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West Coast O goes south on Gruden

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By JOHN ROMANO, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 28, 2002

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Expect the eyes to narrow and the lips to recede. Anticipate the fury and brace for the outrage. Jon Gruden is ticked off.

You knew it was coming. His standards are too high to stomach this week after week. The Bucs offense is taunting his pride. Which means there should be heck to pay when he confronts the person responsible.

So, what do you suppose he'll do to himself?

Does he snarl at the mirror? Will he assign someone to be sarcastic, or should it be cruel, in the next team meeting? Good heavens, you don't think he'll challenge himself to wake up earlier, do you?

It's gotten that bad. The offense of your dreams has become a field of broken schemes. Put two big backs together and you still don't have a whole. Send receivers in motion and they still can't find their way up the field.

The offense started the season slowly, then got worse. You could make a case there were signs of improvement for a while, but now it looks as if the offense has taken two steps backward.

"It has. We haven't scored," Gruden said. "We're not able to get the ball in the damn end zone. That's inexcusable."

As head coach, Gruden has been a fan's darling. He has shaken up the roster and put the bite back in the defense. No more sleepwalking through September. He got rid of the dilly and banned the dally during October.

There is an urgency around One Buc Place and Gruden put it there. Halfway through the season, the Bucs are in a first-place tie in the NFC South and have their best record since 1979.

So why doesn't it feel right? Why is there the same kind of dread that became so familiar during the Tony Dungy era? How do you turn a team upside down and still not know which way is up?

Dungy was fired for two reasons. Players no longer seemed motivated by his methods and the offense was an utter wreck.

Gruden has solved the first problem, but the second has eluded him. The Bucs again look like playoff fodder because they can't get out of their own way when you hand them a football.

This is the season's greatest surprise. Not that Warren Sapp has returned, and Marcus Jones has left. Not that Brad Johnson remained No. 1, or Shaun King fell to No. 3. The shock is that Gruden could be given this much time and Tampa Bay's offense could still be stuck in the past.

"These ... are embarrassing issues. These are things we take very personally here," Gruden said. "We spend too much time in a building and too much time on the practice field to have that be acceptable. That's not going to stand here, that's not going to live on."

Heck, Clyde Christensen wouldn't stand for this crud.

The Bucs added two free-agent offensive linemen, two free-agent tight ends, two free-agent receivers. They got a backup at quarterback and an acknowledged genius to put them all to work.

And what's happened?

The offense has gotten worse.

Didn't think it was possible, did you?

Unfortunately, it's true. Not counting the scoring machine that has become Derrick Brooks, the Bucs offense has accumulated 122 points midway through the season. That's compared with the 145 provided by Christensen's crew at the same point last season.

"Until you establish a consistent running game, where you can make an occasional 12-yard run -- forget the 3- and 4-yard run -- but a 12- or 15-yard run," Gruden said. "Just to give you some juice and rhythm so you're not always having to convert third and 3 or third and 5. We have to do a better job running, pass protecting, diagramming plays. We have to do better playing and coaching in all areas. That's obvious to all of us."

By now we expected to see receivers waltzing through the secondary and the scoreboard burning up its bulbs. We thought Michael Pittman would crush on the left side and Mike Alstott would destroy on the right.

The Bucs had to be better if only because Gruden was around. His misdirection offense, his sense of play-calling, his shifts and formations would at least mask the weaknesses you knew were there.

Instead, the Bucs have no sense of themselves in the offensive huddle. They are not a running team because they can't open holes. They are not a passing team because they can't protect the quarterback.

The best excuse is also the most familiar. The offensive line was a disaster in 2001 and has been a fair facsimile this season.

Gruden avoids blaming the line, but all problems seem to come back to a lack of blocking.

"In certain areas we did not do a good enough job blocking," Gruden said. "You can't look in your little bag of tricks or you can't wave your magic wand. We have to do a hell of a lot better job. My gosh, until we do it's going to be a grind-it-out, find a way to win. I don't like it, but we'll keep trying to improve until we're not like that."

The night before they took the field against Carolina, Gruden talked to players about the resurgence of Notre Dame.

He explained how the Irish fed off a dominant defense early in the season. And how, later, the offense discovered its voice and identity.

That is his hope for the Bucs. That when they find their health, when they find their comfort zone, when they find their identity, they also will find the end zone.

Really, it's not so much to ask.

Nothing that Gruden wouldn't ask of himself.

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