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Can offense develop strength in a few weeks?

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By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 11, 2000


MIAMI -- Good, it's still August. Tampa Bay's redesigned, reinforced, but nonetheless clunking offense needs far more laboratory work.

Being a Super Bowl XXXV contender, which we keep figuring the Bucs should be, they don't want to face September's challenges with Thursday night's dud show.

Mike Shula, fired as Tampa Bay offensive coordinator after last season, convicted of point shortages, watched from his 2000 perch as Miami's quarterback coach, and might've had the thought/chuckle, "So these are the new and explosive Bucs?"

It'll get better when Mike Alstott returns to run the football with jackhammer legs. Surely. But this is not a one-absentee problem. In two exhibitions, with roughly four quarters of work, Tampa Bay's offensive starters have scored -- let me count them up -- one touchdown.

Shaun King and his struggling pewters never threatened. Warrick Dunn had no place to dash. So far, benefits from signing Pro Bowl linemen Randall McDaniel and Jeff Christy from the Minnesota Vikings are yet to be manifested with wide, handsome holes.

Okay, I'll slap myself.

Yep, it's still August. Bucs are continuing to cram on the schemes of Shula's replacement, Les Steckel. They're not digging deep into the playbook. Bucs zealots, primed for a memorable season, are hoping their heroes are saving the good, TD-reaping stuff for September and beyond.

Dunn ran for a puny 2-yard average. What little he gained was done mostly on individual, darting efforts. King completed 9 of 13 passes but that was misleading. There was little electricity. No threats. Once, when flushed from the pocket by Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor, the Tampa Bay quarterback made a terrible decision that wound up in an interception.

It's only practice.

Keep telling yourself.

But, for the entertainment dollar or even on free TV, this was ugly theater. Loaded with fumbles, mental errors and kids who'll not be around come September. Dolphins got 15 points, Tampa Bay made 13. Nobody really won.

It's a shame, bordering on thievery, for NFL owners to charge full regular-season prices for these mishmash scrimmages. But they'll quit about the time Pat Buchanan goes liberal.

For months, the murmur on Florida's hungry gulf coast has been, "Can they make the Super Bowl with King at quarterback?" A question still to be answered. But never, never think that Shaun is the only Bucs offensive element still in soft cement.

Even assuming that left guard McDaniel and center Christy, being solid vets, will evolve into powerful Bucs elements, there are still heavy concerns about the offensive line. You don't make Super Bowls with below-average tackles, which is where the Bucs painfully appear to stand.

Jerry Wunsch is adequate at best at right tackle. But the scare is on the left side. Even if Jason Odom's funky back heals, it's no sure thing he will be the answer. Odom would still be a new and unproven commodity at LT, the second-toughest work on an NFL offensive unit next to quarterback.

It might help if Paul Gruber, a 13-year pro, suddenly reappeared with good health, fully recovered from a busted leg. Might. That, too, is no better than iffy. Gruber had one of his weakest seasons in 1999 when the Bucs, with stout defense, managed to get within St. Louis sniffing distance of getting to a Super Bowl.

George Hegamin is now the starter. He's 331 pounds of veteran humanity. Hegamin is supposedly a good run blocker but suspicious in pass protection. So, what I think we're saying is that the Bucs had better get their running game into gear. With their personnel, passing must be an effective changeup, not the play-after-play staple.

We're halfway through August and I'm itching for September. Enough exhibitionism. But, for the Bucs' sake, it's nice that they're still 23 days from facing live ammo in the opener at New England.

Their act needs much work.

Keyshawn Johnson is the X-factor. As in X-cited and X-ilarating, and, of course, X-pensive. He could be the fuse that disallows the Bucs from another season of weak offense.

While the Tampa Bay starters were on the field, the only play meriting consideration for anybody's highlight reel was Johnson muscling into position against Dolphins cornerback Jerry Wilson and catching a 27-yard pass from King.

He has a big body, big talent and a big mouth. Keyshawn didn't come to the Bucs to play on the 29th- or 27th-most productive NFL offense. He'll be encouraging, helping and nagging Bucs mates. But he's not too good at opening holes for running backs.

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