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A dangerous time for an ugly offense

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By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 14, 2002

TAMPA -- Sometimes, you just have to take a stand. So here goes.

Editorially speaking, winning is good.

Yes, sir, you can quote me. Give me a choice between winning and the alternative, and I'm going to vote for winning every time. I endorse winning. I support winning. I think winning is the bomb. For a fee, I am willing to debate the subject.

And so, when you mention the Bucs' record, I have this to say about that. Bully.

On the other hand, isn't 5-1 supposed to look a little prettier than this?

Or, maybe, a lot?

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This is probably going to shock you, absolutely shock you, but the Bucs offense played it ugly again for most of Sunday afternoon's 17-3 victory. That makes it, what, 4,811 games in a row? Look, it isn't that the Bucs were bad against Cleveland. It's that they have been bad since Cleveland.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Admittedly, this is the glass-is-half-empty-and-also-it's-dirty-and-the-ice-is-melted view of the situation. The Bucs have won five in a row, so why kick them when they're up? The defense is ruthless, so why suggest, comparatively speaking, the offense has plenty of Ruth. Mike Alstott went stone-age on the Browns, so why expect an offense from this century?

Well, because of this.

Because the issue shouldn't be the six games gone. It should be the 10 games to go.

And, if we're going to be honest about this, this offense will not do. Not with teams such as Philadelphia, Green Bay, New Orleans, Pittsburgh and Chicago ahead.

By now, we expected a scoring machine. We expected smoke and skid marks. We expected fireworks and scoreboards that have run out of numbers. We expected opposing defensive coordinators to burst into tears and opposing cornerbacks to burst into flames.

Most of all, we expected this.


Wasn't that what we all believed when the Bucs lured Jon Gruden from the Raiders for the bargain price of the moon, eight stars and a comet to be named later? We expected danger. We expected dazzle. We expected delivery. Occasionally, we expected a field goal to be kicked without a catastrophe.

Conversely, we did not expect Les to call Clyde in order to share a chuckle.

Oh, the numbers can fool you. After the heat and the hammer (Alstott) were done with the Browns, the Bucs finished with 186 yards rushing and a two-touchdown victory. Numbers such as that can make any raised eyebrow look like nit-picking.

Still, for much of the day, the Bucs stumbled and sputtered. They couldn't score touchdowns, and they were unable to settle for field goals. Consider this: If the Browns don't miss a tackle on the game's third play, the score could have been 3-0 going into the fourth.

Now, how much do you think that will scare the Eagles? Or anyone else, once the real schedule begins next week?

Six weeks in, and the Bucs are the opposite of a Sprite commercial. Nothing is crisp. Nothing is clean. And for goodness' sake, pass the caffeine.

Poor Tampa Bay. It's always second and 9, and it's always third and 7. Every drive seems to take six third-down conversions to reach the end zone. The end zone is always uphill, against the wind, half a mile away. Also, there are penalties.

"We still have some things we need to do better," Gruden said. "I don't have a chart of where we need to go. I wasn't pleased (after three quarters), but we did some good things. If we kick the three field goals, I would have felt better."

Maybe. And maybe, you suggest, Gruden still wouldn't be happy about settling for field goals.

"Yeah, but I haven't been happy for most of my life," Gruden said.

Gruden laughed, but you get the idea he would be much happier if the offense were more of a wide-open, find-the-receiver shell game that invites mismatches.

Look at the roster, however. You see a quarterback who is a tough cuss who can take a little pounding, but he isn't very mobile in an era when quarterbacks who can make creative plays are all the rage. You see one tackle who has bounced around a little, another who is still a project, and because of it, you need to keep a few potential receivers in to help with blocking. You see an offensive line that has been battered and rearranged, a running game so bad the Browns -- 30th in the league in defending the run -- dared the Bucs to run.

And you see, on the other side of the ball, a great defense.

If you are Gruden, then, what do you do? Wing it? Or win it?

For the time being, then, get used to it. This is who the Bucs are. This is what they do. Yes, they can get better. No, they aren't going to discover a hidden passage to the end zone.

Bottom line? Brad Johnson isn't going to turn into a rambling, scrambling man, and the tackles aren't going to become dominators. The running back is still a precious balance between Alstott and Michael Pittman. The red zone will continue to have speed bumps.

So the Bucs will plod ahead, grinding in slow motion, trying to find a rhythm, hoping they can stack enough big plays together to keep chugging toward the goal line. They are not likely to become explosive, but they can become more efficient.

In the meantime, the machine is leaking a little oil.

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