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Anticipation is brewing for unpredictable Bucs

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By JOHN ROMANO, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 8, 2002


TAMPA -- For weeks, you have carried this feeling inside. It has been difficult to pinpoint and impossible to articulate. It does not gnaw as much as tickle. And it grows stronger daily.

You should recognize it by now. If not clinically, then emotionally. This is what we used to call anticipation, and it has been missing around these parts for longer than you might choose to remember.

A new season arrives today, but that's only part of the plan. For the Buccaneers, a new dimension is about to be revealed.

It's as if a mirror has been held up to the Bucs and we are seeing everything in reverse. It sort of looks the same, yet seems entirely different.

This is not your father's football team. It's not even Bryan's and Joel's father's football team.

It has been barely 200 days since Jon Gruden arrived in Tampa and the franchise appears to have turned 180 degrees.

Most plot lines in the NFL evolve. This one spins.

It has gone from staid to edgy. From conservative to aggressive. From a team built in the image of Tony Dungy to one remodeled to fit Gruden's style.

"You knew it from Day 1," linebacker Derrick Brooks said.

"Either you got with his program, or you weren't going to be here anymore."

Change, you might say, is afoot. And it's stepping on toes wherever it goes.

On this team, Jerry Wunsch no longer is a starter. He's not even a player. On this team, Marcus Jones is not a factor, and Kenyatta Walker's draft status earns him no privileges. On this team, Mike Alstott's role is secondary.

Wide receivers have grown larger. Tight ends are more plentiful. Practices move more quickly with a soundtrack that has turned raw.

Here is a team with four playoff appearances in five seasons, and it shows up today with seven new starters on offense.

Is it wise to do more than tinker with success?

"It depends on what you define as success," receiver Keyshawn Johnson said. "Success, to me, is winning the Super Bowl. Not making it to a wild-card playoff game.

"Certain coaches coach differently. They go for different responses from different people. His style is different from the guy who was here in the past. One style works for one guy, another style works for the other."

With Gruden and Dungy, it is more than a question of style. Gruden is the antithesis of Dungy. And not just because Dungy's volume was low and Gruden's is off the dial. It is everything about them.

Dungy was loyal beyond a fault. Gruden plays no favorites. Dungy wanted a wallflower offense. Gruden's gift is his ability to attack. Dungy expected players to motivate themselves. Gruden is in their faces.

But the greatest change? It is difficult to quantify because it deals with perception. Whereas Dungy was the picture of calm, Gruden is the face of urgency. This, more than anything, is what fans have wanted to see.

They wanted anger when the offense sputtered. They wanted outrage when players seemed willing to accept defeat.

This is what Gruden has brought and it should be apparent on first viewing. Players recognized it in minicamps when the pace was turned up a notch. The front office understood it when Gruden decided Lomas Brown would be a key addition despite the reservations of others.

Win or lose, this team is his. The Glazers tied the franchise's future to Gruden when they paid a remarkable price to acquire him.

"This is a team that has had trouble making it past the first round of the playoffs," said Brown, who was lured out of retirement by Gruden.

"It was up to (Gruden) to put his mark on this team. And he was going to do that very quickly. He's already done it. He has that kind of personality."

It is rare for a team to fire a coach while still in the shadows of the postseason. The possibility of taking a step backward looms too large.

This was one of the fears that hiring Bill Parcells would have incurred. Parcells' tendency is to tear something apart before rebuilding.

Gruden has danced on that fine line. He has made about as many changes as possible, without altering the basic nucleus of the team.

His choices have not always been safe. He put Jones on injured reserve, knowing it probably meant the end of his time in Tampa Bay. He cut a proven commodity like Terrell Buckley because he liked the spunk of younger players.

He demolished the offensive line understanding it could hardly get worse.

Essentially, he has established a tone. He has shown players the past means little if they are inclined to reside there. If Dungy was the kindhearted father who doted on his brood, Gruden is the stepfather with chores to do.

There was a day, a short time ago, when the Bucs looked not at all like this.

Everything was familiar and, perhaps, a little methodical. You knew what to expect and were rarely surprised.

In those times, the players wore jerseys with familiar numbers. The offense proceeded with a familiar gait toward nowhere. The coach, with his arms familiarly folded, exercised the patience of a saint.

What you see and feel today is not nearly as familiar.

It's likely not as comfortable.

But, maybe, it's a whole lot better.

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