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Gruden unworried about offense's speed limit

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By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 28, 2002


TAMPA -- The new kid in town was running free now. He had broken the line of scrimmage, maneuvered past the linebackers and into the secondary. He ran, all arms and legs as he windmilled downfield.

It was then that you noticed this about Marquise Walker.

At no point did his feet burst into flame.

In many ways, of course, this means Walker is going to fit in just fine with the Bucs. Watch them play, and you will be fast to notice that they are not fast.

They do not leave skid marks. They do not break the sound barrier. When they run, stopwatches do not explode. So far, there is more lope than there is antelope.

And so, with the Bucs' post-draft minicamp under way, it begs the question. For an offense with a long way to go, are the Bucs fast enough to get there?

We'll see.

"Are we fast enough?" Jon Gruden, the Bucs' coach, shrugs. "You can never have enough speed. I don't know of any coach who would say "We have enough.' I wouldn't call us a slow team. I'd call us a team with functional speed that could use another guy who could really fly."

In Gruden's brief stay, there have been a great many things to be impressed with about the Bucs' new offense. The players are bigger. The enthusiasm is better. To opposing defenses, the scheme is going to be baffling.

Ah, but if you need a reason for concern, if your nature is to feed a wart with your worry, there is this. In a game where the athletes move so fast, there is a lack of raw, frightening, unharnessed speed from the Bucs who will play the most on offense. Put the skill position players in shorts and make them run 40-yard dashes, and the judges are not going to be impressed.

"That's why they call this sport football and the other sport track," Gruden said.

Touche. There is a difference between running fast and playing fast.

For instance, last year's Bucs had a couple of players (Warrick Dunn, Jacquez Green) who had wings on their heels. But as a unit, the Bucs played desperately, maddeningly slow. They didn't challenge, they didn't attack. Every drive was like a commuter bus trip; it could stop at any juncture. In general, the Bucs looked slower than their instant replays.

Contrast that with another team, say, Gruden's Raiders. Tim Brown doesn't run the way he did coming out of college, and Jerry Rice has never been a burner. But the Raiders played fast. Receivers broke open from the scheme, or from their quickness.

"I think we're as fast as the team I'm coming from, I'll say that," Gruden said. "It's funny. Everyone looks for 40-yard bombs and 60-yard bombs. But when you're looking at other team's big plays to see how they made them, 65-68 percent of them came after the catch. It sure helps if you have a speed demon, but even if you have a Joey Galloway, it's hard to throw (deep) eight or nine times and make a living at it.

"This game is Week 11, and you've got a sore hamstring and a right forearm bruise and a sore neck, and you've got to line up and run as fast as you can. Sometimes, it's a matter of will."

All things considered, give Gruden will. Give Gruden those large, rangy, power-forward looking receivers who can stand the pounding and do the blocking and make you forget about how long it takes them to run 40 yards.

If he's looking for volunteers, there's a guy standing over there. Keyshawn Johnson, I think his name is. He has never had a speeding ticket while running routes, either.

"I know a lot of fast guys who play slow," Johnson said. "I know a lot of guys who look like Tarzan and play like Jane."

Johnson starts talking about receivers. Great receivers. Rice and Michael Irvin and Brown and Cris Carter and Herman Moore.

"There isn't a burner there," Johnson said. "And they're all going to the Hall of Fame. Well, I don't know about Herman Moore's numbers. But you get my point. Give me a guy who plays viciously. Who wants the ball.

"A guy who runs 4.4 hasn't ever won a game for me. Just because he can run from there to there? Please. If you can't get away from (the cornerback), if you can't catch the ball, what good is it?"

The point is this. Rarely does a receiver, any receiver, simply line up and outrun the cornerback to the end zone. Especially not if it's a Bucs receiver.

"That part of it is probably overrated a little bit," said Tim Ruskell, the Bucs' director of player personnel. "We look for quickness more than we look for speed. You can play if you don't have speed. You can't play if you don't have quickness."

Who, then, is going to stretch the opposing defense for the Bucs? It would be nice if a Frank Murphy or a Milton Winn, both borderline to make the team, could emerge.

More likely is the Bucs still could look for speed after the June 1 cutdowns, when Derrick Alexander from the Chiefs and Keenan McCardell from the Jaguars might be released. That would allow the Bucs to use Joe Jurevicius as a third receiver and Walker as a fourth.

If you've watched this offense before, you're aware it can use all the help it can get.

Fast.

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