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Gruden waits for his offense
With Cadillac Williams and Michael Clayton hurting, the coach needs to find some kind of spark.
By RICK STROUD
Published November 13, 2005
TAMPA - It is a race that seems to have no finish line. Coach Jon Gruden made the analogy last week when he unwittingly compared building an offense to the interminable construction of the Bucs' new training facility.
"As we fix the new facility, we'll try to fix other aspects of our team," Gruden said.
After a pause, a reporter said he hoped Gruden's project wouldn't take that long.
"Yeah, me too," Gruden said.
No structure is rising from the lot that has been cleared for the new facility, still slated to open in the fall across the street from Raymond James Stadium.
Likewise, the cornerstones of Gruden's offense - rookie Cadillac Williams and Michael Clayton - are running a little behind schedule.
Williams, the fifth overall choice from Auburn, set an NFL record by rushing for 434 yards in his first three games, a feat that sent his shoes and gloves to the Hall of Fame.
But Gruden has to take some of the blame for Cadillac's breakdown. One game after spraining his foot, Williams rushed 37 times in a 17-14 win over the Green Bay Packers.
Since then Williams has missed all or parts of three games and has been held to 62 yards in 35 rushing attempts.
"You don't miss four weeks unless you had a serious injury," Gruden said. "Especially if you're him. He's a guy who loves this.
"He'll play with anything. He'll play with dismembered body parts, I believe that's how tough he is."
Playing hurt also is nothing new to Clayton, the 16th overall pick in 2004 who set club rookie-receiving records last season despite laboring with a torn meniscus in his left knee.
This year Clayton has suited up with a second-degree shoulder separation sustained in preseason. But a severe right knee bruise he sustained making a catch in the first quarter of the 34-14 loss to Carolina could force him to miss his first NFL game today. With Cadillac and Clayton on the mend, all Gruden can do is watch and wait.
"You hope that Cadillac ends up being like (Colts running back) Edgerrin James. I hope he's like (Seahawks back) Shaun Alexander," Gruden said. "I hope he doesn't get hurt. Clayton hasn't really had a healthy day since this season started. Hopefully, he's like Tim Brown was or Jerry Rice or Irving Fryar. Sometimes, accidents happen.
"But we feel great about having two young guys we think can play. We realize we have to build this team back on offense. Build it, period. I don't know if build it back is a good word. You've got to feel good we hit on a couple draft picks."
Unfortunately, those draft picks have taken too many hits.
After averaging 142 yards rushing in their first six games, the Bucs have managed 44 yards on the ground the past two weeks with third-year quarterback Chris Simms under center.
Williams' foot is improving, even if his blocking isn't. Running backs coach Art Valero said taking nearly a month off created some conditioning issues.
"I think more so than anything else, his confidence level you can see growing every day," Valero said. "He makes some cuts at practice and you're going, "Hmmmm.' Everybody in our group is going, "Oooooh, he's got his legs back.'
"He's the same kid, he's just gaining more confidence in his legs and his abilities. I don't really care who you are, if you've got a nick, if you've got a bang, you've got an injury, it's somewhere in the back of your head. The survival mode comes out. I think he just has to trust himself and trust his body and he'll be okay."
Williams refuses to use his injury as a crutch.
"I'm not going to sit here and use that as an excuse why I'm not playing well," Williams said. "It's just things are kind of tough right now, but we're going to come up out of it."
It better happen fast. After a 4-0 start the Bucs have lost three of their past four heading into today's showdown with the Redskins (5-3). Tampa Bay's next three division games are on the road, leaving little margin for error in the second half of the season.
Williams and Clayton have proved what they can do when healthy, but Gruden has some remodeling left on the offensive line. Left tackle Anthony Davis and right guard Sean Mahan are first-year starters, and rookie Dan Buenning earned a spot in the lineup at left guard. They didn't create many holes the past two weeks. "We've got to block better," Gruden said. "Everybody says it's Cadillac's foot. What ... is wrong with his foot? It's not like there's a lot of holes we're looking at. You're not going to see instant cutting when he gets hit when they hand it off. "Here.' Bam! Where's the cuts? What's wrong with your foot?'
"There's nothing wrong with his foot. The foot is coming around. He made some real good cuts last week, some real good cuts this week. We've got to get him started, we've got to do a better job."
Clayton's decline can be traced to several factors. He missed the offseason recovering from knee surgery, then began the season with a shoulder separation. And in addition to building the offense around Williams, the Bucs have featured Joey Galloway in the passing game this year.
Last season Galloway missed six games with a groin pull and Clayton led all rookies with 80 receptions for 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns. He is well behind that pace at the midway point with 22 catches for 275 yards and no touchdowns.
"In the NFL you never feel you're 100 percent," Clayton said. "If it's not one thing, it's another. When you play hard, when you play physical, you get hurt sometimes. That's just something I've been battling with.
"A lot of players talk about, "take care of your body,' and stuff, but you may not get another shot. While I'm here, I'll take advantage of it. If you can't (play), you can't. But if you can, you go 100 percent because you're not promised tomorrow."