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Under Steckel, the Bucs improved from the worst inside-the-20-yard-line team in the NFL to sixth-best and the offense rose from 28th to 21st in total yardage.

'There is a sense of urgency'

Still seeking an answer on offense, coach Tony Dungy sends another coordinator packing.

By RICK STROUD

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 10, 2001


TAMPA -- Les Steckel's offense was good enough to set a team record for points and return the Bucs to the playoffs this season.

But once the Bucs got there, they didn't reach the end zone, much less the Super Bowl.

Steckel was fired Tuesday after one season as offensive coordinator, a week after Tampa Bay managed a field goal in its NFC wild-card loss to Philadelphia.

"It's a tough decision," said coach Tony Dungy, who will subject quarterback Shaun King to his third offensive coordinator in as many years.

photo
[Times photo: Bill Serne]
Les Steckel talks on the phone after the Bucs' playoff loss.
"Les Steckel did an outstanding job here. We moved the ball and scored, and that's what you want to do on offense.

"I just thought that the direction where we want to go and what we wanted to do just wasn't quite there. I thought we could make it a little bit better by making a change, and that's what we're going to do. I don't have anyone in mind right now. We're going to consider everyone."

After separate discussions with members of his coaching staff last weekend, Dungy met with Steckel on Monday to inform him of the change.

Although Dungy did not give specifics for the firing, at the heart of the decision was Steckel's limited reliance on receiver Keyshawn Johnson, his inability to use both running back Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott, and concerns about the development of King.

When reached at his home Tuesday night, Steckel declined to comment. Under Steckel, the Bucs set team records with 388 points, 43 touchdowns and a 4.2-yard rushing average.

But Johnson's 874 receiving yards was the fewest since his rookie year with the Jets. Alstott's 3.5-yard average was the worst of his career. And Dunn ran the ball eight times in the playoff game despite averaging 174 yards rushing in four wins after Alstott was sidelined with a knee injury.

"We want to use Mike and Warrick. We want to use our receivers. We want to open up the offense," Dungy said. "We want to do it in a way that I'm comfortable with."

In November, defensive tackle Warren Sapp harshly criticized Steckel's offense for having fewer base plays than that of a high school.

Dungy said he was not swayed by Steckel's unpopularity among players, including Johnson, and did not consult with them. But he allowed that Steckel was not the best fit for his coaching staff.

"A little bit of chemistry. A little bit of fit," Dungy said. "A little bit of what I want to do, how I want to do things.

"As most of you know, I'm the biggest proponent of continuity, and I don't like to change. I've kind of violated my rule two years in a row."

Because Dungy is concerned about the effect another offensive system will have on King, he is strongly considering replacing Steckel with quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen.

But Dungy that idea is bound to be opposed by the front office, which would prefer he go outside for a new coordinator.

Dungy's timing could have been better. A few hours after the announcement, the San Diego Chargers hired former Redskins coach Norv Turner as offensive coordinator.

The list of candidates to replace Steckel likely will include two coaches Dungy considered a year ago, Indianapolis Colts quarterbacks coach Bruce Arians and Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye.

Other available offensive coordinators include Buffalo's Joe Pendry, Detroit's Sylvester Croom and the Jets' Dan Henning. Eagles quarterbacks coach Brad Childress, who helped develop Donovan McNabb, also could be contacted.

"I really do not want to go to a third system in three years," Dungy said. "It's something we may do or we may not. That would be one negative of going outside."

Christensen said he spoke briefly with Dungy about the job on Tuesday.

"Obviously, certainly I'm interested in it and feel I could do the job," Christensen said. "And I'll do whatever Tony assigns me to do."

Steckel, who spent five seasons with the Oilers/Titans, was hired last February. He replaced Mike Shula, who was fired at the Pro Bowl a few weeks after the Bucs failed to score a touchdown in their 11-6 loss to the St. Louis Rams in the NFC Championship Game.

Under Steckel, the Bucs improved from the worst inside-the-20-yard-line team in the NFL to sixth-best and the offense rose from 28th to 21st in total yardage.

But the Bucs -- and especially King -- were inconsistent. Despite winning four of their last five games, the loss to Green Bay in overtime cost them the NFC Central title and a first-round bye in the playoffs.

Johnson, who was openly frustrated by Steckel's game plans, said he was informed of Steckel's firing at his home in Los Angeles by a 6 a.m. telephone call from King.

"He said, "You know they fired Les?' " Johnson said. "And I woke up immediately. I thought it was a joke because, you know, he likes to play a lot. And then I checked my messages at my office. Coach Dungy had tried to call to get me. I thought he was joking. I wasn't thinking about waking up (Tuesday) morning and knowing my offensive coordinator had been let go."

But Johnson clearly agreed with Dungy's decision.

"I think the new guy, looking at the past, will come in and know that if he doesn't make the same mistakes the other guy made, then hopefully it'll work for us," Johnson said.

Dungy's willingness to try a third offensive coordinator in as many years is proof he is feeling a greater sense of urgency than at any time during his coaching career.

"There is a sense of urgency, and it's just a sense that we have a direction of where we want to go, that I want to go," Dungy said.

Contrary to popular belief, Dungy insisted, that includes a more wide open offense.

"Move the ball and score touchdowns and hopefully don't fumble and don't throw interceptions. That is the guidelines and what I'm concerned about," Dungy said. "That's basically it. It sounds simplistic, and I'm not trying to be funny. But I don't have a set agenda for what we can and can't do. I think we have some good playmakers. We have some good offensive linemen, and we want to be efficient and use them."

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