Best NFL Worst-To-First Teams By Decade: Something in the '70s Florida Gatorade

Cinderella Story, rags-to-riches, poorhouse-to-penthouse, and as the late great Dusty Rhodes put it, wined and dined with kings and queens – slept in alleys and dined on pork ‘n’ beans. All these sayings have something in common, describing a situation the National Football League has seen plenty of over the past 50-plus years. In six decades, many teams have gone from pauper to prince (there’s another one) in a league that sports the most parity on the planet. So let’s jump in with the disco decade.

The ’79 Buccaneers’ Tampa Two-Step

No, worst-to-first wasn’t invented along with the VCR, Pong, and floppy disks in 1970, but Monday Night Football and the modern NFL era were. We start in the Me’ decade with the best flip-flop franchise on the board, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Tom Brady fans probably don’t remember when Tampa was as bad as it gets in 1976 like literally the worst the NFL had ever seen. Long before he’d coach the Florida Gators to nationwide prominence, Steve Spurrier quarterbacked the first and only 0-14 team in league history.

The shellshocked Spurrier was cut the following preseason, but Tampa’s losing ways continued. While we cannot confirm the former Gators QB spiked the team drinking supply on his way out, there was certainly something off in the Gatorade down in Florida.

Maybe it’s all just a “crazy coincidence” that the now iconic sports drink was invented at Spurrier’s alma mater in October 1965 while he was under center for the University of Florida.

The Bucs lost another 12 straight games following Spurrier’s departure, again hitting the NFL’s hall of shame as the first and only to lose 26 straight in the modern era. Seven wins and a pair of last-place finishes in the NFC Central lowlighted the next two seasons before an episode of The Jeffersons must’ve inspired the 1979 squad.

To quote great 90s poet William Smith, Tampa “moved up like George and Weezy’ and got jiggy with the entire division. Led by a ferocious pass rush featuring 1979 Defensive Player of the Year, Lee Roy Selmon, the Bucs allowed the fewest points in the league.

Putting up scores was not this offense’s forte as they were the lowest-scoring team of any division winner or playoff team that year. Tampa’s rushing leader, Ricky Bell (1,263 yards), headed a clock control, ground-and-pound style.

The Bucs squeaked out razor-thin affairs in the second half of the season as they pushed for the franchise’s first playoff spot.

A 12-10 Week 9 victory in Minnesota followed by a 16-14 triumph against the Lions in Detroit two weeks later gave Tampa more wins in ’79 than its first three years combined. An old-school NFL Films-type battle in the December Florida rain concluded a 10-6 campaign. The defense pitched a 3-0 shutout and held KC to just 80 yards. Tampa’s Week 17 performance earned them the No. 2 seed and a well-deserved bye to the playoff’s second round.

Doug Williams was almost a decade away from becoming the first black quarterback to start and win a Super Bowl when Washington dropped the Denver Broncos at XXII. But just three days before the world welcomed in the 80s, Williams had an early New Year’s Eve party for the Tampa faithful, delivering the franchise its first playoff win. 

While leaning on his running back, as Bell went off for 142 yards and two scores, Williams and company bounced the Eagles in the Divisional Round. 

December 29, 1979, would be one of the few bright disco ball moments in Tampa for the next two decades. A week later, the Bucs lost the NFC Championship to the Los Angeles Rams to usher in the 80s and didn’t have a 10-win season again for 17 years.

Tampa put the final touches to end the era that Chicago White Sox Disco Demolition night missed a few months earlier. Smashing records at Comiskey Park wouldn’t stop everyone from doing The Hustle.

It sure didn’t stop a then 13-year-old Fresno kid from starting to hone football’s most memorable move ever. 

Make sure you come back for when Hustle breeds Shuffle, and the NFL’s dance of the decade takes the 80s by storm.