© St. Petersburg Times, published August 25, 2000
By now, the studying was supposed to be done. By now, the lessons were supposed to be learned.
The final was going to be a snap. A little quick review, maybe, just to show you have the subtext down pat. But by now, the learning was supposed to be completed. The Bucs who mattered were going to make a guest appearance, go through their paces, bow to the crowd, then ace this last little test.
Isn't that the way a Super Bowl contender is supposed to wind up the preseason? By checking all the correct answers, then working on the valedictory speech?
Ah, but a non-so-funny thing has happened to the Bucs on their way to the start of the victory parade. A little injury, a little controversy, and just a wee bit of doubt seem to have cropped into the conversation.
Put it this way: Are you as certain the Bucs will make noise this season as you were a few weeks ago? Before Jason Odom was hurt, before Brad Culpepper was gone? Before the offense, after a promising start, slowed to a crawl? Before the doubt started to chew on the corners of your optimism?
And so it is that we look toward the Bucs' final preseason game the way we always have, still looking for a glimmer of something special, still hoping the off-season additions outnumber the off-season deletions. We're like the college student swilling coffee, cramming feverishly, hoping to learn one more thing before they hand out the No. 2 pencils.
As such, here are 10 things you might be interested in watching tonight.
1. Booger McFarland. Trust us, he's the man the other players are going to be watching.
No, no conspiracies were going on. The Bucs genuinely believe they'll be better with McFarland instead of Culpepper. Give Tony Dungy this much: If he knows anything, it is about defense in general and the front seven in particular.
But McFarland still has to prove himself. He has to convince those who watch him that he not only will make more plays than Culpepper, he'll make bigger ones. He has to show that, like Culpepper in the Minnesota game of '98, he can be the guy to sack the quarterback, to latch on and hang on for the team's biggest defensive play over the past decade. He has to show he can be the player circling the field, holding the flag aloft. That's the image we're going to keep of Culpepper. It's up to Booger to add his.
Tonight it all begins for McFarland. Culpepper was a popular player for a reason. Because he gave as much of himself as any player the Bucs have had. If McFarland has more than Culpepper, it would be nice to see it.
2. Shaun King. For this week only, King drops to No. 2.
The Bucs say King will work extra tonight. What does that tell you? By Week 4, most teams are ready to wrap their quarterback in bubble wrap and make sure he stays healthy. The Bucs, however, believe King needs the work.
He started the preseason so well -- accurate, controlled, smart. But the past two weeks, King has struggled, and the offense has sputtered. The Bucs will tell you it's okay because they don't depend on their quarterback the way some teams do. But until the team invents a cure for third and 8, pressure will be on their quarterback.
It would be nice to see King rear back and launch one for a change. It would be nice if Jacquez Green caught it in full stride. It would be nice if the Bucs got a chance to see whether their extra-point team was ready for season.
3. Martin Gramatica. For the kicker, it's time to get straight.
A year ago, Gramatica could do no wrong. He was accurate, he was consistent, and most of all, he was a bale of fun. But whether he's overswinging to get more distance on his kickoffs or he's simply aiming left, it's been a strange preseason for him.
Put it this way: If Gramatica hits a couple of long field goals, he won't be the only one dancing and hugging and high-fiving.
4. Jamie Duncan. Yes, it's only August, but already the bring-back-Hardy movement is afoot.
For the past two weeks, the middle of the defense has appeared somewhat softer than a year ago. It's easy to blame that on Duncan, who is replacing a Pro Bowl player in Nickerson. No, all the problems aren't his. But no, Duncan hasn't played particularly well, either. Already, rookie Nate Webster has drawn the attention of fans. It's too soon for Webster, but it's getting late for Duncan.
5. John Lynch. Look at him in warmups, then tell him to go sit in the stands. The Bucs have broken enough safeties this preseason. Besides, the one player you don't want John Lynch to hurt tonight is John Lynch.
6. Pete Pierson. Again.
The problems at left tackle continue, which is unsettling, seeing as how the road from right end concludes at King's back. It doesn't look as if you can count on Odom for some time, or Paul Gruber. Which leaves us examining Pierson to see if he is anything more than a seat warmer until someone better returns (and face it, we won't know how much better Odom, with a new position, or Gruber, with a new leg, will be until we see them).
One hint: Look at Pierson on the runing plays, too, and see if he and Randall McDaniel can open lanes.
7. Mike Alstott. Here, there and everywhere.
At one point, the Bucs planned to play Alstott all over the field. Turns out they've been fortunate to get him on the field at all. Maybe tonight we will see just what Les Steckel has in mind with Alstott-the-H-back and Alstott-the-slot-receiver. Personally, I'd like to see more of him as Alstott-the-runner.
8. Warrick Dunn. Running free.
No one questions whether Dunn is a good back. But is he the right back to be used the way the Bucs are using him? A few 20-yard runs would help answer that question. Right?
9. Reidel Anthony. And the rest of the receivers.
This will be the tough decision when the Bucs cut down Sunday. Anthony has played well, but has he held off Andre Hastings, and has Hastings held off Karl Williams, and has Williams held off Yo Murphy?
10. Keyshawn Johnson. No particular reason. It's just fun to watch Keyshawn. Besides, every test ought to have one gimmie, don't you think?