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Looking for that perfect fit


© St. Petersburg Times, published January 10, 2001

TAMPA -- This time Tony Dungy got no prompting from upstairs. No nudge from his GM. No family push.

Unlike a year ago with Mike Shula, when general manager Rich McKay and sons of Bucs owner Malcolm Glazer lobbied for an offensive coordinator firing, the bouncing of Les Steckel was 100 percent the Tampa Bay coach's decision.

I was convinced, knowing Tony's uneasiness with change, that Steckel was safe for 2001. I wrote that last week. Wrong! Out of Tuesday's cool, windy, off-season blue, from an NFL team quite non-renowned for offensive bombshells, there came a confusing Dungy grenade, rich in praise for Steckel's work while announcing the ex-Marine had been terminated.

Moving on ... again.

Tony's take on the future was general, seldom explicit, other than expressing an obvious desire for more Bucs touchdowns (a no-brainer) while suggesting non-negotiable stances on the embracing of Shaun King as the No. 1 quarterback and the extensive, balanced use of Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott as running backs.

As the coach spoke, facing a barrage of cameras, recorders and reporters as a chilling breeze whipped across the Bucs practice fields, he wore a jacket with the letters "T.D." stitched onto a sleeve. Tony's initials, but also a football accomplishment that craves multiplying with the Bucs.

Mostly, we're left to speculate -- taking what we hope are our educated guesses, wondering about particulars of the Les-Tony marriage implosion, plus trying to read Dungy's conservative mind as to how the defensively respected Bucs might go about this time generating enough offensive ammo to attain Super Bowl status.

Reading between the Dungy lines, there unquestionably was an enhanced sense of urgency. Tony has to know that Bucs shortfall in '01 will put his job into snowballing jeopardy.

As he shops for Tampa Bay's third offensive coordinator in 12 months, you can bank on Dungy asking these four questions of candidates: (1) How can we effectively use Alstott and Dunn? (2) How can we make King more productive? (3) How would you more potently involve wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson? (4) Can all this be done next season rather than operating with a three-year plan?

Dungy said he would search outside and inside the organization. Almost certainly, the lone in-house possibility is quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen. I'm guessing there is a 75 percent chance of Tony bringing in somebody new.

If that occurs, another challenge will arise. Throughout the season, players talked of dealing with an offensive system quite different from the Shula playbook. They never seemed wholly comfortable. So does Tampa Bay employ a third scheme in three years?

I think Dungy will seek a coordinator with deep beliefs in the running game and who'll vow to make an eclectic tandem work, blending 180-pound scooter Dunn with the massive Alstott, who weighs 80 more.

Also, the new O designer must sell Tony on a blueprint to make King less erratic and more dynamic and productive. Dungy was unwavering in his support for Shaun, even as critics howled about the QB's widely perceived limitations.

Is there such a wizard?

It always has been difficult attempting to assess Bucs philosophies, determining where offensive coordinators end and Dungy begins. You do not sense major differences between Tony and his defensive guy, Monte Kiffin, a hyper gent with the appearance of a complete personality opposite of his boss.

You wonder, are there Dungy governors on Bucs offensive machinery? Does it go deeper than "protect the football and score points?" Might differences have festered between Tony and Les, including on King's role, something that became hotter after a season-ending playoff loss at Philadelphia? A momentum that eventually caused the canning of Steckel?

You wonder, did Steckel have problems with other offensive coaches? Tampa Bay's wide receivers, Johnson excluded, appeared to show a wealth of give-up during the second half of a 21-3 failure against the Eagles. Jacquez Green and Reidel Anthony did not appear wholly dedicated to finishing their patterns.

Receivers coach Charlie Williams has been criticized often by his troops, almost always off the record. Even so, do not anticipate further firings among Dungy's staff. You wonder, if an outsider is hired to replace Steckel, will he be given any latitude to make changes among his coaching helpers?

This morning, like last week, we have more questions than answers with Tampa Bay's offense. Dungy felt an urge for change, a rare emotion for him. Therefore, he was right to dispense with Steckel.

A far larger issue: What does Tony do with the opening and whom does he hire, some gifted professional possessing the magic to stabilize and expand King while energizing and exploiting Dunn, Alstott, Johnson, Green, Anthony and the others?

An intriguing off-season has begun.

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