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Bucs' new start could not have gone worse

By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 9, 2002

TAMPA -- If you can tell one thing from the way the Bucs opened the season, it is this.

TAMPA -- If you can tell one thing from the way the Bucs opened the season, it is this.

Jon Gruden is sleeping way too much.

What's that? The guy sacks in until 3:17 a.m.? Are you kidding me? Did you get a look at how much work there is to be done with this team? The guy needs to set his alarm for 2 a.m. ... at the latest.

There are holes in this team. Check that. There are canyons. There are gorges and chasms and vast amounts of wasteland. From here, it is a long way up.

Say what you want about the Bucs' nifty little comeback in the final stages of Sunday's 26-20 overtime loss to the Saints. Delude yourself into believing the furious rally to force overtime erased all the problems the Bucs displayed the first three quarters. Warm yourself in the considerable amount of spunk the Bucs showed and forget about the junk.

Then realize this.

Man, was this disappointing.

The new, improved Bucs took the field for the first meaningful time, and together they laid a new, improved egg. The offensive line did not block. The secondary did not cover. The pass rush was late in coming. There were dumb penalties, dropped passes, blown assignments.

Say this about the new NFC South.

The cellar smells simply awful.

Oh, a finish such as this is convenient for denial. When the Bucs came from 10 points down in the final five minutes to force overtime, it became possible to put a positive spin on this game. Why, if Tom Tupa doesn't turn into Garo Yepremian in the final minutes, the Bucs might have won yet.

Reality is different. Reality says you should look at the problems the Bucs have and realize how much work is to be done. Reality says that if Joe Horn doesn't drop a pass in the closing minutes of regulation, the Bucs' rally never happens. Reality says, after one game, the Bucs look very much like one of those teams that might have to step backward before stepping forward.

Think of the game in the most basic of terms. How many times did the Saints hit Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson in the mouth? And how many times did the Bucs hit New Orleans quarterback Aaron Brooks in his?

Answer: A lot to not many.

Which tells you all you need to know about the final score.

Now, if you know the history of the Bucs, you'll know that they've lost a few openers. And no one left happy at the end of any of them.

This, however, might have been worse than any of them. Yes, worse than 1976, when the Bucs lost their first game ever (and the next 25, too). Worse than '98, when a returning playoff team was disassembled 31-7 by Minnesota. Worse than '99, when Trent Dilfer imploded against the Giants.

In the NFL, there are a few cardinal sins. You do not lose at home. And you especially do not lose at home to a division opponent. The Bucs, with their new coach, with what most of us agree is their most talented team ever, managed both.

This was the start of an era. This was the beginning of Coach Chucky's reign. This was the unveiling of a new division. This was supposed to be the grandest collection of talent ever assembled in a Tampa Bay uniform. This was supposed to be the start of the million-points march.

"We gave it away," receiver Keenan McCardell said. "If you're going to be in the hunt, you can't give division games away."

On the other hand, a team's offensive line also cannot cave in, down after down, the way the Bucs' did. It goes to show you that different doesn't necessarily mean better. From the time Gruden arrived in town, it has been obvious how little he thought of the offensive line that was here. He has brought in whatever offensive lineman he could reach on the phone.

It didn't help. By the time Johnson planted on his back foot, he had six hands and three sets of bad breath upon him. And you ask yourself. Kenyatta Walker isn't good enough to play on this line?

(Maybe not. Walker ripped into his coaches after the game, which isn't exactly going to apply lotion to his situation. Walker might as well have rented an airplane to fly over the stadium pulling a banner that read, "I Don't Get It." The coaches didn't even let Walker dress for this game. Next week, they may ask him to buy a ticket).

Then there was the defense, the supposedly reloaded, hungry-once-more defense. And it couldn't get off the field. Third downs were automatic for the Saints. It was as if the Saints were keeping 10 men in to block, but that was impossible, because it seemed as if six men were wide open in the secondary.

"We should have scored 35, 40 points on them," Saints receiver Joe Horn said.

I know what you're thinking. Yes, it was only one loss. Yes, it was good the Bucs scrapped until the end. It beats surrender. Johnson, battered and booed, was terrific in the final five minutes of regulation. But this team hasn't been satisfied with close for a very long time. It shouldn't be now.

Your expectations were higher than this. So were Gruden's. On second thought, don't worry about the wakeup call. A performance like this keeps a coach up at night.

From the looks of things, there are miles to go before he sleeps.

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