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Barry Hirstius

Lesson From Saints History: DON’T EVER Underestimate the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

This Sunday afternoon at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the New Orleans Saints are a 7-point favorite to beat their NFC South Division rivals the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and for a good reason.

That's because the (5-2) Saints have won 5 games in a row and are playing some of the best football overall in the entire League in recent weeks; while the (2-5) Buccaneers have been struggling and have lost 4 consecutive times since they originally began the 2017 regular season at 2-1.

But given the history between the two team, it would probably be a good idea for New Orleans to not take this game lightly under the current circumstances.

In fact, a lesson from a game that occurred between the Saints and Tampa Bay inside of what was then known as the Louisiana Superdome back on the date of December 11th, 1977 tells us DON'T EVER underestimate the Buccaneers franchise, no matter what.

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press Archives

And I should know: because I was THERE.

You see long before I became a sports writer and a now a featured columnist here at the Saints News Network, I grew up as a fan of the Saints when I was a kid throughout the entire decade of the 1970's, as a New Orleans native.

And the game between the Saints and the Buccaneers on that particular day was the last time that I would ever attend a game with my beloved "Paw Paw" (the late, great John "Johnny" A. King, God rest his soul) before he eventually succummed to throat cancer on March 20th, 1978.

But not before we would witness together — for the last time for me as a 10-year old boy and for him as a 68-year old man — the Saints play a football game on an NFL Sunday.

But December 11th, 1977 was no ordinary NFL Sunday, mind you.

It was a day that if you're an "older" Saints fan, will live on in complete INFAMY.

When all was said and done: the Saints would become the absolute JOKE of the NFL; and things got so bad in fact, that it would eventually even cost then-Saints head coach and long-time NFL coaching legend Hank Stram, his job.

That mostly was because of the fact that coming into the game on that fateful December 1977 day, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had NEVER won a single game (0-26) in the National Football League up to that point.

They had finished 0-14 (the NFL didn't begin playing 16-game seasons until 1978) in their 1st season in 1976, and were (0-12) coming into the game that day against the Saints.

And believe me when I say: NOBODY expected the Buccaneers to win on the Superdome that day.

Nobody that is, except themselves.

During the week leading up to the game, the odds-makers out in Las Vegas had made the Saints a whopping 11-point favorite at home in the Superdome; and then-Saints QB Archie Manning told New Orleans newspapers the Times-Picayune and the evening paper the State-Times that it would be "a disgrace" if the Saints — who at (3-9) during that time weren't exactly 'world beaters' themselves — lost to Tampa Bay.

After Manning's comments circulated around the League, Bucs coach John McKay, who had previously been the coach at the University of Southern California; was quick to use them as "bulletin board material" for his young team that was made up primarily of rookies and 2nd year players, along with some cast-offs from the CFL (Canadian Football League) and the WFL (the World Football League, which was the precursor to the USFL of the early 1980's and had gone out of business in 1975).

At 0-12 on the season, McKay needed all of the sources of motivation that he could find.

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press Archives

Tampa Bay's problems were abundant, starting with an offense that was ranked dead last in just about every statistical category. Six times — that's not a misprint, and yes: 6 TIMES — Tampa Bay had been shut-out that season already and had only managed 53 points in their first 12 games.

As they arrived in New Orleans that Saturday afternoon, they were a football team that had scored just 7 points in their last four games and were coming off consecutive shut-out losses.

However, once the game got underway, they were loose and more importantly: THEY WERE CONFIDENT, while the Saints were the ones who seemed to be tense and were playing as if they were the team that had never won a game.

On the opening drive, the Bucs had some initial early success, and they drove the ball quickly down to the Saints' 16 yard line. But typically as teams that have never won a game EVER often do, they make too many mistakes; such as the one made by Tampa kicker Dave Green, who proceeded to badly hook a 33 yard field goal off wide to the left.

On the very next possession, Tampa's defense forced a Saints 3-and-out; and following a 20-yard punt return by Bucs return man Danny Reece that put them deep again in Saints' territory; the Buccaneers drive ended with a 40-yard field goal from Green that gave them a 3-0 lead midway through the 1st quarter.

