Last Saturday night, the Buccaneers began their 34th exhibition season, a collection of practice games generally designed to determine the roster's final 10 players, gently get the rust out for veterans and (please!) avoid serious injuries.
When the Bucs travelled to play the Tennessee Titans, it really didn't matter whether they won or lost (although Coach Raheem Morris never would admit that). And odds are great that Saturday night's result will quickly be forgotten. As former Bucs wide receiver Kevin House once proclaimed following a ho-hum exhibition: "I'm pretty sure tonight won't make it into the annals of mankind."
But throughout the franchise's 140 exhibition games (73-67 overall record, including twice unbeaten and twice winless seasons), a few players, games and moments have resonated.
Here is our Bucs' exhibition game primer:
Five memorable games
• Bucs 17, Falcons 3 (Aug. 14, 1976, at Jacksonville) – Tampa Bay's first exhibition victory came before just 11,342 fans at the Gator Bowl. It wasn't artistic, but it was significant. Bucs quarterback Steve Spurrier even landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated ("The Buccaneers Come Aboard''). Coach John McKay's most notable postgame observation: "Oh, well, another dynasty.''
• Dolphins 24, Bucs 20 (Aug. 25, 1978, at Tampa) – It was a locally televised sellout, with Burt Reynolds in the broadcast booth. It included a 73-yard punt return by Danny Reece and a 52-yard field goal by Neil O'Donoghue. Isaac Hagins grabbed the apparent winning touchdown pass from Doug Williams in the final seconds, but officials ruled it was juggled near the end line.
• Bucs 41, Patriots 21 (Aug. 26, 1983, at Tampa) – Jack Thompson tossed a 69-yard touchdown to Theo Bell. The Bucs registered their first unbeaten exhibition season. "We can't afford to get overconfident,'' running back Michael Morton said. Not a chance. The regular-season Bucs finished 2-14.
• Bucs 44, Patriots 10 (Aug. 18, 1990, at Jacksonville) – The Bucs scored 44 unanswered points, utilizing an array of fumble returns, interception returns and kick returns. Tampa Bay's return yardage (184) nearly matched its total yardage (199).
• Bucs 16, Redskins 13 (Sept. 3, 1999, at Washington) – Rookie quarterback Shaun King formally introduces himself. Leading a 12-play, 75-yard drive, King hits wide receiver Darnell McDonald on a 3-yard touchdown pass with seven seconds remaining.
Five forgettable games
• Bengals 45, Bucs 0 (Aug. 13, 1977, at Cincinnati) – The Bengals led 31-0 at halftime. The Bucs finished with 54 total yards. "We didn't play that well,'' Coach John McKay said. "That could be the understatement of the year.''
• Seahawks 38, Bucs 0 (July 28, 1984, at Canton, Ohio) – In the shadow of Pro Football's Hall of Fame, the Bucs suffered five turnovers and six sacks. One snap soared over the head of punter Frank Garcia, who backtracked, then whiffed on the attempt. It was recovered by Seattle's Greg Gaines for a touchdown. "It was an unimpressive performance by the mighty Bucs,'' McKay said.
• Colts 30, Bucs 0 (Aug. 26, 1989, at Indianapolis) – It was over after the third play, when Colts running back Eric Dickerson galloped to a 78-yard touchdown. Dickerson had 119 yards on nine carries.
• Falcons 17, Bucs 12 (Aug. 9, 1997, at Atlanta) – In the final minute, Tampa Bay drove to Atlanta's 3-yard line. Seven consecutive running plays – with a defensive holding penalty mixed in (automatic first down) – didn't produce a touchdown. On the eighth play, a fourth-down run, Reggie Brooks lost a fumble.
• Chiefs 20, Bucs 17 (Aug. 8, 1998, at Norman, Okla.) – Bucs defensive back Eric Vance intercepted a Kansas City pass at the Tampa Bay 6-yard line in the final minute. Vance's momentum carried him into the end zone, where he fumbled, and wide receiver Chris Ortiz recovered for the winning touchdown with 44 seconds remaining.
They also served
Five notable names who played in exhibition games with the Bucs (but never made Tampa Bay's regular-season roster):
• Ernie Holmes, defensive tackle (1978) – Stalwart of Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain couldn't get a parting shot.
• Larry Key, running back (1983) – Former Citrus High School and Florida State University star was popular, but didn't show enough.
• Ray Bentley, linebacker (1986) – USFL refugee couldn't crack Tampa Bay's defense, then shifted to the Buffalo Bills and appeared in two Super Bowls.
• Ricky Nattiel, wide receiver (1992) – The former Florida Gator was a celebrated member of Denver's "Three Amigos,'' but he couldn't continue that run in Tampa Bay, so it was adios.
• Anthony Munoz, offensive tackle (1993) – The former Cincinnati Bengals star was reunited with Coach Sam Wyche, but an injury necessitated his retired. Now he's in the Hall of Fame.
