The New Orleans Saints are about to embark on their 52nd season of action in the National Football League. Longtime fans of the franchise can recall a number of good memories, of course. Unfortunately though, much of the franchise's first few decades were filled with disappointment, heartbreak, and sometimes even embarrassment. Today's cringe-worthy memory recalls just such a moment.
1-26, Tampa's first ever victory
The date was December 11th, 1977, and the site was the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana. The New Orleans Saints were in their 11th year of existence, and had yet to have a winning season. They entered the 13th game of the 1977 campaign with a record of 3-9 and losers of two straight, but if victorious in their final two games they would equal their franchise high total of five wins, accomplished three times. The Saints were coached by Hank Stram, who was in his second season at the helm after leading the Kansas City Chiefs franchise for 15 years and guiding them to 124 victories, 10 winning seasons, and the only Super Bowl championships in it's team's history. New Orleans was quarterbacked by Archie Manning, the second overall draft pick in 1971, an athletic player who was often beleaguered because of a lack of offensive talent around him. The Saints were beginning to change that by the '77 season, and actually finished the year with the sixth most rushing touchdowns in the league. They had added running back Chuck Muncie with the 3rd overall draft pick in the first round of the 1976 draft, then followed up by selecting running back Tony Galbreath with the 32nd pick (2nd round) of that same draft. Muncie would lead the team in rushing in 1977 with 811 yards and six scores, while Galbreath would pitch in 644 yards rushing and lead the team in receptions, as the two would combine to give New Orleans a lethal and versatile 1-2 punch. Manning also had one of the NFL's most talented tight ends in Henry Childs, who led the team in receiving yards in 1977, and along with Manning, Muncie, and Galbreath, would eventually be inducted into the franchise's Hall of Fame.
Opposing the Saints that December afternoon was one of the worst teams in the history of the NFL, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Long before the two teams were rivals in the NFC South (2002), the Buccaneers were an expansion franchise that began in 1976. They did not win a game in their inaugural season, finishing 0-14, and entered their first ever meeting with New Orleans having lost their first twelve games of the 1977 season, and possessing an 0-26 record as a franchise. The Bucs were coached by John McKay, who was well-known for hilarious quotes making light of his team's poor performance, but was actually one of the most successful coaches in college football history. McKay had coached at U.S.C. for fifteen years prior to his hire with the expansion Bucs, where his Trojans won nine PAC-10 titles and four National Championships. McKay's early Buccaneer squads were not completely devoid of talent. The franchise's first ever draft choice, and the first overall pick of the 1976 draft, was Lee Roy Selmon, a devastating defensive lineman who would eventually be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Selmon's brother Dewey was Tampa's 2nd round pick that same season, and was a rugged linebacker for the team, joining linebacker Richard Wood and ballhawking cornerback Mike Washington to form a respectable unit. Heisman Trophy winning running back Ricky Bell was selected with the first overall pick of the '77 draft from McKay's old Southern California unit, and was viewed as a centerpiece of the offense. The Buccaneers often played inspired defense, and actually had the league's 11th best pass defense, and 13th ranked overall, during the 1977 campaign. Offensively though, they were a comedy of errors, and even often the butt of jokes by the famous Johnny Carson of the Tonight Show. Tampa was ranked dead last in the 28-team league in every significant offensive category, and Buccaneer quarterbacks combined to complete less than 41% of their passes in 1977, with a dismal output of just 3 touchdown passes against 30 interceptions for the year. New Orleans quarterback Archie Manning had been quoted in the days leading up to this game that it would be a "disgrace" to lose to this Buccaneer team that had been shut out in four of the previous five games and had scored more than 10points just once all season.
The game began as you would expect from two teams at the bottom of the standings. Tampa Bay missed a short field goal early on after a New Orleans turnover, and Manning was under constant pressure from a Buccaneers defensive line. Lee Roy Selmon destroyed the Saints offensive line all afternoon, winding up with 3 of his team's five sacks on the day (sacks were an unofficially kept statistic at the time). Tampa Bay did manage two first half field goals, and a late second quarter touchdown pass from Bucs quarterback Gary Huff to Morris Owens sent Tampa into the locker room with a 13-0 halftime lead, and their first trip to the end zone in 11 quarters. Hank Stram replaced Manning to begin the second half with Bobby Scott hoping to jumpstart his struggling offense. Scott's 2nd pass of the second half was intercepted by Mark Washington and returned 45-yds. for a Buccaneer touchdown and a 20-0 lead. It was the only score of the 3rd quarter, and the first defensive score in Tampa Bay team history. Scott threw 3 interceptions in a disastrous outing, going just 4-12 passing. When Richard Wood returned a Scott interception 10 yards for another Tampa touchdown early in the 4th quarter, the 26-0 lead marked the most points scored in the 27 games of Buccaneers existence. Stram would instert Manning back into the lineup in hopes of an unlikely comeback.
Manning would finally get the home team on the board with a 2-yd. touchdown run, but all hopes of a New Orleans comeback would end a short time later. Backed up near his own goal line, Manning was pressured into the 7th Saints turnover of the day, grabbed by Buccaneers defensive end Greg Johnson for yet another Tampa Bay defensive score and assuring the Buccaneers first win ever. A Manning touchdown pass to John Gilliam late in the fourth was merely cosmetic, as the Buccaneers ended an Nfl-record 26-game losing streak with the 33-14 win. The Bucs were actually outgained in total yardage on the day by New Orleans, 250-238, and attempted just 11 passes. Tampa's defense carried the day however, outscoring the home Saints by themselves. Saints News Network columnist Barry Hirstius wrote of his impressions as a spectator here:
New Orleans would have to wait an entire decade longer for their first winning season and playoff berth, finally breaking through in 1987. The upstart Buccaneers though, continued to progress, and in 1979 won the NFC Central division and came just a game short of Super Bowl XIV. The embarrassing defeat on December 11th led to Stram's eventual firing following the 1977 season, as the Saints stumbled to a 3-11 finish, and remains one of the darkest moments in New Orleans Saints history.