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Bucs let the spirit (and an elf) move them

GARY SHELTON
Published December 8, 2003

NEW ORLEANS - There are words that stir the fires of men's souls.

There are great speeches that boil the blood and phrases that touch the heart. There are grand ideas that can rally men, unite them and drive them toward a common cause. There are gifted orators who deliver their message with such conviction it inspires courage and passion.

Then there is Jon Gruden.

Who wants to talk about Elf.

Talk about your little victories. Gruden, the master motivator, the guy who talked about pounding the rock and visiting the woodshed and reading the tombstones, the coach who has invoked the names of Vince Lombardi and Barry Bonds and Tiger Woods in past pregame speeches, has found a new rallying point.

Hint: In his spare time, he lives in a tree and makes cookies.

That's right. Instead of self motivation, Gruden was reduced to elf motivation. Go figure.

Ah, how a season has shrunk. On Saturday night, the night before the Bucs and Saints conspired on a 14-7 Tampa Bay victory, Gruden gathered his troops for yet another in a series of inspirational moments. The team gathered in a meeting room of the Fairmont Hotel, and Gruden cleared his throat.

And then he told his team about the new Will Ferrell movie Elf, how Santa's sleigh runs on spirit, how Ferrell's character goes to New York to find spirit and, gee whiz, how everyone is happy in the end.

Also, Gruden said, you have to tackle Deuce McAllister.

Okay, so it wasn't the speech about the Gipper, and no one remembered the titans, and no one was ready to follow Braveheart into battle.

Still, one assumes it beat talking about Stuck on You.

At any rate, the team cracked up laughing, and the mood was lightened. Maybe that had something to do with Sunday's victory, and maybe it didn't. Regardless, the Bucs finished a weekend smiling.

"Why not lean on the Elf?" Gruden said, grinning. "There's a lot of important stuff in that movie about spirit."

On the other hand, there really wasn't a lot of important stuff to this game, not unless you're one of those fans who runs to his calculator whenever the Bucs win to add up playoff possibilities. To sum up: The Bucs are slightly less dead than they were last week, but at this point, it would be unwise to send the mortician home.

If you want to be bone honest, the Bucs were the luckiest team you could imagine Sunday. One minute, the Bucs' secondary couldn't find Joe Horn anywhere, which was odd because Aaron Brooks was finding him everywhere.

Then, in the time it takes to sneeze, the Bucs went from being hopelessly outplayed in the first half to a seven-point lead. Joe Horn dropped a touchdown pass that would have put the Saints up by 14. Aaron Brooks dropped the ball without being touched and handed the Bucs a touchdown. The Saints had a punt blocked. Warren Sapp caught a touchdown pass when he never saw the ball.

Just like that, a little luck and a little elf determination, and the Bucs were ahead 14-7.

The way this season has gone, maybe the Bucs had a little luck coming. In case you wondered, no one offered to give the game back. What? If a team is lost in the desert, do you expect it not to drink the water because it isn't bottled?

Besides, this was against the Saints, a team that has had the Bucs on a leash for two straight seasons. Some tourists think the Dungeon is a bar in New Orleans. For the Bucs, it's the Superdome. The Saints had beaten the Bucs three straight games, and it's safe to assume no one in the New Orleans locker room was dazzled by the Bucs' championship rings.

No, the Bucs didn't look like world champions. Martin Gramatica missed a couple of field goals, including a gimme putt that would have iced the game. The team has no idea what to do on fourth and 1. Shaun King got a 15-yard penalty and he didn't even play. (Illegal playcalling? What's next? A penalty for calling too much shifting on a play that goes for 2 yards?)

Still, you can give this to the Bucs. They played with a little bit of energy. Okay. Call it spirit if you wish.

"It felt like we had the old juice back," safety John Lynch said.

The sad thing is the juice, like the Bucs, has faded in and out all season. It has been a sad, somber season. That, too, played a part in Gruden's motivational talk. Gruden wanted to loosen up his team.

"Everyone's blowing holes in our offense and our defense and the Tampa Bay Bucs," Gruden said. "We're complacent. We're fat red tomatoes. I think the players heard the message; otherwise, they wouldn't have been running around telling each other "You look like an elf in your uniform."'

Okay, okay. The Bucs got a few giggles from the speech. There was a little eye rolling. But, as Warren Sapp said, there was a message inside, too.

"He said that if no one was excited about us, let's get excited about ourselves," Sapp said.

Sounds fair enough.

Next time, though, Gruden will take a different tack. He'll have passion in his voice. He'll slam his fist on the table. He'll grab the attention of his players.

That's right.

Next week, he's talking about Bad Santa.

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