Then as the game moved into the 2nd quarter, the Buccaneers had what I'd consider a "defining moment"; as they blew the Saints O-Line right off the snap of the football and heavily pressured Manning — who somehow managed to escape but then proceeded to throw a "wounded duck" of a pass that was immediately intercepted by Bucs' CB Mike Washington, setting up Tampa Bay at the Saints' 33 yard line.

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press Archives

The Bucs would then subsequently use RB's Rickey Bell and Jimmy DuBose to pound the football all the way down to the Saints 8-yard line, although the Saints still managed to get the defensive stop before Tampa Bay added another Green field goal for a 6-0 advantage.

But that turnover was a "tone-setter" for the Buccaneers defense for the remainder of the contest.

The Bucs then added another TD tight before half-time when QB Gary Huff hit WR Morris Owens wide open in the end zone for an easy touchdown. It gave them a 13-0 advantage, their biggest lead EVER in Buccaneers franchise history by that point.

But it was a decision by Stram during half-time that may have altered the outcome permanently, and essentially guaranteed a Saints loss.

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press Archives

Stram felt that the Saints need a "spark", and when they came out on the field to begin the 2nd half, he told former University of Tennessee star and then back-up QB Bobby Scott to start warming up, because he was being inserted into the line-up.

As bad as Manning had looked in that game, Scott was MARKEDLY worse.

After his first pass gained minus -1 yard, his 2nd pass was intercepted once again by Mike Washington and returned 45 yards for a "Pick 6", giving the Bucs a 20-0 lead.

On the ensuing possession, Scott's next drive was equally as bad as he threw another interception, but the Buccaneers failed to score.

Then  — complete disaster struck.

On the very first play of the 4th quarter, Scott tried to hit Saints wide receiver Larry Burton over the middle but was intercepted inside the Saints' own 20-yard line by rookie Tampa Bay linebacker Richard Wood, who took it the distance.

Green would shank the extra point attempt, giving Tampa Bay a 26-0 lead but nevertheless (and rather amazingly) a franchise record for the most points ever scored in a game.

Stram became increasingly desperate and put Manning back into the game, and it was Manning who eventually got the Saints on the scoreboard with a 2-yard bootleg run to cut the Bucs advantage to 26-7 with 7:07 left in the game.

It was then that the Buccaneers defense put the proverbial "nail in the coffin".

After pinning New Orleans deep inside their own 10 yard line following a downed punt, Manning's 2nd down pass was batted into the air and caught by backup Bucs DE Greg Johnson, who literally walked in for the easy touchdown.

Photo taken from You Tube

GAME OVER.

On the day: the Buccaneers defense had 6 interceptions, a forced fumble, 5 sacks and 3 defensive touchdowns.

Future Hall of Fame defensive end Lee Roy Selmon had a performance for the ages; as he put up three sacks and that fumble recovery by himself alone.

Johnson's TD gave Tampa Bay an insurmountable 33-7 lead with only 1:55 remaining left to play, touching off a wild celebration on the Bucs' sideline.

There were at least 5,000 Bucs fans that had driven over from Tampa for the game, and they were virtually in 7th Heaven, as they were overcome with the joy and excitement of their franchise's 1st ever victory.

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press Archives

A late Manning TD pass made it 33-14, but it was meaningless.

On the other sidelines, as the game clock expired the Saints were LOUDLY booed off the field by their own fans inside the Superdome, which counting my Paw Paw and myself numbered at least 40,000 people.

As the Saints walked off the field, my Paw Paw — whom I had known was terminally ill and dying but kept the knowledge of his condition to myself because he didn't realize that I already knew — turned to me and said: "what a bunch of sorry son-of-a-bitches".

It was the very last conversation that we would ever have at a game, about the New Orleans Saints team that he had taught and raised me to love.

Later on during the Buccaneers post-game press conference, Selmon told reporters:

"I didn't think it set too well with anybody when Coach McKay told us what he (Manning) had said before the game." 

Photo courtesy of The New Orleans Times-Picayune

"This is a habit I could grow accustomed to," McKay said after the game, his voice cracking several times during the post game interviews.

