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Bucs: High Hopes

In the past, the Bucs offense was supposed to get out of the way while to get out of the way while the defense won the game. Under Jon Gruden, the offense is being ordered to carry its own way.

By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 6, 2002


In the past, the Bucs offense was supposed to get out of the way while to get out of the way while the defense won the game. Under Jon Gruden, the offense is being ordered to carry its own way.

TAMPA -- Changing the altitude of the Bucs offense was easy for Jon Gruden. To improve a passing game that always had been vertically challenged, he signed 6-foot-5 Giants free agent Joe Jurevicius, 6-5 Colts tight end Ken Dilger and 6-1 Jacksonville free agent Keenan McCardell to go with 6-4 receiver Keyshawn Johnson.

Changing the attitude of the Bucs offense is a little more difficult.

The first thing the fiery Gruden did upon becoming Bucs coach was make players on the offensive side of the ball as accountable as their defensive counterparts.

Under the conservative approach of Tony Dungy, the Bucs perennially inept offense was told not to make the big mistake to lose the ballgame.

Gruden's standards are much loftier than those of former offensive coordinators Mike Shula, Les Steckel and Clyde Christensen. He scrutinizes everything from the way players break the huddle to their body language at the end of a play.

"There's a different energy now," Keyshawn Johnson said. "Players are really being coached. You can see a difference. We're going to score some points, let me tell you."

And that's just in practice. Gruden attacks the Bucs defense with his multithreat version of the West Coast offense as vigorously as he does opponents.

When the new coaching staff reviewed film of the 2001 season, one assistant said it was eight games before they detected a pre-snap shift of formations.

Contrast with Gruden, whose offense has nearly as many plays as he has freckles.

"Preparing to play (Gruden's offense) is like trying to memorize the dictionary," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, known as a defensive savant. "I'd put Jon right up there with (Broncos coach Mike) Shanahan and (Rams coach Mike) Martz. ... There should be some kind of rule against this (stuff).

"You will see every personnel grouping in the book. You're going to get four wide receivers, two tight ends and everything in between. They're going to shift, they're going to shift again and they may motion twice on the same play."

For all the Chucky scowls, the blue language and emotional outbursts, Gruden is very much in control of his offense.

"I'm impressed by his attention to detail," general manager Rich McKay said. "For a guy who can be quite animated at practice and can be quite vocal, he is still very detail-driven. It's an impressive quality for an offensive coach. He's very focused on the exactness of the alignments and where everybody is supposed to be and is quick to note any mistakes there might be."

Whereas Dungy and his assistants presided over practices that were as quiet as church prayer, Gruden tore the knob off the volume control. And he is not afraid to get into a player's face mask. The criticism, however, is constructive, and he is not afraid to make changes.

"I've played for three great coordinators," quarterback Brad Johnson said. "Brian Billick, Norv Turner and Jon Gruden. Jon is very organized. Very detail organized. As high-strung and emotional as he seems, he's very patient. He doesn't blow his gasket, and he's got a proven system. That's the art of what he does.

"He's not going to waste your time. He's going to lay it out there for you, he's going to give you a tip sheet, he's going to show it on film for you. Either you pick it up or you don't. He wants the quick study, and he's going to give it to you. If you don't, he'll find somebody else. He does some unbelievable homework. They all do. But he probably takes it a step further."

While Gruden's pedigree undeniably has West Coast roots -- he was an offensive assistant at San Francisco and coached receivers at Green Bay under Mike Holmgren -- his teams are remarkably balanced between the run and pass. Twice in four seasons at Oakland, the Raiders were among the top rushing offenses, finishing first in 2000 (154.4 yard average) and third in 1999 (130.3).

"No. 1, respect what you see on film from defenses in this league and try to have as much structural precision and sound football plays on tape as you can," Gruden said. "Try not to waste plays. Don't drop back to pass and hold it and be in a six-man protection when they're bringing seven. Try to call the game anticipating some of the things you're going to see and hopefully keep your quarterback in some down and distance situation.

"It all goes back to the running game. We can't be 30th and be an effective offensive team; it won't work. We've got to be balanced. Not every down is going to be a pass on this offensive team."

To that end, Gruden rebuilt the offensive line with the help of assistant Bill Muir. They switched second-year pro Kenyatta Walker to right tackle, where he played at the University of Florida. Free agent Kerry Jenkins came over from the Jets to play left guard. And the Bucs signed free agents Roman Oben and Lomas Brown to play left tackle.

Gruden hopes the changes will improve an offensive line that yielded 47 sacks and ranked 30th in rushing offense.

"He has taken everything good out of every play, and he's perfected it," Brad Johnson said. "If it's bad stuff, he won't run the play or he'll find a different way to run the play and his timing with the protection. The when and where, he calls it. That's his magic.

"I'd say 80 percent he's going to be right. And he'll clue you in to an audible to go to. Whether it's in practice or on the field over the microphone, 'Hey, if you don't like it, be ready to check to this.' I kind of like it. He spoon feeds you."

Making sure all of his weapons get fed enough footballs is a challenge Gruden has had since his days as an offensive coordinator in Philadelphia. Running back Michael Pittman, who takes over for Warrick Dunn, will be featured running and catching. And Keyshawn Johnson may have to wrestle McCardell for receptions.

"Well, you know, sometimes there is friction," Gruden said. "In Philadelphia, it's well-documented, Charlie Garner-Ricky Watters. You know, we had good distribution last year. The year before that, it was Andre Rison and it was pretty good distribution. We used all five eligibles. Everybody was a part of it. Hopefully, they sense and appreciate that a little bit. But I always say this: It really doesn't mean a damn thing what's on the back of your football card. And it's not about catching nine balls or rushing 20 times and losing. It's about winning.

"Our standards are going to be high. Our expectations are going to be high. We don't want to let anybody down, especially ourselves."

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