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Bucs finding niche right at mediocre

Published November 3, 2003

TAMPA - It was an average-looking room. A nook, really. A little white paint on the wall, some average furniture scattered around.

Jon Gruden, average football coach, sat on a folding chair and talked about an average football team, the Bucs, and the average game it had just completed.

Gruden's face still was flushed from the emotions, and his visor had been twisted around backward. His lips were drawn tight, and his voice was quiet as he tried to sort out how another game had slipped away. In a constant search for answers, it should be said, his success rate was about average.

Average offense.

Average defense.

Average afternoon.

Welcome to mediocrity. Welcome to a place that isn't bad, really, although it also isn't good. It's a neighborhood that is half full, half empty and half-hearted.

Welcome to the state of the Bucs, 2003.

Halfway through a halfway interesting season, the Bucs have gone from being kings of the jungle to observing the law of averages. They are 4-4, halfway between dynasty and tragedy, between dominating and dominated.

* * *

They do not play great offense most of the time, and they do not play great defense enough of the time. They aren't particularly strong, or especially swift, or uncommonly creative. They do not particularly frighten opponents. They cannot blow you out, and they cannot close you out.

They're the Bucs, and they're okay.

They're just not anything more.

After half a season, this is the inescapable truth of Tampa Bay. It wins a game, it loses a game. It puts its focus in, it takes its focus out. What? Are the Bucs defending a title, or are they doing the hokey pokey?

Yesterday, Gruden was a genius and his players were champions. Every day was a holiday and every meal was a banquet.

Today, they are C students, the Bucs, and they hope the teacher is grading on the curve. They are meatloaf for dinner, a '98 Ford Taurus in the driveway and 2.5 televisions in the home. They are Middle America's team.

They're the Bucs.

And they're ordinary.

Oh, you could fool yourself after this one, if you wished. The Bucs showed a bit of pluck with a late comeback before losing 17-14. On the other hand, this was against the Saints, a less-than-average team that, bless their little hearts, has full knowledge of it. New Orleans came into Sunday's game like Vanderbilt in its homecoming game, trying onside kicks, faking field goals, going for it on fourth and 1.

When the Saints found this game winnable in the final minutes, it seemed to surprise even the Saints. Certainly, it came as a shock to the Bucs, who have been beaten up, beaten down and beaten regularly.

Maybe it shouldn't surprise anyone. This year, the Bucs have gone up and down like the world's smallest roller-coaster.

Yes, the Bucs are hurt. In some cases, the Bucs who replaced the hurt Bucs are hurt. That isn't a excuse but, yeah, it's a factor. You might as well take the team photo with an X-ray.

On the other hand, there never has been a 4-4 team that didn't have injuries. There never has been a 2-6 team that wasn't convinced it should be 4-4, or a 4-4 team that wasn't convinced it should be 6-2. That's the nature of the game.

Yes, the Bucs miss Mike Alstott and Joe Jurevicius; on the other hand, those guys aren't Jim Brown and Jerry Rice. Even without their receiver bent and their fullback broken, even with a juggled offensive line, shouldn't the offense be better than this?

Look, being injured had nothing to do with two turnovers in the red zone. Being injured had nothing to do with Kerry Jenkins and Cosey Coleman missing a blocker on a wide-open reception by Michael Pittman. Being injured had nothing to do with Martin Gramatica no longer being Automatica.

For most of Sunday, Brad Johnson was an average quarterback surrounded by average weapons. The Bucs couldn't run on the 28th-worst run defense in the NFL.

"Sleepwalking" is how defensive tackle Warren Sapp referred to the offense. Sheesh. I knew we all set our clocks back last week, but did the Bucs have to set theirs back to 2001?

And guess what? Just as the Bucs offense stepped up, the defense stepped back. Why? Because it's what average teams do.

And so it was with measured tones that Gruden sat in the tiny room at RayJay and talked about the Average Joeness of his team.

"I'm distraught," he said. "I'm crushed. It's hard to swallow. We've swallowed our share. We've swallowed some whoppers."

No, Gruden didn't smash a chair, and he didn't yell and scream, and he didn't make a thousand faces of torment.

"No one's dead," he said. "No one died today. I love times like this, because it makes the taste of winning so sweet. We've got a heck of a journey over the next eight weeks."

Maybe. But if the problem is injuries, well, those don't appear to be lessening. And if the problem is anything else, well, that isn't healing, either.

Gruden pointed out that the Raiders, a year ago, were 4-4 before they reached the Super Bowl. And that's true. On the other hand, the Cardinals were 4-4, too. For that matter, the Patriots, last year's defending champions, also were 4-4, and they never recovered from it.

Here they are, then. They're up, they're down. They're good, they're bad. They're sweet, they're sour.

They're average.

If things go just right, they have a chance to be commonplace.

[Last modified November 3, 2003, 01:34:18]

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