Meanwhile over in the Saints locker room, the players as you might expect were in a somber state and in no mood to answer questions.

Around the NFL later that day and for at least a few weeks after, the Saints became the laughingstock of the entire NFL, and deservedly so.

And as you might expect: they were certainly going to be consequences, as a direct result of this very public and utter humiliation, that had cast a pall over the entire franchise.

In the book on his legendary head coaching career titled "They're Playing My Game", Stram told the book's author Lou Sahadi that he was subjected to a disingenuous process by Saints management following the end of the 1977 season, that would eventually lead to his dismissal.

On Christmas Day 1977, Saints owner John Mecom called Stram at his home, to wish Stram and his wife a Merry Christmas. Mecom then told Stram that he had been sitting at home (in Houston, where he was based) and thinking about how the Saints 1977 season had come to an end; bu that he also still believed in Stram's potential to eventually make the then-10 year old Saints franchise a "winning" organization.

Although Stram was happy to hear from Mecom and get the "vote of confidence", he was very uneasy.

Photo courtesy of The New Orleans Times-Picayune

Then in early January of 1978, Stram got a call from Bud Holmes — Mecom's legal attorney for all personal and team-related matters — who asked Stram to meet him at his New Orleans office to discuss the team and the organization's current status.

After arriving at Holmes' office, Stram was puzzled as to the true nature of the meeting.

"What's this all about?", Stram asked.

"Well, you know John. He's never going to make a decision", Holmes replied.

"A decision about what?", Stram said to Holmes.

"He's never going to meet with you face-to-face. You're too strong (of a personality) for John, and he knows that", said Holmes stoically.

Stram knew something wasn't quite right, but pretended as if he had no clue as to what was going on.

"Bud, I don't know what you are trying to say".

"I have a document here that John wants you to sign", said Holmes.

"What does it entail?", Stram asked.

"It states that you'll never hire any coaches without talking to John first", said Holmes.

"I have no objections to that. John and I agreed to that when I first signed with the club", said Stram.

Stram left Holmes' office even more puzzled than when he first got there, but figured he would soon have the opportunity to "clear the air" with Mecom at some point; and was hoping to do so at the NFL owners meeting scheduled for early March of 1978 in New York City.

But when Stram got to New York, Mecom was nowhere to be found.

Just a few days later, Stram got a call from Eddie Jones, the Saints executive Vice President of team operations, who asked Stram to come down to the Saints executive front offices, then located in downtown New Orleans near Lee Circle off of St, Charles Avenue.

However.......

Stram KNEW that things weren't right and that something was about to go down; when he walked into Jones' office to find Holmes — sitting in a chair next to the other empty chair which was directly in front of Jones' desk — right there waiting for him, too.

"John wants to make a change", Jones announced matter-of-factly.

"You mean regarding me", Stram snapped back.

"Yes. You can do whatever you want. Resign or say that you were fired. That's final.", Jones said stoically.

"Where is John? Why isn't he here?", Stram wanted to know.

"You know how John is. He's not going to do anything like this, himself".

"I'd like to talk to him", said Stram.

"It won't make any difference, said Jones.

"At least I can call him?", an incredulous Stram wanted to know.

"He's not available", Jones said glumly.

Stram was in total disbelief.

He had been fired as the head coach of the New Orleans Saints, without even the courtesy of a phone call from the man who was not only his boss, but who was allegedly and supposed to be a good friend.

So were the days of the Mecom ownership in New Orleans, and the reason why until Tom Benson eventually purchased the team in March of 1985, that the first 20 years of the Saints franchise was a complete and total failure.

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press Archives

And the loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a team that the Saints were heavily favored to beat but whom were completely overlooked and disrespected by them, were the very epitome of that failure.

So as the 2017 New Orleans Saints prepare to face this year's Buccaneers inside of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome this Sunday afternoon, hopefully they'll be able to look at this lesson from the team's history and take it to heart.

DON'T EVER take victory for granted.

And....

DON'T EVER underestimate the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, whatever the circumstances might be.

Because if they do, then we know what can happen when the lessons from the past days of Saints history, aren't learned........

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Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist Barry Hirstius is a 51-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and columnist previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.....

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