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Offensive strain remains the same

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© St. Petersburg Times, published August 22, 2000

FOXBORO, Mass- This is how it is. This is how it will be.

Prepare yourself. Tape the remote control to your fist, so you do not throw it. Soundproof your den, so the neighbors do not hear you scream.

The Bucs offense is going to strain. Again. It is going to struggle. Again. It is going to fluster and frustrate and flummox all who watch it. Again, again, again.

Next week, the week after, and for weeks to come.

Time is getting short, and the field ahead of them remains long. The regular season is a fortnight away, and the Bucs need more time. Like, say, a couple of months. They need rhythm and identity and comfort and repetitions. Oh, yeah. And touchdowns.

I know what you're thinking. Yes, the Bucs played New England on Sunday, and yes, they play New England again in two weeks. And so you want to think -- you need to think -- the reason for the sputtering was the Bucs were simply holding so many cards so close to their vests. This is a natural refuge for an optimist, to believe the Bucs struggled only because they had left their playbook in a secret spot, wrapped in tape, packed in Styrofoam and hidden behind the water cooler outside of Les Steckel's office.

The good news: Yes, the Bucs held back some of their offense.

The bad news: Not nearly as much as you might hope.

"It wasn't a matter of holding back," coach Tony Dungy said. "We ran our plays. We didn't run some motion, or some alignments or some little gimmick plays. We probably held back 15 percent."

Rats. You might have been hoping for, say, 90 percent. You might have hoped the Bucs finished two weeks of high-octane practice, then went to New England with a game plan on double-secret probation. Because when you see very little, that's the only reason to hope there is something more.

The truth is this offense has been held back since, oh, 1976. And you don't fix a long-dead unit simply by plugging an extension cord into the socket. So brace yourself. This will not be a good offense in two weeks. It may not be a good one in 10 weeks. Gee, Tony, do you think this team will have to grow throughout September?

"I think we may still be growing going into December," Dungy said. "It took us three years to get to where we are defensively. I think we'll be pretty good, but we have a lot of work to do."

Said Steckel, the offensive coordinator: "We'll have some growing pains, that's for sure."

Pain. That pretty much describes what Sunday's game was to witness. Don't be surprised by the 31-21 score. It was a game not nearly as entertaining as the score would indicate.

Quarterback Shaun King, for instance. King hit nine of 23 passes, and his numbers wouldn't have been that good if Jacquez Green didn't seem intent upon leading the NFL in rebounding. He caught two batted passes, neither of which had any reason to be completed, for 113 yards and the first team's second touchdown in three weeks.

Running back Warrick Dunn, for instance. Dunn ran 12 times for 39 yards, an average of 3.3 per carry.

Running back Mike Alstott, for instance. Alstott ran five times for 18 yards, a 3.6 average, and fumbled, resulting in a touchdown. In other words, it wasn't a performance to make you rush to Ace Hardware to buy extra bulbs for the scoreboard. Remember, Steckel is fond of referring to what the rest of the league calls the Red Zone as "the Green Zone." So far, it isn't even a flashing yellow.

If a good offense is a 10, King says, the Bucs currently are "about a four."

"You haven't seen the guys use their athletic ability yet," King said. "We're still having to think out there, myself included. But this offense is going to be a lot better week 11 or 12 than it is in week one."

That's a shame. It would be so much more fun to believe the Bucs were playing rope-a-dope and, as such, had the Patriots right where they wanted. But the real message is this: Hold on. It's going to be slow going for a while. Despite the personnel improvements over the off-season, the Bucs will have to win the way they won last year. By holding onto the ball, by winning field position, by scoring every now and then. By trying to learn as they go, and win despite it. Because building an offense is harder than you think. Because it takes more time than you want.

Is there hope? Sure there is. Especially if you listen to Keyshawn Johnson.

"I think our offense will be fine," he said. "There were a lot of things out there we didn't take advantage of. Simple stuff, easy stuff, six yards, nine yards. It'll be different in two weeks. It's preseason. Why is everyone panicking?"

Oh, maybe because we've seen this before, watching bad offenses after bad offenses, watching half-yard gains on third and 1 until our eyes bled from the sockets.

Eventually, perhaps, this offense will be better. Someday, it might even be dangerous.

For now, just hope for good enough.

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