When the Buccaneers battle the Buffalo Bills here today, fans are asked to bring cans of food to succor the needy on Thanksgiving. It is something that would not have been attempted the last two seasons.

For one thing, it would have inspired too many jokes about that neediest of all football teams, the Tampa Bay outfit that lost its first 26 games in the NFL. And secondly, the spectators might have thrown the cans at Coach John McKay.

They did spill drinks on McKay, and they chanted, "Go back to California," and it was written ad infinitum that, "the Bucs will never win until they get rid of McKay." The coach, moreover, did not really blame them. After all, fans can hardly be expected to revel in the exploits of a team that last year recorded a total of three points in its first six home games.

Orange sunshine broke through the black clouds on that gloriuos Dec. 11 in New Orleans, when the Bucs beat the Saints, 33-14, and were welcomed home by 8,000 delirious supporters. The more rabid fans still salute that success with front license tags, highly visible around town, showing a simulated orange scoreboard with the gratifying results.

This year the Bucs became contenders in the NFC Central, upsetting Minnesota and boasting a 4-4 record at midseason. Last-minute field goals sent them to defeat at Green Bay and Los Angeles, and an epidemic of injuries produced a rout last week in Detroit with doubts about the immediate future.

Despite the losing streak, however, the Buccaneers' days as a national joke are over. Tampa Bay has some outstanding talent in quarterback Doug Williams, currently nursing a broken jaw; tailback Ricky Bell, linebackers Richard Wood and Dewey Selmon, defensive ends Lee Roy Selmon and Wally Chambers and wide receiver Morris Owens.

It was Dewey Selmon who said, after a comeback 14-9 victory over Atlanta, that "a year ago in this situation we probably would have said, 'Hey, let's hope they let the clock run out and get this thing over with. Anything to get out of this rain.' But now we've got a whole bunch of people who believe in themselves."

"We don't have enough quality players yet," McKay said, relaxing briefly in his office at the Buccaneers' $560,000 complex near Tampa airport. "But there's no question we have a very solid team. I think we can fulfill our promise of fielding a championship contender within five years."

Asked about his problems with the fans, McKay said, "The people down here are really nice. I wouldn't blame them for anything they did in 1976. We weren't very good. That first year I knew we were terrible and last year I knew we couldn't score, but I couldn't tell the team that. You can't expect much with an expansion team starting out, but there are always people who think you'd have been all right if you'd done this or done that."

Bell felt the critics' barbs after he was drafted ahead of Tony Dorsett a year ago and gained only 436 yards for which, according to one detractor, he was paid $573 per yard. Taunted by a fan after one of those many home shutouts, a 17-0 loss to Atlanta, Bell invited his tormentor onto the field, then had to be restrained from pursuing him into the stands.

"Everbody wants to be the coach and this guy was calling names and cursing the coach out," Bell said. "It wasn't as big an incident as it was made out to be, but it happened. It was the peak of our frustration.

"I think people expected too much from me, but so did I. If I could be Superman, I'd want to be. It's nice to wish for 2,000 yards and score 50 touchdowns and I'd like to do it, but it doesn't work out.

"I got beat up pretty good last year. It was just a struggle, I was getting hit so much. When we broke that streak, it was the greatest feeling in the world. I hadn't been on a winning team in 11 months - not since USC won the Rose Bowl."

Victories interspersed with the defeats have helped McKay to vary his remarks. McKay is a writer's dream, with his gift for one-liners, but 26 straight losses were not an inspiration for humor, even for the man who told his USC team after a 51-0 beating by Notre Dame that, "It's nothing to worry about, because 780 million Chinese don't even know the game was played."

"People want to read about the Bucs and that's what they have to write about," McKay said. "They work hard here to write stories and create stories, but it can become annoying. After a while, how many ways can I say we're getting better?"

McKay started off on the wrong tongue in 1976 when he labeled as "idiots" Tampa fans who were booing protectionless quarterback Steve Spurrier. Recently, McKay became so upset with a microphone-wielding radio reporter that he growled, "The next guy who sticks one of those things in my face, I'm going to break his skull with it."

Each of these acts became big news in the Bay area, as indeed is the bring-a-can program and anything else connected with the Buccaneers. Budd Thalman, Buffalo's public relations director, is amazed at his sudden stature as a television personality on his advance visits to Tampa.

"The Bucs are always on the front page," Bell said. "In many ways you like it, but in ways you don't. If you're going good, it's the greatest; if you're not, it can be a drag. People are really excited about the team. If you're a Buccaneer, it's the next thing to God, they way the kids and even older people look up to you.

"If I go to Los Angeles and walk around, nobody notices me. But if I walk around here, everybody does. In L.A. there are so many things happening, sometimes you don't know the Los Angeles Rams exist. Here everybody knows about the Bucs, even people who weren't into sports before. The team has done a lot for the town, and the town has done a lot for the team."

Three of five home games have been sold out in 71,951-seat Tampa Stadium, third largest in the National Conference. McKay, however, does not foresee the automatic sellout situation that prevails in that other Orange Crush community, Denver.

"I don't think we'll ever reach that stage," McKay said. "We have an older population here. This is going to be one of the best franchises, though. You always know you'll have 55-58-60,000. Then it depends on how the team is going and who you're playing."

Although there are few competitors here in the spectator sports department, the Bucs obviously have trouble during folks from such pleasant pastimes as golf, boating, swimming and fishing.

Although he has a home on the water, McKay does not care for swimming or fishing and speculates that "If I had been Mark Anthony in Egypt I probably would have developed an allergy to sex."

Tampa Bay has its entry in the NFL sex department, the Swashbucklers, one of whom was featured in that recent Playboy spread. A local critic noted that "she was clothed and out of focus, which is about what you'd expect."

Watch out for those cans, girls.