brought them from a 24-0 deficit to within two yards of a tie, scrambling to just shy of the goal line on the game's final play as Seattle lost to San Francisco 27-20. Zorn has been No. 1 ever since, and now ranks first in the NFL in pass attempts, averaging almost 35 a game, and second in the NFC in passing yardage. "We're not trying to live by the pass," says Jerry Rhome, who coaches Seattle's quarterbacks and receivers, "we're just trying to live. I don't know anyone who can set up quicker or release quicker than Jim. He can really get rid of the ball. Sometimes he doesn't get it to the right place, but he can get rid of it." The 6'2", 200-pound Zorn has not had exceptional pass protection, and, as a result, has had to scramble for his life on occasion. Before the Tampa Bay game, he was tied for the team lead in rushing.
In the rabbit vocabulary of the book Watership Down, "zorn" means, perhaps fittingly, "all is lost." When told this, Zorn replied that in German his name means "anger." But Zorn is neither lost nor angry, and his name is no mystery around the NFL. He almost made the Dallas Cowboys last year, and was cut only two days before the season began when the Cowboys had to make room for Running Back Preston Pearson. The Rams quickly snapped up Zorn, and although they never officially added him to their roster, they kept him close by all year. The Seahawks outbid several clubs for his services last winter.
Zorn appends "I Corinthians 1:31" to his autographs. The verse "Who ever wants to boast must boast of what the Lord has done" seems applicable since Zorn is extremely unassuming. He agrees that his coach should call his plays. "I'm really young, you know," he says. "I don't know situations real well. I'm a little bit inconsistent, maybe because I'm young. I don't know. We'll find out what makes me tick." Zorn insists on polishing his own game shoes, wears the same knee pads he had in high school and drives a yellow Volkswagen with 79,000 miles on it. "I'd like a Porsche but God knows I couldn't handle one," he says. "My priorities would be all wrong. When God thinks I need a Porsche, I'll have a Porsche. He doesn't restrict you from buying one." Does God restrict him from throwing interceptions? "No," says Zorn, who has thrown eight, "He allows that."
Thus far, Zorn's favorite target has been rookie Wide Receiver Steve Largent, who leads the league with 23 receptions after catching three passes against Tampa Bay. Largent is neither big (5'11", 184 pounds) nor fast, but the Seahawks traded a draft choice to Houston for him at the urging of Rhome, who coached him at Tulsa.
Unfortunately, the Seahawks are not as blessed with running backs. In fact, Seattle is the only team in the NFL that has rushed for fewer yards than Tampa Bay. Four of the five backs on the Seattle roster were acquired on waivers just before the league opener with St. Louis. For two days that week the Seahawks practiced with just one running back, and at times they had to play the Cardinals with five wide receivers on the field. After that game, a 30-24 loss, Zorn was quizzed about the new players. "We got good play from some of our new people," he said, "particularly running back...er...er...No. 44."
That's the way it is on expansion teams—a lot of confusion and a lot of hope for the future, all taken with a grain of salt. Spurrier probably expressed it best: "We're pretty close to being a good team," he said. Then he thought a second and added, "But right now we're terrible."