|Duration||September 12 – December 12, 1976|
|Start date||December 18, 1976|
|AFC Champions||Oakland Raiders|
|NFC Champions||Minnesota Vikings|
|Super Bowl XI|
|Date||January 9, 1977|
|Site||Rose Bowl, Pasadena, California|
|Date||January 17, 1977|
The 1976 NFL season was the 57th regular season of the National Football League. The year 1976 was also the Bicentennial of the United States although the NFL did not issue its own Bicentennial patch. The Dallas Cowboys did modify their helmet (red, white and blue stripes) to honor the year, and were the only NFL team to recognize the Bicentennial.
The league expanded to 28 teams with the addition of the Seattle Seahawks and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This fulfilled one of the conditions agreed to in 1966 for the 1970 AFL–NFL merger, which called for the league to expand to 28 teams by 1970 or soon thereafter.
For this season only, the Seahawks played in the NFC West while the Buccaneers played in the AFC West. The Seahawks would return to the NFC West with the realignment prior to the 2002 season. The Buccaneers became the first NFL team to finish a season 0–14. The Buccaneers lost their first 26 games as a franchise before finally winning against the New Orleans Saints and St. Louis Cardinals to finish the 1977 season.
The season ended with Super Bowl XI when the Oakland Raiders defeated the Minnesota Vikings 32–14 in the Rose Bowl. The Raiders were the first original AFL team to appear and win a Super Bowl in the post-merger era.
The 1976 NFL Draft was held from April 8 to 9, 1976 at New York City's Roosevelt Hotel. With the first pick, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected defensive end Lee Roy Selmon from the University of Oklahoma.
Due to expansion, the NFL needed a new crew to help handle the weekly workload of 14 games. The most notable new official was Jerry Markbreit, hired as a line judge on the crew of referee Tommy Bell. Bell retired after working the 1976 AFC championship game, and Markbreit was promoted to referee for 1977, where he later became the first (and as of 2018, only) man to serve as the referee for four Super Bowls (XVII, XXI, XXVI and XXIX).
Norm Schachter retired after officiating Super Bowl X, his third after previously serving as crew chief for Super Bowl I and Super Bowl V. Red Cashion and Don Wedge were promoted after each had worked four seasons in the league.
Major rule changes
- A play clock is placed at each end of the stadium, visible to both players and fans to note the official time between the ready-for-play signal and the snap of the ball.
- If the defensive team commits a foul during a failed extra point attempt, the try is replayed and the offensive team has the option to either have the distance penalty assessed on the next try or the ensuing kickoff.
- If the defensive team commits a foul during a successful extra point attempt, the penalty will be assessed on the ensuing kickoff.
- Players cannot grasp the facemask of an opponent. The penalty for an incidental grasp of the facemask is 5 yards. The penalty for twisting, turning, or pulling the facemask is 15 yards. A player can be ejected from the game if the foul is judged to be vicious and/or flagrant.
- A defender is prohibited from running or diving into, or throwing his body against or on a ballcarrier who falls or slips to the ground untouched and makes no attempt to advance, before or after the ball is dead. This is sometimes called as the “Ben Davidson Rule” after the Raiders defender who almost seriously injured quarterback Len Dawson after the Chiefs passer fell to the ground and made no attempt to advance during a 1970 game.
- The official coin toss was moved to three minutes before kickoff. From 1947 through 1975, the official coin toss was held thirty minutes prior to kickoff, and a simulated coin toss was held at midfield three minutes prior to kickoff to inform the fans and media of the outcome of the toss.
The two expansion clubs, Tampa Bay and Seattle, were “swing” teams that did not participate in regular conference play. Every other NFL team played a home-and-away series against the other members in its division, two or three interconference games, and the remainder of their 14-game schedule against other conference teams. As a member of the AFC in 1976, Tampa Bay played the other 13 members of the conference, while Seattle did the same in the NFC. The 14th game, played in Week Six, was Seattle’s 13–10 win at Tampa.
Starting in 1970, and until 2002, there were three divisions (East, Central and West) in each conference. The winners of each division, and a fourth “wild card” team based on the best non-division winner, qualified for the playoffs. The tiebreaker rules were changed to start with head-to-head competition, followed by division records, records versus common opponents, and records in conference play.
National Football Conference
|1||3 teams||1–0–0||Chicago, Minnesota||1–0–0||Los Angeles, San Francisco||1–0–0||4 teams||1–0–0|
|2||3 teams||2–0–0||Chicago||2–0–0||Los Angeles||1–0–1||2 teams||2–0–0|
|3||Dallas, Washington||3–0–0||Minnesota||2–0–1||Los Angeles||2–0–1||Dallas, Washington||3–0–0|
|4||Dallas||4–0–0||Minnesota||3–0–1||Los Angeles||3–0–1||St. Louis*||3–1–0|
|5||Dallas||5–0–0||Minnesota||4–0–1||San Francisco||4–1–0||St. Louis||4–1–0|
|6||St. Louis*||5–1–0||Minnesota||5–0–1||San Francisco||5–1–0||Dallas||5–1–0|
|7||Dallas||6–1–0||Minnesota||6–0–1||San Francisco||6–1–0||Los Angeles||5–1–1|
|8||Dallas||7–1–0||Minnesota||6–1–1||Los Angeles||6–1–1||St. Louis*||6–2–0|
|9||Dallas||8–1–0||Minnesota||7–1–1||Los Angeles||6–2–1||St. Louis||7–2–0|
|10||Dallas||9–1–0||Minnesota||8–1–1||Los Angeles||6–3���1||St. Louis||8–2–0|
|11||Dallas||9–2–0||Minnesota||9–1–1||Los Angeles||7–3–1||St. Louis||8–3–0|
American Football Conference
|1||Baltimore, Miami||1–0–0||3 teams||1–0–0||Oakland, San Diego||1–0–0||4 teams||1–0–0|
|2||Baltimore||2–0–0||Houston||2–0���0||Denver, Oakland||2–0–0||2 teams||2–0–0|
|3||Miami*||2–1–0||Houston*||2–1–0||Oakland, San Diego||3–0–0||5 teams||2–1–0|
|4||Baltimore*||3–1–0||Cincinnati*||3–1–0||Denver, Oakland||3–1–0||3 teams*||3–1–0|
- Baltimore finished ahead of New England in the AFC East based on better division record (7–1 to Patriots’ 6–2).
