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Throwing caution to the wind

Passing early? Trick play? Anthony Becht? Gruden ditches conservative play-calling.

By STEPHEN F. HOLDER, Times Staff Writer
Published December 3, 2007


NEW ORLEANS - The Bucs' offensive playbook is voluminous. Attempting to learn it can be daunting. There are days when coach Jon Gruden barely scratches its surface.

And then there are days like Sunday.

The Bucs used formations, combinations and personnel you rarely see on their way to a 27-23 victory that put them in command of the NFC South.

Grudenkept the Saints guessing. In the process, he used nearly every player, some playing prominent roles for the first time this season. And he did it all with a quarterback, Luke McCown, starting his first game since 2004.

"We tried to not play defensive with a young quarterback playing his first game," Gruden said. "We tried to attack every time we had the ball."

Gruden, at times this season, has employed an ultraconservative approach to offense. But that wasn't the case against New Orleans.

Three of the Bucs' first four offensive plays were passes. Gruden believed it might have surprised the Saints, who likely expected the Bucs to establish the run to take the heat off McCown.

Like all opening drives, the plays were scripted. But Gruden clearly wanted to take advantage of McCown's strength - quick, precise passes.

Later, Tampa Bay attempted a rare trick play. With McCown lined up in the shotgun, running back Earnest Graham instead took a direct snap, rolled right and threw a lateral to McCown, who dropped back with an eye toward a streaking Joey Galloway. With Galloway blanketed, McCown threw incomplete to Ike Hilliard, but it was emblematic of the Bucs' intention to be aggressive.

"I thought for sure that would be a big play," Gruden said, joking. "We'd practiced it since April."

The personnel the Bucs used along the way was just as notable. Tight end Anthony Becht caught his first pass of the season, and it was a big one: a 1-yard touchdown in the second quarter.

Michael Clayton, who has been used sparingly as a receiver, reeled off a 20-yard run on an end around with help from lead blocker Maurice Stovall. Backup running back Michael Bennett got involved with 24 yards on two touches.

"Coach is trusting his team," Graham said. "If something looks like it might work, we're going to give it a shot. Last year, maybe we didn't have the trust to call some of those plays. But now he does. Guys were stepping up and playing well, so you're going to have confidence in everything they do."

And it helps when their coach puts those players in position to make confidence-building plays.

"He's really a mastermind at what he does," Bennett said of Gruden. "I understand why he's so on top of guys about learning because he can create matchups all day long. Look at some of the stuff guys were able to do. My Lord."