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'New and improved' Bucs unlikely to win any congeniality contests

GARY SHELTON
Published March 14, 2004

Their hearts are hard, their blood is cold.

They have no time for sentiment and precious little for salutation. They are calculating, they are clumsy. They are ruthless, guiltless, merciless. The road is strewn with the careers they have tossed aside, and yet, they do not bother to look back.

They are the new Bucs.

Will you cheer for them?

Their faces are blank, their skin is tough.

There is little regard for public perception and none for public opinion. They give few answers, they offer few explanations. They are evasive, elusive, enigmatic. Tampa Bay knows little of what they are doing, or why, and that in itself seems to thrill those in charge.

They are the new Bucs.

Will you buy their tickets?

The feel of a franchise has changed. There is a new face to the Bucs, a new fabric. It feels colder, slicker, less like a football and more like a cash register. It feels as if Buccaneer Bay has turned into Cutthroat Island.

John Lynch is gone. Rich McKay is gone. Keyshawn Johnson is gone. If Warren Sapp is going, it is clear that is just ducky with the Bucs.

Things change so quickly. Oh, you have been watching this team unravel for the last year. Even at 7-9, these were still the Bucs. Over the last week, even the atmosphere seemed altered. Suddenly, the team feels more detached, less accessible.

Jon Gruden has blown up the Bucs.

Amid the rubble, they are a tougher franchise to like.

In recent years, there has been a neighborly feel to the Bucs, a homespun team with homegrown stars. Except for the occasional defensive tackle yelling at the occasional fan, it was easy to feel the Bucs were largely good guys who liked it here. Turns out, they were also excellent players. That was likable, too.

These days, it seems as if the Bucs work overtime to tarnish their reputation. The front office deals with players the way the Glazers dealt with city officials. Lynch is told he is unwanted at any price. They attempt an end run on their quarterback and try to tap dance their way around it. They block the progress of their coaches. They answer direct questions with indirect answers. Either they do not know about the pulse of the community, or they do not care. Or both.

The Bucs are a different team this week than they were last week. They are someone else's running back and someone else's tackle and someone else's linebackers. The roster is filled with mercenaries who do not know BayWalk from Busch Gardens. The front office prefers to work in the shadows, but it is dark there, and the administrators keep tripping over themselves.

Funny that. Both Gruden and Bruce Allen came here to escape Al Davis, and darned if they didn't bring his cloak of darkness with them.

Along the way, the Bucs have lost something. Determination doesn't demand a lack of decency. You can be committed and still be courteous. No, class won't save you if you do not win enough games, but isn't it better than the alternative?

Oh, there are those who scoff at the notion of chemistry as if it were some outdated concept that disappeared with fins on automobiles. There are administrators with the hearts of used car salesmen who will tell you that size is preferable to character and speed is better than cohesion.

Still, class matters. Everything matters. Eventually it catches up to the disbelievers.

Consider the release of Lynch, the last Boy Scout. In the end, Lynch was tossed aside as if he were, well, Keyshawn.

You can understand if Allen, newcomer that he is, didn't grasp how much Lynch meant to his fans. But how can Gruden not call Lynch before he was released? In these marathon days of Gruden, he can't manage a five-minute phoner? On the other hand, Gruden was the guy who never said farewell to his Raiders players, remember? Who knows? Maybe the guy needs a better long-distance plan.

Look, the release of great players isn't an easy thing. If the Bucs really believe they are better off without Lynch, then bully for them for making the tough decision. Even then, don't you fly the guy to Tampa, surround him with old teammates and tell all the stories about players he's knocked silly?

What does this say to Derrick Brooks? To Ronde Barber? To Mike Alstott? Better question: What does it say to you?

Judging from the reaction, this might be the most annoyed Tampa Bay fans have been at a player's departure since Doug Williams left. Yet, for all the irritation, do you suppose the Bucs offices have been flooded with ticket cancellations? Me, neither.

Fans will show up. They will cheer the next guy to wear No.47 and the next guy to wear No.19. If Gruden switches to black jerseys, just to make his team feel even more like the Bucland Raiders, they'll cheer those. If Gruden wins, they'll cheer him, too.

What, then, are we to think about the roster changes so far?

Charlie Garner? Excellent pickup, even at 32. But the Bucs still need another running back to do the heavy lifting.

The offensive linemen? The Bucs have bought a crate of them, but there isn't a great player in the bunch. Derrick Deese is a good player, but largely, the Bucs are throwing bodies at a problem.

The linebackers? Nice special-teams players, but who is going to replace Nate Webster?

Overall? The team had a face lift, and still, it managed to look older. That's not a good thing. There are still three, maybe four holes to fill. Stay tuned.

Along the way, we also have discovered a little about the new era of the Bucs. They aren't as congenial as they used to be. They aren't warm. They aren't fuzzy.

Can they win?

They had better.

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