- Pittsburgh finished ahead of Cincinnati in the AFC Central based on head-to-head sweep (2–0).
- Washington finished ahead of St. Louis in the NFC East based on head-to-head sweep (2–0).
- New Orleans finished ahead of Atlanta in the NFC West based on better point-differential in head-to-head competition (27 points).
|Divisional Playoffs||Conf. Championship Games||Super Bowl XI|
|December 19 – Memorial Stadium|
|December 26 – Oakland Coliseum|
|December 18 – Oakland Coliseum|
|4) New England||21|
|January 9 – Rose Bowl|
|December 19 – Texas Stadium|
|3) Los Angeles||14|
|December 26 – Metropolitan Stadium|
|3) Los Angeles||13|
|December 18 – Metropolitan Stadium|
|Most Valuable Player||Bert Jones, Quarterback, Baltimore Colts|
|Coach of the Year||Forrest Gregg, Cleveland Browns|
|Offensive Player of the Year||Bert Jones, Quarterback, Baltimore Colts|
|Defensive Player of the Year||Jack Lambert, Linebacker, Pittsburgh Steelers|
|Offensive Rookie of the Year||Sammy White, Wide Receiver, Minnesota Vikings|
|Defensive Rookie of the Year||Mike Haynes, Cornerback, New England Patriots|
|Man of the Year||Franco Harris, Running Back, Pittsburgh Steelers|
|Comeback Player of the Year||Greg Landry, Quarterback, Detroit Lions|
|Super Bowl Most Valuable Player||Fred Biletnikoff, Wide Receiver, Oakland Raiders|
- Cincinnati Bengals: Paul Brown retired after over 40 years of coaching. Bill Johnson was named as Brown's replacement.
- New Orleans Saints: Hank Stram became the team's new head coach. John North was fired after a 1-5 start to the 1975 season, and Ernie Hefferle then served as interim.
- New York Jets: Lou Holtz was named as head coach of the Jets. Charley Winner was fired nine games into the 1975 season after only posting two wins. Offensive coordinator Ken Shipp served as interim for the last five games.
- Philadelphia Eagles: Mike McCormack was replaced by Dick Vermeil.
- San Francisco 49ers: Monte Clark replaced Dick Nolan.
- Seattle Seahawks: Jack Patera became the expansion team's first head coach.
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers: John McKay became the expansion team's first head coach.
- Atlanta Falcons: Marion Campbell was fired after a 1-4 start to the season. General manager Pat Peppler served as interim for the rest of the season.
- Buffalo Bills: Lou Saban resigned after the fifth game of the season. Offensive line coach Jim Ringo took over as interim.
- Detroit Lions: Rick Forzano left after the team lost three of its first four games. Coordinator of personnel and scouting Tommy Hudspeth took over for the last 10 games.
- New York Giants: Bill Arnsparger was fired after the team lost its first seven games. Assistant coach John McVay was promoted to head coach.
- New York Jets: Lou Holtz resigned prior to the last game of the season, returning to college as coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks. Mike Holovak served as interim for the team's final game, as the team finished at 3–11.
- The New York Giants finally opened their new Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, after spending two seasons at the Yale Bowl and one season temporarily sharing Shea Stadium with the New York Jets
- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers began play at Tampa Stadium
- The Seattle Seahawks began play at the Kingdome
- The Dallas Cowboys replaced the blue stripe on right side of their helmets with a red stripe to honor the United States' Bicentennial.
- The New Orleans Saints began wearing black pants with their white jerseys, and facemasks changed from grey to black.
- The New York Giants replaced the striped uppercase "NY" helmet logo with an italicized and underlined "GIANTS".
- The inaugural Seattle Seahawks uniforms featured silver helmets and pants; blue jerseys with white numbers, and white and green sleeve stripes; and white jerseys with blue numbers, and blue and green sleeve stripes. The new helmet logo featured an osprey's head based on Kwakwakaʼwakw art masks.
- The inaugural Tampa Bay Buccaneers uniforms featured white helmets and pants, red trim, white jerseys with orange numbers, and orange jerseys with white numbers (which got the nickname "Creamsicle" uniforms). The nicknamed "Bucco Bruce" helmet logo featured a moustached pirate donning a plumed slouch hat and clutching a dagger in his teeth.
- "Cowboys have the quirkiest uniform set in all of sports". ESPN. October 26, 2007. Retrieved March 10, 2016.