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Standing pat makes OL patsies

Published December 7, 2003

Great linemen block out the sun. Bad ones have trouble blocking the door.

Great linemen open holes. Bad ones cannot manage to open a window.

Great linemen protect as fiercely as the palace guard. Bad ones should not be trusted to guard your watch on the way to the repair shop.

All of which brings us to the offensive line of the Tampa Bay Bucs. Guess which adjective fits.

Now, is there still a mystery as to where the season has gone?

Go on. Discuss the quarterback. Debate the missing wide receiver. Deliberate the failures of the defense. Dissect the special teams. Deride the coaching staff. Almost no one on this team has played as well as last season, so there is plenty of blame to spread.

Ah, but if you're looking for holes in the Bucs, start with the unit that doesn't create any. Start with the offensive line.

Around here, the bottom line is that the Bucs have, well, the bottom line.

You could argue this is the worst offensive line in the NFL, worse than Detroit's, worse than Chicago's, worse than Arizona's. The ball is snapped and, all of the sudden, you understand how this team got into this mess.

Shame on the players for not playing better.

Shame on the front office for not getting better.

That's the thing about success. It can let the mirror play tricks on you. Last season, the Bucs had a weak offensive line, too. It was tough to run, and Brad Johnson kept peeling defensive ends off of his rib cage, and the chorus was the Bucs would never win a Super Bowl with an offensive line that wobbled so drastically.

Yet, they did. This time last year, the line began to play better, and by the time the playoffs got here, they were, glory be, Better Than Average. In the Super Bowl, they were Darned Near Good.

It was one of the most amazing coaching jobs of our day. It was as if line coach Bill Muir had spun gold.

That's the thing about healing the sick, though. Soon enough, they have the sniffles all over again. And where are you then?

In the aftermath of last season's success, the Bucs seemed to think their improvement was going to last, that they were going to be good from that point on. And so in a cash-strapped offseason, the Bucs failed to upgrade. Oh, they picked up a couple of lesser-known free agents and they drafted a few prospects late. But they didn't do enough. No, no one is going to build a great line in a single offseason, especially with all the dollars committed to defense. But shouldn't an offensive line have at least one better-than-average player?

This season, the line has been overwhelmed. The offense continually looks as if it is running uphill. There is no room to run, no time to throw. And there are the constant, confounding penalties.

Has this line taken a step back?

Yeah. Usually 10 yards worth at a time.

By their nature, those who play the offensive line are tough, driven men with great perspective. It is a profession for those made out of gristle and scar tissue, those who don't mind the dirty work or the heavy lifting or the high standards. Offensive linemen are used to having blood on their jerseys; often, it is not their own.

This is the position of Anthony Munoz. And Dwight Stephenson. And Mike Kenn and Gene Upshaw and Paul Gruber.

Quick. Does anyone see any of those guys' qualities around here?

Ask yourself. Who is the anchor on this line? Who is the street brawler? Who is the savvy old vet? Who is the strong guy? Who is the voice of reason? Who is the sound of rage?

Here's one: Who is the guy who grabs face masks?

Aha. I thought you'd get that one right.

If the offensive linemen are the usual suspects around here, it should be said that Kenyatta Walker is Keyser Soze.

It is comforting to know that if vicious, man-eating aliens were to invade the Earth, Walker would at least grab them by their space helmets. Except for that, Walker has given frustration a new name. He doesn't get it; on third and 1, the Bucs don't, either.

And yet, here's the scary thing: Despite all his mental gaffes, Walker might still be the most talented lineman the Bucs employ.

What's the old line? That the crowd only hears a lineman's name when he has done something wrong? Around here, we know the names of Bucs linemen better than we know the Beatles. (And there's a thought: Could the Bucs line keep John, Paul, George and Ringo off Brad Johnson's back? No, I don't think so, either.) Today, the Bucs try again. Once again, the biggest question coming in is whether the Bucs can block the Saints enough to have a chance.

Regardless, the message is clear. If the Bucs are going to be significantly better next season, it has to start with the offensive line. Somewhere, they have to find a bit of a snarl.

Otherwise, the suspicion is going to be that Doug Williams didn't curse this team, after all.

But maybe Gruber did.

[Last modified December 7, 2003, 01:34:09]

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