Five unlikely heroes
• Rabih Abdullah, running back – The undrafted free-agent from Lehigh made the team in 1998 with 280 rushing yards (5.6-yard average) and a 104-yard game against the Raiders. He played four seasons and mostly served on special teams.
• Jerry Golsteyn, quarterback – The ultimate exhibition-game player, he completed 62.6 percent of his passes for 1,028 yards, eight touchdowns and no interceptions in eight games. In 1982, one season after he was a $500-per-year player for the semipro Orlando Americans, his exhibition-season quarterback rating was 129.1. He briefly became the Bucs' starter in the 1983 regular season, when he managed just a 56.8 QB rating with no touchdown passes. He was released before training camp in 1984.
• Bruce Gradkowski, quarterback – The sixth-round draft pick from Toledo lit up the 2006 exhibition season by completing 73.8 percent of his passes for 511 yards and five touchdowns for a 105.3 quarterback rating. Coach Jon Gruden was enamored, comparing Gradkowski's headiness to Joe Montana at one point. When Chris Simms suffered a season-ending ruptured spleen, Gradkowski started 11 games, but managed just a 65.6 QB rating. He quickly went back to the bench and was cut before the 2008 training camp.
• Randy Hedberg, quarterback – Why Not Minot? With two quarterbacks injured, the eighth-round pick from Minot (N.D.) State engineered a 14-0 exhibition win against the Baltimore Colts and temporarily earned the starting job in 1977.
• Michael Morton, running back – He wore No. 1. He was known as "Mighty Mouse." The 12th-round draft pick from Nevada-Las Vegas also earned the nickname "Mr. August'' after rushing for 105 yards against the Eagles (1982) and 106 yards against the Oilers (1984). He had just 58 rushing yards on 32 attempts (1.8-yard average) in three regular seasons.
Five exhibition oddities
• In 1985, Coach Leeman Bennett's first two plays in Tampa Bay produced touchdowns against Pittsburgh – a 65-yard opening-play pass from Steve DeBerg to Kevin House; then, after a fumble, DeBerg hit Jerry Bell on a 10-yard touchdown. When Bennett's Bucs played the real games, they were 4-28 in two seasons.
• In 1992 at Denver, Wyche's first two plays with Tampa Bay actually were conceived by restaurant chains in a contest for charity. Outback Steakhouse's offering produced a 26-yard pass from quarterback Vinny Testaverde to tight end Ron Hall. Hooters submitted a trick play – Testaverde walked toward the sideline, seemingly for assistance, while a direct snap went to running back Gary Anderson, who picked up 14 yards. Both restaurants donated $4,500 to the Leukemia Society of America.
• In 1997, heavy lightning caused a 55-minute delay to the start of the Bucs-Dolphins game at Tampa Stadium. Bucs defensive back LaCurtis Jones was undaunted and sought an edge, warming up by himself on a barren, flooded field.
• With the opening or Raymond James Stadium, the Bucs spent the entire 1998 exhibition season on the road, traveling 15,458 miles. Exhaustion hit a peak when the team was left on an Oklahoma City runway by Northwest Airlines when the crew left because it was about to exceed duty-time requirements for that day. The Bucs were forced to spend the night and returned to Tampa some 12 hours after their originally scheduled arrival.
• From the start of franchise history, the Bucs struggled on kickoff returns (not scoring their first regular-season touchdown on a kickoff return until 2007). But when Coach Jon Gruden made his debut, Frank Murphy scored on a 95-yard kickoff return to open the 2002 exhibition season.
And here's the kicker
• Place-kicker Pete Rajecki was the first Bucs player to score points, making a field goal in the 1976 inaugural exhibition game against the Los Angeles Rams. But Rajecki remained on edge, telling reporters he was uncomfortable working under the examining glare of McKay. "Please inform Mr. Rajecki that I plan to attend all games,'' the coach retorted.
• Veteran place-kicker Booth Lusteg refused to wear white shoes during Tampa Bay's inaugural exhibition game at Los Angeles. Frankie Pupello, the assistant equipment manager, instead gave him black shoes (that were painted white). Two days later, Lusteg was cut.
• In 1977, with the Bucs desperate for a place-kicker, a tryout was given to Derek Smethurst, a forward with the North American Soccer League's Tampa Bay Rowdies, who had never played American football. Smethurst connected on his only exhibition field-goal attempt.
• Scott Milanovich guided a desperation final drive in the 1997 exhibition finale, even completing a 37-yard pass on fourth-and-17. But when the Bucs scored a touchdown with one minute remaining to tie the New York Jets 9-9, place-kicker Michael Husted missed the extra point. The Jets won in overtime, 15-9.
• In 2001, with the game nearing halftime, Bucs place-kicker Martin Gramatica made a 58-yard field goal against the Cleveland Browns. Gramatica's exuberance – even in a meaningless exhibition – was captured by then-Tampa Tribune photographer David Kadlubowski, who won an award for his photograph.
Joey Johnston, The Tampa Tribune 19 August 2009