[an error occurred while processing this directive]

Dungy faces possibly his most crucial season

By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 3, 2001


New Year's Eve in Philadelphia, minutes before midnight's champagne chime, squishing through trashy snow with newspaper comrades in Veterans Stadium's cold, stark, by-then-empty parking lot, it struck me. . .

After 25 seasons around the Bucs, having seen most of their 142 wins, just about all 254 losses, plus the NFL franchise's sole tie, I'd just covered my last Tampa Bay game.

Peppy music, please.

Time to move on.

Gravitating from the Bucs, headed for retirement in Virginia, plus well-harnessed new professional challenges, I am going to allow a temporary slack-off in journalistic guard, which has always, and should be, demanded of reputable commentators.

I think about how much I like, admire and enjoy Bucs coach Tony Dungy. Though, when his team plays rotten football, like in a 21-3 playoff loss Sunday against the Eagles, it has been my job to analyze, assess and criticize.

They stunk.

I bashed.

Now, looking to the autumn of 2001, when the Bucs won't be so prominent in my life, it is appropriate that Tampa Bay's team, after a sudden and ghastly end, moves on too, preferably upward, working to sufficiently improve as to disallow next December ending with such a stench.

I'm concerned -- the personal me, not the newsprint critic -- about Dungy's looming challenge. Dealing with the coming season may well be Tony's most volatile, demanding and crucial task since the old Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator got his boss shot with the Bucs in 1996.

Dungy has heroic loyalty to a rare degree for the coaching profession, but you wonder if such a strength might also be the downfall for an honorable and gifted coach. He's so slow to change. Knee-jerk reactions are not Tony's style, even if passionate screaming goes on among the media and within the Tampa Bay populace.

Do not expect the Bucs to eject Les Steckel as offensive coordinator. Dungy would've never fired Mike Shula, predecessor to Steckel, if not given a hard January 2000 shove by general manager Rich McKay and team owners. Such a push from Tampa Bay's front office will not occur this time.

Do not expect even a hint of Dungy give-up on quarterback Shaun King, now the bull's-eye on dartboards of most Bucs doubters. Heading into his third pro season, the kid from St. Petersburg will have continuing No. 1 status.

It's a delicious Dungy trait, being so faithful to those in whom he believes, but the Bucs need surprises from their coach, whether in personnel, philosophy or Tony's expectations.

Some uglies must be licked. I'm sick of the cold-weather angle, but the Bucs are 0-20 when teeth chatter, including December crackups at Green Bay and Philadelphia this season.

I'd like to think by 2001 they will be good enough to win a playoff game on the road, where Tony is 0-3, his troops yet to score more than a touchdown.

Dungy must do something about his offensive line. Among 12 playoff teams this season, was there a poorer OL than Tampa Bay's? I'm hearing that mouthy guard Frank Middleton could be gone, replaced by quiet rookie Cosey Coleman from Tennessee.

Please, Bucs, spend your No. 1 draft pick on a low-risk, highly talented left tackle who can maybe protect King's backside. Pete Pierson and George Hegamin do the best they can, which is insufficient.

Dungy asks so much of his defense. Those men are his main studs, Tampa Bay's most expensive investment. That's fine, but such a low-scoring offense can wear down an overtaxed defense through a four-month season. In Philly, the defense looked worn.

There is so little difference between the NFL's finest teams and the 12th or 16th best. It's a player or two, a game or so. What if Martin Gramatica had made that field goal in Green Bay?

I'm not nagging on the kicker, but wouldn't the Bucs, if they'd earned a wild-card bye and avoided a cold slashing in Philly, now be looking at a most-winnable NFC semifinal at home this weekend against New Orleans?

I'll work at patience. Others will steam and scream. A lot of us in Bucs country since 1976 have seen far too much really bad football. I mean four 14-defeat seasons, plus 12 consecutive years of double-digit losses.

In the Dungy era, we've been far better fed. In the past four seasons, his Bucs are 41-28. Averaging better than 10 wins, compared with the 10-loss constant of the past. But with our tummies fuller, we expect more.

Human nature.

There was a Super Bowl appetite this time. It was brutally halted in Philly. "This season, for us to do anything short of winning Super Bowl XXXV in Raymond James Stadium," All-Pro safety John Lynch said, "is a major disappointment."

First-round flameouts are by now really bad Bucs news. Whatever the battered Tampa Bay past, today's expectations of Dungy's gents are not about to soften. Now, a 9-7 or 8-8 record is considered junk; a half-dozen years ago it would've triggered delirium.

Tony must deal with that. Sweeten the pot. Patch holes in his team. Bounce low-producing athletes, even assistant coaches, and bring in chaps heavy with promise. Be loyal but not to deadly NFL proportions.

Okay, enough of my Dungy love-in.

You're on a hotter-than-ever seat, Tony.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.