© St. Petersburg Times, published January 19, 2003
TAMPA -- They aren't going to pound their chests and point their fingers at critics in the traditional "I told you so!" manner.
That's because as improved as they are, members of the Bucs offensive line aren't satisfied with their level of play.
But before anyone piles condemnation upon a unit that early in the season seemed destined to land quarterback Brad Johnson in traction, consider the journey.
Entering today's NFC Championship Game against the Eagles, the Bucs maligned offensive line might not be where it wants to be, but it is long way from where it was.
"We've had our share of adversity from one thing to the other, and that does not include injuries," left tackle Roman Oben said. "We have improved but we have had no choice but to improve; there was no room to go but up for us. We're coming together as a unit, finding our own identity in the running game, establishing ourselves as pass protectors. Having the coaches making the decision in July that this is the offensive line that we're going to use and sticking with it has us working well this late in the season."
Added left guard Kerry Jenkins: "I can't really pinpoint any one thing; it's been a combination of a lot of things. Guys have been spending more time in the film room, making it a goal to improve every day in practice, every week in the games."
There have been some payoffs. In the past seven games with starter Brad Johnson at quarterback, the Bucs have averaged 27.2 points and given up 10 sacks, and the running game, pedestrian in the first months, has found some get-up-and-go.
Over the past five games, the Bucs have averaged 125.8 yards on the ground and gained about 4.3 yards per carry.
"It's an evolution that happens, particularly when you put that new system in each week," offensive line coach Bill Muir said. "In Week 17, you've seen just about everything the NFL has to throw at you. In Week 5 you might be seeing something for the first time, but in Week 17 it's for the third or fourth time."
Such familiarity could not come a minute too soon for the Bucs. Across the table today isn't some run-of-the-mill defensive line that squeaked its way into the playoffs and championship game. Across the line is a devastating front four consisting of Pro Bowl end Hugh Douglas, end Brandon Whiting and tackles Darwin Walker and Corey Simon.
This would be a defense that finished fourth overall in the league, had a league-high 56 sacks and gave up 103.8 rushing yards per game, fourth best in the NFC.
"We're going to have to play much better (today) against the Eagles if we're going to have a chance," Jenkins said. "They have a great defense and we know what's in store for us up there."
Jenkins said he has clear memories of his struggles in a 20-10 loss in Philadelphia on Oct. 20.
"It was the first time I had ever played them in the regular season, and it was an eye-opening experience, a reality check, for me especially," said Jenkins, the fifth-year player who signed with the Bucs in the offseason. "I didn't have a very good game. I wasn't using the technique I know how to use. I got flustered a little bit and that's normally something I would not do. I try to keep my emotions on an even keel regardless of whether we're doing well or poorly."
Though Douglas did not record a sack that day, the Eagles managed six as a team and held the Bucs to 81 yards on the ground.
"The main difference between then and now is that we've had 10 games since then, and that means 10 more games to get better," Oben said. "It's about repetition on the field and in games. When it's all said and done, it's still 11 on 11. We have to execute; every man has to win his individual battle."
They must have won some of those battles in Sunday's 31-6 win over the 49ers. The Bucs gave up one sack, rushed for 121 yards and gave Johnson enough protection to throw for 196 yards and two touchdowns.
"I'll say this: That was a complete Buc win," guard Cosey Coleman said. "It was one of those days you strive for. It's one of those wins that you want to sit back and enjoy completely because the defense played well, the offense played well. We didn't really get that running game going, but we were able to make a few big plays and mix it up just enough to go out and put up 31 points."
One win from the Super Bowl, the Bucs also hope that new faces make a difference. The team expects to open the game with three different starters from last year's playoff game in Philadelphia. Oben and Jenkins replace Kenyatta Walker and Randall McDaniel at left tackle and left guard, respectively, and Walker moves to right tackle, replacing Jerry Wunsch.
"This is the reason I came here," said Jenkins, who chose to sign with the Bucs rather than re-sign with the Jets. "I had a tough decision to make when that day came. I knew what Tampa was doing and I weighed my options and felt like with the team that the Bucs were putting together, I had a better shot of getting to the Super Bowl.
"Being a part of the new guys, the guys they brought in, we're expected to be able to get us over the hump. There's responsibility with that, but I'm looking forward to the challenge."