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Who's the man? Gruden?

Jon Gruden promised to bring more offense to Bucs, but he has not yet delivered.

By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 3, 2002


photo
His offense has resembled the ineptness of past 3 years, only worse.
TAMPA -- Just win, baby.

That might have been Jon Gruden's only instruction during his four seasons under Raiders boss Al Davis.

But after the Bucs paid a king's ransom for Gruden, victories are not enough. Tampa Bay fans expected some flash for all that cash, but the offensive explosion everyone anticipated has not detonated.

The Bucs have gone eight quarters without scoring an offensive touchdown, their offensive line is constantly changing, they have no speed in the backfield or at receiver and the plodding style is built to protect a lead rather than build one.

How bad is the offense at the midway point?

In terms of points scored and other statistics, it's worse than 1999, when offensive coordinator Mike Shula was dismissed, and 2000, when the Marine, Les Steckel, got his marching orders. And, yes, worse than 2001, when Clyde Christensen was a casualty of the housecleaning that claimed coach Tony Dungy.

Despite tying the Bucs' best start at 6-2, Gruden's offense has had the same deficiencies that got his predecessors fired.

"I get a lot of grief from my neighbors. That's why I don't go home much, that's why I don't go out much," Gruden said. "A new playbook ain't the answer to all your problems. Let's be honest. It's going to take us 60 minutes, six, seven, eight, 10 weeks in a row to really go out there and establish ourselves as a force on offense. The only way we're ever going to do that is to execute, blow people off the ball, run through holes, make big plays and coach better."

Gruden's West Coast system is not the problem, but he does lack a rushing attack to make it work. The Bucs are 26th among 32 teams in the league in rushing yards, averaging 90.3, and are tied for 27th in average per attempt, with 3.5. Unable to open holes for Michael Pittman or Mike Alstott, the offensive line can't protect drop-back passer Brad Johnson.

So how have Gruden's Bucs fared so well in the standings? The No. 1-ranked defense is having a season to rival the 2000 Ravens or the 1985 Bears. It has scored five touchdowns and allowed six. Four of the scores belong to linebacker Derrick Brooks.

"I think we're 6-2 because we've played very well on defense," general manager Rich McKay said. "And offensively, we have been efficient enough to where we've made first downs and we've changed field position. We have not been a three-and-out team, which has gotten us in the past because it creates short fields, and that puts too much pressure on the defense."

Because the defense has been so dominant, Gruden has demonstrated the same conservatism that doomed Dungy. But who can blame him? Winning ugly takes precedence over losing pretty.

"I'm sensitive to a degree because I'm involved with the offense. But we're going to try and win the game," Gruden said. "We would like to score and play a lot better offensively, and we're going to make every effort to do that. But sometimes, playing the game of field position, maybe playing with a different approach is the thing that you feel maybe gives your team the best chance to win.

"I'm not saying we're going to be closed vest this week or any week. But sometimes, playing the game of field position is the smart play because it gives your team the best chance to win. But we will not put our heads in the sand and hide. I promise you we won't do that."

"I think it's not so much as we're living through that old design now as much as the defense is playing so much at a high level," McKay said. "It becomes very hard offensively to put that at risk. So it becomes a little of a self-fulfilling prophecy in that you don't want to do things that put the defense at risk of not winning a game."

Unlike past years, you don't hear grumbling from the defensive players. According to Warren Sapp, that's because they haven't been forced to bear as much of the load.

"He was brought here to make a juggernaut on both sides of the ball," Sapp said of Gruden. "But we never asked for that. We just asked for a more efficient offense that gives us enough points to win every game that we play.

"In every game, you can pick out at least one drive, the start of the second half or something, when they go on a seven- or eight-minute drive and get us big points. All of a sudden, we're in the fourth quarter and we've got a lead. Instead of seven minutes left in the game, you're down six, you're down 10. We've only done that twice. The first game and the eighth game. And if that's all we're going to do it in half of a season? I'll take that. And only one game of Buc ball? That's crazy. We played Buc ball every week. We had no choice."

Some blame the Bucs' problems on Gruden's voluminous playbook, suggesting that the game plan should be scaled back.

"If you're asking me do we need to simplify the offense? No, it doesn't need to be simplified," offensive line coach Bill Muir said. "If you're asking me if it needs reducing? No, it doesn't need reducing. I don't think it's the volume of what we're doing, we just need to do a better job of execution, and that falls across the board."

Meanwhile, Gruden has to hope the second half will be better. Although the Bucs made a number of personnel moves in the offseason, it could take another year or two for all the pieces to fall in place.

"I'm not making excuses. It's intolerable for us to sit where we are from a statistical standpoint right now," Gruden said.

"I'm not going to get into the personnel state of our team. We've got good players. We're 6-2. We have to find a way to win this game. There's not a lot you can do about personnel during the season. In the offseason, I'm sure we'll sit down and have a talk. You'll realize salary-cap implications, you'll realize draft-selection implications. You'll realize a lot of things about the mobility you might or might not have in terms of the search of players. But we need to get more out of some of these guys and just have to get working."

For now, Gruden and Bucs fans will have to be satisfied with the win column.

"There is some silver lining," Gruden said. "It's just not totally silver. It's kind of glittering, I guess."


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