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Foerster banking on new (improved?) OL

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By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 12, 2000


TAMPA -- Chris Foerster has new toys. Well, really, a couple of old ones. In a season of Bucs strength, their weakest sector in 1999 was a talent-shy, injury-mangled offensive line. Foerster coaches those guys. He needed help.

Jeff Christy appeared, a free-agent center from Minnesota with Pro Bowl authenticity. Chris had an XXXL grin.

Gracias, Santa.

Christy showed up in Tampa with a demand that had nothing to do with money, pressing the Bucs to continue shopping at Vikings Mart, going for another OL gift. Fate would demonstratively evolve.

Randall McDaniel, celebrated Christy teammate from Minnesota, his familiar Sunday associate at left guard, also was snagged. Foerster had the look of Richie Rich on Christmas morning.

"I've never coached a group, ever, with the possibilities of being as good as the new Bucs offensive line can be," Foerster said Thursday. Remember, for three seasons (1993-95), he helped coach OL with the Vikes.

"These guys, Randall and Jeff, are used to being part of one of the NFL's more productive offenses. They demand much of themselves, as well as players around them.

"Facts are, with our tremendous defense, the Bucs almost always win when the O-line plays well. I want our unit to develop more toughness.

"We need to take charge of games with our offensive line. We want opponents to take the field knowing they'll have hands full with my guys."

Wouldn't that be a change massively embraced by Tampa Bay patrons? McDaniel and Christy, two superior interior linemen with massive dedication, are sure to make Frank Middleton a better right guard and Jason Odom, Jerry Wunsch and perhaps even Paul Gruber more efficient tackles.

If a Bucs OL that was, on a 1-to-10 scale, maybe a 4 in 1999, could upgrade to a 6 or 7 in 2000, end-zone opportunities can't help but flourish for runners Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn, quarterback Shaun King and that newly acquired pass catcher, Keyshawn Johnson.

I talked to six or eight Bucs coaches, scouts and administrators about last year's OL. Universally, there was assessment that former Pro Bowl center Tony Mayberry and left guard Jorge Diaz had extremely weak seasons even as Tampa Bay made the NFC Championship Game.

"Randall and Jeff, the way they prepare and play, will affect our entire offense," Foerster said. "Our holdover starters will see how these two go about their work. Same with Keyshawn. It should be contagious.

"We've always had lots of defensive leaders, like Warren Sapp and Hardy Nickerson and John Lynch, but Bucs offense has craved productive people with such magnetism.

"Randall, Jeff and Keyshawn all do it in different ways, but they are tremendous performers who expect much of themselves as well as those playing alongside."

Foerster was asked for a sentence or two of individual assessments on McDaniel and also Christy. He had paragraphs.

"McDaniel is the most unique lineman in the NFL," the coach said. "His stance has been called the worst ever in the league. Randall is undersized. He used to be in the 270s but has built himself into the 290s. But this is the quickest guard anybody has ever seen, and I'm betting McDaniel will be the strongest man on our roster.

"John Michaels was the O-line coach when I joined the Vikings. He said Randall's stance was all-time ugly but, once the ball was snapped, he tore up everybody. Who would be so foolish as to tamper with such performance?"

Foerster said Christy "brings rare athleticism to the center position. He was a fullback and placekicker in high school who broke Pennsylvania scoring records.

"Jeff is a tremendous leader. He works so hard and is not afraid to get onto a teammate who might not perform with similar zeal."

Christy is settling in. Foerster said the center bought a home on Treasure Island. "Got himself a boat," said the OL coach. "Taking to Florida."

Becoming, we must assume, a Pinellas County buddy of Alstott and tight end Dave Moore, as well as a neighbor to St. Petersburg resident Foerster.

Another vital incoming factor is offensive coordinator Les Steckel, who replaced Mike Shula in February. "Les brings variety," Foerster said. "Bottom line with Tony (coach Dungy) is how we're able to use Mike, Warrick and Keyshawn.

"With the quickness of McDaniel and the agility of Christy, we certainly hope to create more space for Dunn to operate. None of us was happy with the opportunities created for Warrick last season."

Nobody in the Bucs camp has a cocky sound. None appears to take anything for granted. But, facts are, when your OL skills are improved by, say, 50 percent, with the ex-Vikings and a Keyshawn at wide receiver, 30-point Sundays can be something other than fantasy.

September is too far away.

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