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New players inspire new confidence

Roster overhaul on offense makes a big contribution to franchise-best 12-4 record.

By ROGER MILLS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 12, 2003


photo
[Times photo: James Borchuck]
Wide receiver Keenan McCardell has 61 catches and six touchdowns.
TAMPA -- In the Bucs' past two playoff appearances, both opening-round losses in Philadelphia, the offense not only failed to score a touchdown but played like a unit lacking power, persistence and punch.

The near-embarrassing efforts, in which the Bucs averaged 56.5 yards running and 172 passing, cost former coach Tony Dungy and his offensive staff their jobs and led to a roster overhaul.

Not only did the franchise acquire offensive-minded coach Jon Gruden from the Raiders to end an infamous coaching search, but it retooled the attack by signing nine new free agents (plus re-signed center/guard Todd Washington) with an average of seven-plus years of experience.

The list includes running back Michael Pittman, receivers Keenan McCardell and Joe Jurevicius, offensive linemen Roman Oben, Lomas Brown and Kerry Jenkins, tight ends Rickey Dudley and Ken Dilger and quarterback Rob Johnson.

How essential were they? With the exception of Brown, each started at least one game this season and most made some significant contribution to the franchise-best 12-4 record.

In the wake of the renovation, the offense has taken on a new identity. An attack that once featured limited big-play options now has several formidable weapons at its disposal. What once was an offensive line that seemed separated and frequently overmatched now is playing with increased resolve and chemistry.

Ultimately, a run-generated, old-school approach to offense has become a more pass-oriented attack that uses the run for balance.

"Right now we're probably more a pass-first team," said McCardell, an 11-year veteran who contributed 61 catches and six touchdowns. "Now, we try to have a controlled passing game to help out our running game. It's somewhat of our identity right there."

The result is that quarterback Brad Johnson, another 11-year veteran who has thrived under Gruden's tutelage, has enjoyed a near Pro Bowl season. In 13 games, Johnson was 281-of-451 for 3,049 yards with 22 touchdowns and six interceptions. The most telling evidence of his value to the team is this: In the three games he missed, the Bucs scored one touchdown.

"We were missing the guy who had been pretty efficient in our offense," McCardell said. "I think when he gets back it'll be a change. That's not saying that Rob or Shaun can't do the job. But when you have a guy that's been at it a whole year and you have two guys who haven't had the repetitions, it's hard on them."

Johnson, 34, said the success of the new offense can be traced to consistent play calling and execution, the quality of the talent pool and the commitment to limit costly turnovers.

"We've been pretty consistent in the passing game from week in to week out," Johnson said. "I think we threw the ball one time 50-something times. We've been throwing it 31 or 32 times. It's really been a balanced run-pass ratio unless we've been really behind. Look at the numbers. We struggled early in the season with our running game, but if you look at the last seven weeks of the season we've probably been the No. 6 or No. 7 offense in the league.

"What's unfortunate is people always go by yards. You can't go by yards. It's the wrong way to go. You can only go by score. Different people call games differently. There are different (short-field) situations due to your defense. Where we've been really good is our turnover ratio. That's the strength of the offense and the defense."

But for all the praise lumped on the passing game and all the criticism thrown at the running game, the Bucs won't fare any better against the 49ers by abandoning the run.

"If you go back to the Cincinnati game, when Rob (Johnson) came in to ice the game, we ran the ball seven times in a row to score a touchdown," Oben said. "I know we've been throwing the ball back and forth. It really doesn't matter, whatever Coach calls, we have to execute. We can move the ball down the field (functionally)."

Added McCardell: "I think when we have had to run the ball, we have run the ball well. Jon has done a good job of keeping people off-balanced. It seems like when we have to run the ball, a lot of teams think we're going to pass and Coach just sends Mike (Alstott) in there and he beats people over the head. During the playoffs we're going to have to do that, set some things up and be very precise in the passing game.

"It's big for us to step up our play and I think we're ready for the challenge. If we step up our play, I think it'll help the running game."


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