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Reflecting back on the Buccaneers’ historic, untouchable losing streak

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If you’re gonna lose, lose to the highest degree possible.

Cincinnati Bengals v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

There’s perhaps no greater defining trait to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that, for the first 26 games of their existence, they failed to win a single one.

While the Buccaneers have an entire section on Wikipedia dedicated to each streak of failure that they own (a favorite is that, from 1980-1995, Tampa lost 27 straight games on Astroturf), no one sticks out like the run of terribleness put on display from 1976-77.

It’s a streak that, when a team is approaching a winless season, gets whispered about in pseudo-admiration. Up until the Lions produced a stinker of a season in 2008, there hadn’t been a single other team since the NFL-AFL merger that didn’t manage to accidentally win at least one game.

It’s such an impressive feat of failure that it gets mentioned whenever anybody is displaying true futility. In 2015, when the Philadelphia 76ers were degrading the game of basketball with the longest losing streak in professional sports, the Buccaneers were held as the standard of non-excellence that the 76ers looked to achieve. When it was all said and done, Philadelphia, who would finish 10-72 that season, only broke the Bucs’ record by one.

There were several closes loses here and there, but it’s not like the Bucs barely achieved mediocrity: they committed to it. The Bucs lost by an average of 16 points during the streak, and in just the 1976 season, Tampa Bay’s NFL debut, they were shut out five times. After it, then-head coach John McKay put it perfectly, saying to player who planned returning the next season to “stop by my office tomorrow and pick up some fake noses and mustaches so no one recognizes your sorry asses.”

A fun fact about the streak is that it was started under the quarterbacking of Steve Spurrier, and that it was so terrible, it ended his professional playing career (but jumpstarted his coaching one). “If I’m not released by Tampa Bay,” the Ol’ Ball Coach said in an NFL Films production about the streak, “I probably would have never been a football coach.”

Along with Spurrier, there were some pretty notable names on the roster, despite the record it would produce. Lee Roy Selmon, who would enter into the Hall of Fame, did his best to keep Tampa afloat, and would eventually be rewarded two years after the shame with a berth in the NFC Championship.

We know the story from there: after the streak, the Bucs would begin a cycle of success-failure-success-failure, rotating between being a contender in the NFC and the laughing stock of the league, making the playoffs several times in the early 80s before enduring 14 straight losing seasons. The Bucs would win a Super Bowl in 2002, and then not win a single playoff game in the aftermath of it.

Tampa Bay is a team built on failure, and when it succeeds, it does it in spite of it and makes it that much more meaningful. Other teams can flaunt any old thing like “multiple Super Bowl titles” and “consistent winning seasons,” but the Buccaneers, they set the gold standard for failure.

And with Cleveland in a position to possibly change it, there’s no better time to appreciate Tampa’s terrible two years than the present.