October 17, 2011

1976: Seahawks Defeat Bucs in Battle of Expansion Teams

The NFL game on October 17, 1976 at Tampa Stadium was derisively referred to as “Expansion Bowl I”. Both the host Buccaneers and visiting Seattle Seahawks were first-year expansion teams and their records were each equally imperfect at 0-5.

Tampa Bay was coached by John McKay, who had been highly successful in the college ranks at Southern California. A veteran quarterback, ex-49er Steve Spurrier, had been obtained but was operating behind a substandard line and supported by a nondescript group of running backs. Brothers Lee Roy and Dewey Selmon, the top two draft choices, would both pay future dividends at defensive end and linebacker, respectively, but were battling injuries as rookies. As a result, the defense was poor, especially against the pass. The Bucs had been shut out three times already, and only reached double figures in points scored in one of the five games (they lost to the Colts by a score of 42-17).

The Seahawks, under Head Coach Jack Patera, were dealing with expansion-team woes but seemed the more promising of the clubs. Three unheralded rookies - QB Jim Zorn, WR Steve Largent, and RB Sherman Smith - had emerged as capable starting players on offense. However, the defense gave up far too many points – in fact, more than Tampa Bay at that point (153 points vs. 120), but two of their losses, to the Cardinals and Packers, had been by seven points or less.

There were 43,812 fans present for the showdown between the NFL’s newcomers. Eleven penalties were called in the first quarter, setting the tone for the game. Dave Green kicked a 38-yard field goal, and the Buccaneers were in front by 3-0 after a period of play.

In the second quarter, the Seahawks drove 86 yards in eight plays in a drive kept alive by a fake punt by Rick Engles, who ran 13 yards for a first down in a fourth-and-four situation at his own 48. The possession culminated in a Zorn pass to WR Sam McCullum for a 15-yard touchdown after an apparent scoring pass to Largent was nullified by a penalty.

Later, it appeared that Seattle had a second touchdown when Smith ran into the end zone from two yards out, but it was called back due to yet another penalty and the Seahawks had to settle for a 25-yard field goal by John Leypoldt. Leypoldt kicked another field goal from 39 yards before the first half was over. Meanwhile, Green’s 35-yard field goal attempt for Tampa Bay was blocked by Seattle safety Lyle Blackwood and the Seahawks took a 13-3 lead into halftime.

Late in the third quarter, the Buccaneers put together a scoring drive after LB Richard Wood recovered a fumble at the Tampa Bay 46. Penalties, plus runs of 12 and 9 yards by HB Essex Johnson, led to a first-and-goal at the Seattle one. After two plunges into the line failed to penetrate into the end zone, HB Lewis Carter took the handoff on third down, was pushed back, and flipped the ball to an unsuspecting WR Morris Owens, who caught it and scored. With the successful extra point, it was a three-point game after three quarters – and would remain so.

In the final minutes, Tampa Bay drove to the Seattle 18 but 33-year-old LB Mike Curtis broke through the line to block a 36-yard field goal attempt by Green with 40 seconds left to preserve the 13-10 win for the Seahawks.

A total of 35 penalties were called (20 on the Bucs, 15 on Seattle), adding up to 310 yards, in the sloppily-played game that took some 3 ½ hours (there were actually four more flags thrown, but two of the penalties were declined and two offset). Even Coach McKay drew a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for comments made to the officials from the sideline (when asked afterward what he said, his only reply was “you can’t print it in a family newspaper.”). It was the most penalties in a NFL game since 1951.

The Buccaneers outgained the Seahawks (285 yards to 253) and had more first downs (18 to 14). But while John Leypoldt missed on one of his three field goal attempts, the two blocked three-point attempts by Dave Green proved to be crucial.

Jim Zorn completed just 11 of 27 passes for 167 yards with a TD and an interception. Sam McCullum was the receiving star as he caught 5 passes for 64 yards and a touchdown while Steve Largent contributed three receptions for 49 yards. Sherman Smith gained 45 yards on 10 carries to pace what there was of a ground game.

For Tampa Bay, Steve Spurrier was successful on 18 of his 30 passes for 170 yards with no scores but also none intercepted. Louis Carter (pictured at left), in addition to his improvised scoring pass, rushed for 66 yards on 15 carries and caught three passes for 28 more. Ex-Bengal Essex Johnson had 12 rushes for 54 yards, caught a pass for nine, and ran a kickoff back for 32 yards. Morris Owens had 5 receptions for 24 yards and a TD while FB Ed Williams was the pass receiving yardage leader with 42 yards on his four catches.

“Nobody touched me,” said Mike Curtis, the ex-Baltimore Colts star, about the fourth quarter blocked field goal attempt. “They broke down on their blocking assignment on the final field-goal attempt. The up-back blocked out, trying to get defensive back Lyle Blackwood, and I got through and hit the ball shoulder high.”

“It was perfect,” said the grim-faced Dave Green of the ill-fated attempt. “It was a fast play. Nobody touched the guy. I can't block them myself.”

Said Jack Patera afterward, “I don't know if he'll win any this year, but I think John McKay is a fine coach. In fact I'd say he's done a heck of a job because I compare his team to ours.”

The normally quote-worthy McKay was unusually low-key after the game, perhaps realizing that his team’s best chance of winning a game in ’76 had passed. The Buccaneers came within three points of upsetting Miami the next week, but that was as close as they came to being victorious in a contest as they finished up at 0-14 and on the bottom of the AFC West (they moved to the NFC Central the following year). They would lose a record 26 straight before winning their last two games of the 1977 season, but would be the first of the two expansion teams to make it to the postseason (in 1979, when Tampa Bay advanced to the NFC Championship game).

Seattle won once more to end its inaugural season with a 2-12 record for last place in the NFC West (like the Buccaneers, the Seahawks were transferred to a different division in ’77, the AFC West, where they remained until returning to the NFC as a result of the 2002 league realignment).