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Beat-up Bucs missing the A-Train

RICK STROUD
Published November 16, 2003

TAMPA - Time after time, Bucs coach Jon Gruden has said injuries are no excuse.

Of course, that's true because football is a game of attrition. But that statement is generally followed by a dramatic reading of the list of players who are hurt.

It hardly explains the world champions' 4-5 record, especially because the team's core is largely intact. Players such as Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, Anthony McFarland, Greg Spires, Ronde Barber and Dwight Smith haven't missed many plays. Brad Johnson, Keyshawn Johnson, Michael Pittman, Keenan McCardell, Ken Dilger and the bulk of the offensive line have started every game.

But if injuries are an alibi, which one had the biggest impact?

The question is open to debate, which is why it was posed to general manager Rich McKay.

His answer may surprise you: Mike Alstott.

Wait a minute, you say? The A-Train had been reduced to a role player. He rarely got to carry the ball except in goal-line and short-yardage situations. As a receiver, he wasn't much of a downfield threat.

But McKay believes the Bucs red zone production has suffered since Alstott's injury.

Since Alstott was placed on injured reserve Oct. 7 with a herniated disc in his neck, the Bucs have not had a rushing touchdown.

In the Bucs first four games, they scored eight touchdowns in 11 possessions inside the red zone. During their 1-3 streak, they've scored one in six tries inside the opponents' 20-yard line.

The Bucs had been effective when splitting Pittman out of the backfield as a receiver and leaving Alstott as the lone setback. Defenses had to respect the run with the A-Train on the field. But without Alstott, the play-action fakes aren't as effective.

Given the collapse of the Bucs defense in two-minute situations, it's hard to minimize the loss of cornerback Brian Kelly. But Alstott - not Kelly, Joe Jurevicius, Rickey Dudley or Roman Oben - has been the hardest player to replace, according to McKay.

SAY CHEESE: Gruden knows with one more defeat, the Bucs postseason hopes won't have a pulse.

That's why this week, he dug deep into his bag of motivational tricks.

Gruden began the team meeting Wednesday with film clips of dramatic comebacks by some of professional sports greatest champions: The Dodgers' Kirk Gibson coming off the bench to hit a game-winning pinch-hit home run; Michael Jordan hitting a buzzer-beating shot: Tiger Woods sinking a clutch putt.

Then Friday, Gruden surprised his team by inviting Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella to give a fiery speech.

"I drove over two or three times to spring training and just watched him coach," Gruden said. "I had my visor on and privately just enjoyed watching his field approach and demeanor with young hitters and ballplayers. It's not like football, but it's teaching."

KEYS TO THE GAME: Gruden needed only an economy of sentences to sum up today's Bucs-Packers game.

"Play-making. We're going to have to make the plays," Gruden said. "Certainly, you've got to stop Ahman Green rushing and receiving. He's got to be as impressive a back in football as there is in terms of running and receiving. Offensively, we've got to get started faster in the game, and we've got to make some timely plays in the kicking game. We need better field position for that to happen."

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