• Sal Maiorana

The day the woefully inept Buccaneers finally won

NEW ORLEANS - (Dec. 11, 1977) - Archie Manning wasn’t sure what he was more surprised about. The fact that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had just defeated his New Orleans Saints to record their first victory in franchise history, or that he was being given credit for motivating the Bucs prior to their landmark triumph.

In the days leading up to the Dec. 11, 1977 game, Manning was quoted as saying that losing to the Buccaneers - who had dropped 26 games in a row since joining the NFL in 1976 - would be “disgraceful.”

Dutifully inspired by Manning’s words, Tampa Bay jumped to a 13-0 halftime lead, increased the margin to 27-0 early in the fourth quarter, and though the Superdome was half-empty, the chorus of boos raining down on Manning and the Saints could be heard in the farthest reaches of the Bayou when the 33-14 romp was complete.

After the game, as they celebrated the end of the longest losing streak in NFL history, the Bucs chastised Manning for what he had said. “We just read the article to (the players) where Archie said it would be disgraceful to lose to Tampa Bay,” said Bucs coach John McKay Sr. “He said it would be a disgrace to lose, and it is.”

Added defensive lineman Dewey Selmon: “He has his disgrace, and now he has to sit on it. Archie has to suffer the consequences for that remark.”

But Manning wanted to know one thing: What remark?

“I didn’t know anything about that until after the game when McKay said something about it,” Manning recalled many years later. “None of that surfaced in New Orleans before the game because I never said it.”

Manning’s side of the story goes like this. He and Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton had spoken on the phone that week because the Bears had played Tampa Bay the week before and escaped with a hard-fought 10-0 victory. Payton said something to the effect that even though Tampa Bay had improved as a team, becoming the Bucs’ first victim would still be disgraceful, and Manning figures he must have flippantly agreed.

Highlights from Tampa Bay's first NFL victory in 1977, ending a 26-game losing streak

What happened next is that Payton talked about his conversation with Manning to reporters in Chicago and it somehow got out that Manning had said losing to Tampa Bay would be disgraceful.

“I wasn’t that type of interview, and we weren’t good enough to be saying that,” Manning said. “It turned out that’s what motivated them. It’s bad enough to lose and have a bad game, but then you find out that something you said instigated it.”

Tampa Bay had been making obvious strides on defense, but its offense was simply anemic. In five of the previous seven games the Bucs had been shutout and had scored only 17 points, and in their first 12 games, they had managed a meager 53 points.

There was no reason to expect a Tampa Bay victory, except for the fact that they were overdue, and they were playing the nearly as inept Saints. “We weren’t playing well, and they were actually getting better,” said Manning. “They had almost won a couple other games, they had a good defense and it became a very good defense.”

During the first half Dave Green kicked a pair of field goals and Tampa Bay quarterback Gary Huff threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to Morris Owens to make it 13-0. Meanwhile, the Saints didn’t produce a first down until 2:30 remained in the second quarter, and they didn’t cross midfield until less than a minute was left in the half as Manning threw one interception and lost a fumble which helped to keep New Orleans in unworkable field position.

Any regrouping the Saints may have done at halftime was quickly undone when Manning hurt his back and was forced to the sidelines briefly in the third quarter. His backup, Bobby Scott, tried to hit John Gilliam on a quick out two minutes into the period, but Tampa Bay cornerback Mike Washington stepped in front of Gilliam to pick it off and ran 45 yards untouched for the killing touchdown.

The Bucs returned two more interceptions for touchdowns in the fourth quarter - one by Richard Wood off Scott, the other by Greg Johnson off Manning - to offset a Manning TD run and a Manning TD pass to Gilliam. All together, the Saints threw six interceptions, and the three TD returns by Tampa Bay tied a NFL record.

“We were strangled by the trauma,” said Saints coach Hank Stram. “As soon as they got on top you could feel it, and the harder we tried, the worse we got. It was a nightmare. It was the worst experience of my coaching career.”

After the game, as Huff took a deep draw on the stogie sticking out of his mouth, he couldn’t help but notice that it had lost some of its freshness. “I’ve been carrying them around so long, they’re stale,” said Huff of the cigar he planned to smoke when the Bucs finally broke their drought.

McKay once compared coaching an expansion team to a religious experience. “You do a lot of praying, but most of the time the answer is `No,’” McKay said.

On the day God finally said yes, Dewey Selmon remarked “Fantastic, fantastic. God knows it has been a long time coming.”

#JohnMcKay #TampaBayBuccaneers #NewOrleansSaints #ArchieManning #DeweySelmon #WalterPayton