Members of 1976 winless Bucs: Team must believe it can win

TAMPA, Fla. — They say avoid the history.

Avoid the heartache, the hardship, the pain that comes with a winless season. Going o-fer? Members of the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers know the feeling, the sting that came with a 0-14 finish in the franchise’s first campaign.

They say avoid the temptation to quit.

The current Bucs are 0-8, halfway to infamy, for the first time since starting 0-9 in 1985. They have witnessed victory snatched from them (see losses to the Jets, Saints, Cardinals and Seahawks), plus observed a quarterback who lost his touch and a will to stick around (see Josh Freeman). They have experienced a MRSA outbreak, the “FIRE SCHIANO” billboards and injuries to Doug Martin and Mike Williams. They have heard cackles at a once-proud Raymond James Stadium and spotted Hazmat suits in the stands. They have had their patience tested.

They say avoid caving in. Press forward, starting Monday night against the Miami Dolphins, who are reeling with heavy issues of their own.

Most of all, believe. Believe from within, trust the system and fight with the thought that the “0” in the win column will become a “1” by January, even if it never happened for those Bucs 37 years ago.

They say avoid the winless season. Be different. Be better. After all, this is no club that needs more company.

“They just really want to win a game and get started,” Bucs coach Greg Schiano said Thursday. “Get the thing rolling.”

Ominous start

Bob Moore says avoid allowing football to become miserable.

Looking back, the former tight end knew something was off before the season began. The 1976 Bucs opened at the Astrodome against the Houston Oilers, but players and coaches took a wrong turn in their walk from the locker room to the field before kickoff. They met a dead end.

The faux pas was a fitting preview. To start the season, the Bucs were outscored a combined 43-0 in losses to Houston and the San Diego Chargers. Later, there were a few close calls — 14-9 against the Buffalo Bills, 13-10 against the Seattle Seahawks, 23-20 against the Dolphins — but routs mostly marked Tampa Bay’s cruel Sunday baptism. Among the most egregious: 48-13 against the Denver Broncos, 34-0 against the New York Jets and 42-0 against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“Don’t do it again,” Moore told FOX Sports Florida. “The problem with the game of football — it’s kind of like a boxing match to a certain extent. It’s fun when you win. It’s not very much fun when you lose. When you have 14 of them lined up — toward the end of the season, we were really getting our a** kicked.”

Members of the 1972 Dolphins, the first team to go 14-0 in the regular season, keep in touch and toast history. Members of the 1976 Bucs have a much different memory. Perfection is celebrated, imperfection brushed beneath more pleasant times.

For Moore and others, friends were made in their time in Tampa. Now, the winless season can be recalled with a few laughs of hard days gone by. But that’s only because the bruises have long faded.

“There were some times where it was just miserable to play football,” said Moore, who started 11 games in 1976. “It was miserable on Monday when you’re going out for the next week. We had a lot of guys hurt during the season, so we started off badly, and it sort of got worse as the season went along. That was a real tough experience.”

Keep at it

Dan Ryczek says avoid losing faith.

That’s one thing the former center makes clear about 1976: The Bucs kept working, kept their noses to the turf, even as scoreboards stayed gruesome from September through December.

Little about pressing forward was easy, though. Head coach John McKay, who led USC to four national titles in 16 years, thought he could turn any group into a contender with steep expectations and more than a little sweat. Ryczek recalls grueling two-a-day practices starting before the Fourth of July and lasting through September.

“It was very hard on the guys — more mentally than physically,” Ryczek told FOX Sports Florida. “The thing the current Bucs have to do, they don’t have to deal with that type of situation. They just have to continue to work hard. Things will break.”

Some say a person learns more from losing than winning. But Ryczek considers that line nonsense. The only thing he drew from the 0-14 record was that he disliked losing, that disappointment is bitter.

He also knows this: Success breeds success. Good fortunes on the field will lead to more, and if players fall into losing habits, the spell is tough to break. He sees the current Bucs earning their elusive victory soon.

“The difference between the teams that win and the teams that don’t win, it’s all mental,” said Ryczek, who started all 14 games in 1976. “Everybody has to play at a higher level. Everybody has to believe in the system. … The Bucs will win. I have no doubt that they’re going to win a game this season. When they win one, they might win two. And who knows? Football is a strange thing.

“They have to continue to believe. I’m sure the coaching staff believes that. I’m sure the guys on the team believe that. … When you’re not doing as well as you hope, you have to fight through it.”

A lesson learned

Mark Cotney says avoid failing to understand a larger lesson.

The 1976 season humbled the former safety, tested his desire. But that fall also was a window into something beyond football: We all experience hardship, letdowns and heartaches, moments that force us either to quit or persevere to achieve better.

Without trial, we fail to grow.

“In the end, it humbles you,” Cotney told FOX Sports Florida. “It makes you take that attitude of no matter what your record is that you’re still going to go out there and perform to the best of your ability. That’s the message I would give to all these Buccaneers that are on the squad this year, because they have (had) so much distraction from the MRSA thing to injuries to coach Schiano and all the crap that has gone on. It has been a disastrous year. But the schedule still goes on.”

So do the lessons, the evolution of men and a franchise. Cotney’s last season with Tampa Bay took place in 1984. After 1976, he saw the Bucs’ baby steps: A 2-12 record in 1977, 5-11 in ’78, then 10-6 in ’79 that included a No. 2 seed in the playoffs and a berth in the NFC Championship Game.

In time, the 2013 season will become another footprint along the way. Some current players and coaches may use these months as a future spark, as a sour reminder of how failure feels. Others may wipe their memories clean, except to say in a distant place in a faraway year, “Can you believe we worked through that … and that … and that?”

“It doesn’t stop because things are hard,” said Cotney, who started 13 games in 1976. “Now these players have to go out and do what we did in ’76. We were playing for our livelihood in the NFL. Everything you do is on film. You can’t go out there and lay down.”

What to do next?

The only thing they can: Play on.

It won’t be easy. Each week, the current Bucs will face themselves as much as the opponent. How much do they have left? Do they have the desire to dig deep within?

Game-by-game, the season carries on, the calendar blind to the standings. When it’s over, however it ends, the record will only reveal part of the story.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.