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Familiar refrain ends it for Bucs

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By GARY SHELTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 1, 2001


PHILADELPHIA -- This is how it ends.

Of course it is.

What else would you have expected? You have seen this before, and so you know the final reel by heartache. James Bond beats up the goon, defuses the bomb and kisses the girl. Woody Allen makes a wry joke about life's quirks as an old jazz song plays in the background. Mel Gibson saves one country or another while wearing a hairpiece.

Then there are the Bucs, who wrap things up like this:

They score an embarrassing amount of points.

They lose a playoff game.

They talk about next year.

By now, this is becoming formula. The wrong team dances in the final scene. The Bucs walk away grim faced, talking in pained whispers about games lost and opportunities squandered. This is the way it always has been. Who knows? Maybe this is the way it always will be.

This time, the only difference is it happened in Philadelphia. The Bucs scored all of three points.

You wonder. How many would they have scored if they hadn't hired a new offensive coordinator, if they hadn't brought in a world-class receiver, if they hadn't imported two Pro Bowl offensive linemen. Three on the scoreboard? That might get you to the World Cup. It won't get you to the Super Bowl.

For a franchise that has turned around its fortunes, this is the lingering failure. It cannot figure out the offensive side of the ball. No matter who is holding the map, no matter who is pointing the way, this team cannot find its way to the end zone for the life of it.

Consider this: In 1997, the Bucs' season ended when they scored seven points in Green Bay.

Last season, it ended when they scored six in St. Louis.

This season, it ended when theys scored three in Philly.

For heaven's sake, they are getting worse by the year. What's next? A trip to Atlanta, where they get a safety? A journey to Carolina, where they don't score at all? Negative points in Arizona?

Wherever, and however many, you can believe this. Until the Bucs are more of a complete team, they will not reach a Super Bowl. Until they adjust to a team such as the Eagles, until they can get the ball to their playmakers, until they can trade punches with the other team's offense, they will be doomed forever to feeling like they were just-this-far-away in January.

You have seen this coming all season. Yeah, yeah. You can talk about how the Bucs set a team scoring record until you are blue in the face, of how fierce they were against the Rams and Vikings and Bears, oh, my. But how many points did they score against quality defenses? Hint: Eventually, a team tends to run into one or two of those in the playoffs.

"The Eagles are a good defense," said Shaun King, the frustration evident in his face. "But they aren't like that."

Well, against the Bucs, they were. Against the Bucs, they were the '85 Bears, the '72 Dolphins and the '31 Organized Crime. Tampa Bay had only 199 yards for the game, and 99 of those came in the fourth quarter when it was all over but the statistics. The Bucs had 2.6 yards a rush, 4.3 yards a pass attempt. They didn't get it much, and they didn't keep it long. They were only 3-for-15 on third and fourth downs.

Ask yourself this: Are you surprised? Not if you saw this offense score one touchdown against the Jets, the Bears, the Packers. Not if you saw it score zero against the Lions and Dolphins. It was as if the Bucs players never completely figured out new offensive coordinator Les Steckel, who in turn, never figured them out, either.

Sunday evening, when the pulse on the season had ceased to beat, coach Tony Dungy said he believes the offense will be better next season, once the players get to know the system. But isn't 20 games enough for introductions? How long does it take?

"It isn't as easy as people think," Dungy said. "You don't just plug in people and players and new stuff."

Said Steckel: "The first year is a learning process. When I went to Tennessee, we were 8-8 the first year. Here, we had a good year and made the playoffs."

The difference, of course, is that when Steckel went to the Titans, they hadn't been one game from the Super Bowl the previous season.

For the Bucs, there can be no excuses. This offense should be better. Yes, it had a second-year quarterback, but so did Philadelphia. Yes, it had a new coordinator, but last season was the first for St. Louis offensive coordinator Mike Martz, and he won the Super Bowl. Look at New Orleans. Look at the Eagles. They are doing more with less.

"I think we have to all get together and decide what we're going to be," receiver Keyshawn Johnson said. "We have to figure it out if we're going to give the ball to Mike and Warrick and throw it to Jacquez and me, or run Mike and Warrick and forget about us, or forget about them and throw it to us. We can't continue to be successful and not put points on the board."

"We have to let our playmakers make plays," King said.

Other places, that's what offense is. It's getting the ball in the hands of the people who can do the most damage. It's moving the chains and changing the scoreboard.

In Tampa Bay, is third and forever. It is Warrick Dunn trying to block Hugh Douglas. It is throwing as often to Patrick Hape as Keyshawn Johnson in the first half. It is a run up the middle on third and 7.

It is three points.

And it is goodbye.

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