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By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 21, 2002


PHILADELPHIA -- This time, no one was fired.

This time, no one cried.

This time, the season did not end.

All in all, the Bucs have had worse trips to Philadelphia. This time all that happened was a team being slapped in the forehead by reality. Oh, and by the Eagles.

The Eagles didn't just beat the Bucs 20-10 on Sunday afternoon. They identified them. They brought the tape measure, the scale, the stopwatch and, worst of all, the mirror. They showed the Bucs who they were and who they were not. They showed them what they could do and what they could not.

Such is the measure of a football team, as of Oct. 20. As of now, the Bucs are pretty good, but they aren't as good as you would hope. They look like a playoff team, but not one that will hang around long. They look, and stop me if you've heard this more than four billion times, like a might of a defense and a blight of an offense.

Again.

This was one of those games that determines exactly where a team is. By the time it was over, darned if the Bucs hadn't sent out directions to their house. Go to Not Bad Avenue and take a left at Outside Shot Lane. If you get to Elite Street, you've gone too far.

This is where they live. They are better than most, but they aren't good enough. They are powerful enough to win five of seven, but not good enough to go toe to toe with the best teams in the league. They are, in NFL terms, the upper-middle class.

Frankly, it's a nice enough neighborhood. The lawns are nice. People are friendly. The schools are good.

But, man, is it a long way to the Super Bowl from here.

Perhaps you were hoping for more. Perhaps you believed the Bucs would blow into Philly and bully the Eagles the same way they bullied the Falcons and the Bengals and the Ravens. Perhaps you thought the Bucs would use this game to serve warning to the rest of the league that this year they were something more.

Instead, this game simply showed the Bucs how far they have to go if they are to be considered a legit team come the postseason. They remain a one-dimensional team, good enough on defense to give you hope, but not enough on offense to inspire faith.

The defense, for example, is excellent. But the offense remains so criminally awful that one mistake, such as Donovan McNabb's 42-yard touchdown pass to Todd Pinkston, is enough to beat them. As good as the defense is, that's a lot of weight to carry.

There are those who are convinced the Eagles simply have the Bucs' number. Hey, no wonder. When an offense's number is "3," it isn't hard to find. This was the third straight game in the Vet the Bucs offense hasn't scored, and you had the feeling if they played until Tuesday, Tampa Bay still wouldn't cross the goal line.

Start with the offensive line. The Eagles simply overran it, and they pounded Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson until they broke him. (Or, at least, bruised him).

Poor Johnson. He looked like a man standing at the bottom of a mountain waiting for the next avalanche. And sure enough, it came, again and again. Mind you, this was with the Bucs keeping in extra blockers. Otherwise, Johnson might have been trampled.

"We have to make something happen," coach Jon Gruden said. "But I'm going to stick to my theory that we're going to be a damn good football team before it's all said and done."

Before that happens, however, there has to be an element of danger to the offense. Go back to the first half of Sunday's game, when the Bucs and Eagles defenses were matching big plays. You had the feeling that, eventually, McNabb was going to make something happen. You never had that feeling about the Bucs. Not for a second.

Only once did the Bucs get inside the Eagles 30. Go back over the past three games here, and the Bucs offense has gone 35 straight possessions in Philly with no touchdowns.

Seven games down and you had the feeling the Bucs would have had a trifle more threat to them. You thought Michael Pittman would have broken a few more, or the receivers would have gotten loose in the secondary more often.

"We have to develop an attitude," receiver Joe Jurevicius said. "Look at our defense. They're a bunch of bad a----. We have to get that."

Ah, but when a line can't get a stalemate, it's hard. When an offense has to keep receivers in to block, it's hard. When the quarterback has players hanging off him, it's hard.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. The Bucs can talk about pounding the rock. So far, the rock is pretty darned resilient. If this were a boxing match, you would say the rock was ahead on points.

(As far as rock abuse goes, the special teams might want to take a cut or two, as well. They made Brian Mitchell look like a kid on spring break.)

For the Bucs, however, the directions are simple. The Bucs have to raise their performance, or they have to lower their expectations. It's as simple as that. After all, how many touchdowns a game can you ask Derrick Brooks to score?

Seven weeks in, and this is where they are. They're a B student. They're on their way to the Liberty Bowl. They're a Ford Taurus. They're a vacation at your Aunt Edna's.

It isn't bad.

It just isn't enough.

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