The unwanted O of old shows up at key times, namely overtime.
By ROGER MILLS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 9, 2002
TAMPA -- The Bucs promised the preseason meant nothing and the offensive woes they had when it did not count would disappear when it did.
But through the first half of Sunday's opening 26-20 loss to the Saints, Tampa Bay's offense looked eerily similar to that which new coach Jon Gruden supposedly exorcised.
The demons, apparently, were back.
The Bucs could run the ball but could not convert third downs or keep quarterback Brad Johnson from scrambling or being forced to throw the ball away.
"I must have thrown the ball away 15 or 20 times," said Johnson, who was 28-for-52 for 278 yards and two touchdowns. "I probably set an NFL record for throwing the ball away."
But in the second half, especially the fourth quarter, something happened. An offense that could do nothing right seemed to do nothing wrong.
Trailing 20-10 with five minutes left, the Bucs produced two lengthy drives and 10 points to send the game to overtime.
"I think we just kind of calmed down a little bit," said receiver Keyshawn Johnson, who finished with five catches for 76 yards. "We made up our minds that we wanted to play a certain way and we said to ourselves, "We have to come out and relax and we can't keep pressing.' ... We were trying too hard. We just calmed down a little bit."
With the crowd roaring, Tampa Bay won the toss and looked poised to open the Gruden era, an era brimming with promise of offensive efficiency, with a victory.
The demons returned.
The Bucs' three overtime possessions resulted in two punts and an errant fourth-down pass from Tom Tupa to John Howell that was intercepted and run back for a touchdown by linebacker James Allen.
"My hat goes out to their defense," left tackle Roman Oben said. "They did a great job preparing and so did we. I can't really evaluate my peers on the team in terms of what went wrong. I can say that a man looks no further than himself for blame. We'll look at the film (today) and get a whole perspective of where the breakdowns were."
As has been the story in past seasons, the problems began at the line of scrimmage. The Bucs had four new starters across the line, and right tackle Cornell Green was playing his first NFL game. The inexperience showed early as Saints defensive linemen Norman Hand and Grady Jackson routinely pressured Johnson into making quick throws.
At the half, the Bucs offense had 77 yards on limited possessions.
In the third quarter, after halftime adjustments, the line was better and not surprisingly, so was the offensive flow.
"In the second half we managed to come out and believe in what we saw and block out (distractions)," center Jeff Christy said. "They didn't give us anything we didn't practice against. They didn't give us nothing we didn't expect. We just didn't execute. In the second half we were able to execute a little better."
Christy refused to take solace in the Bucs' late offensive heroics or imply that such struggles are predictable for a newly restructured offensive line.
"Absolutely not, it's a loss," he said. "We never expect to lose. We never expect to play badly. We never expect to have missed assignments, holding calls. It's inexcusable."
But the woes weren't all on the line. Keyshawn Johnson and Keenan McCardell had critical drops on big plays that would have moved the chains and put the Bucs deep in New Orleans territory.
Though Joe Jurevicius added four catches for 37 yards, including a 13-yard touchdown, and Mike Alstott contributed four catches for 48 yards, the Bucs offensehad only 27 yards in 15 overtime plays.
"Not every team goes out there and plays a perfect game, and that was evident with us tonight," Jurevicius said. "We started off slowly, picked it up in the second half and in the fourth quarter we came on strong. We did some good things in the overtime, but we didn't do enough to win the football game."