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Offense presents a scintillating lure

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By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 26, 2000


TAMPA -- Warrick Dunn, granted rare running space, ducked and darted on an entertaining 48-yard trip. For a moment it was like his heroic, blistering FSU days. Oh, how the Bucs have been starving for that.

Tampa Bay's wide receivers, seeing zealous blocks from new mate Keyshawn Johnson, are catching the downfield knockout fever. Wiping out enemy tacklers. They also are grabbing footballs with more consistency, creating dynamic plays. How long have the Bucs been dying for that?

Friday night was a bellyful.

Mike Alstott was back to his vintage bulling, a Purdue ox scoring two touchdowns and leaving Kansas City bodies in his quaking wake. You know a sweet communal flashback bolted through Raymond James Stadium, fans rethinking January, when No. 40 put a similar playoff hammer on the Washington Redskins.

In an NFL town where undernourished offense is an old and ghastly tradition, there came a filling, tasty buffet line of exhibition hope. A killer enticement as the franchise's 25th season cometh. In the heart of it all, Randall McDaniel and Jeff Christy must have been adding plenty of new thump in the offensive line.

Bring on September.

Sports Illustrated's top-ranked NFL team -- after some August funks, plus flaming emotions over Brad Culpepper's firing -- is ready for Broadway, or at least Foxboro, for the Sept. 3 opener against New England.

Against the sputtering Chiefs, there was the snappy look of a hometown bunch with an absolute shot at playing in Super Bowl XXXV on its personal grass. Just maybe, on a Sunday or two or three between now and Christmas, the Bucs offense, with its weapons and attitude, will win by scoring 25 or 30 points.

Are we talking revolution?

Not that new coordinator Les Steckel's offensive schemes are fully ready to flatten the world. Not that quarterback Shaun King is anywhere near the big-stat plateau of Peyton Manning or Kurt Warner. Not that the Bucs line is suddenly potent with tackles.

Still much room to improve.

In the first half, before regulars were excused from combat, the non-super Chiefs would've never scored except for a poor King pass. Shaun threw it behind Jacquez Green on a crossing pattern. After being batted around, the football was intercepted, leaving Kansas City linebacker Donnie Edwards with an open 61-yard field to a touchdown.

King can't be doing that.

In August, pain is minimal.

Hey, the major hunger-stemming point is, at long-long-long last, the Bucs do seem to have enough players, effective schemes and the propensity -- bang the drums, toot the horns -- to maybe lift Ray-J's offensive product to an NFL ranking that is at least midleague among 31 teams.

We'll take it, right?

Speaking of collegiate flashbacks, did you catch Reidel Anthony? Snatching a King pass with his one-time Florida Gators style, so sure-handed, doing a creative spin to avoid one of the inept Chiefs, then flying for a 37-yard gain.

Where has that been?

Oh, one more thing. Friday night brought hints that Martin Gramatica's summer slump may have dissolved. Leg accuracy was back for the kicker, with three field goals. Strength, too, with two kickoffs into K.C.'s end zone and another to the 2-yard line. Martin was dancing again, leaping with 5-foot-8 glee into the arms of hairy, sweaty, 300-pound teammates.

I'm not forgetting defense.

Booger McFarland, a new starter at tackle, is still learning. He fell shy of making Bucs patrons forget Culpepper. That wasn't a problem against the overmatched Chiefs.

Offense is upswinging for the Bucs, but it wouldn't come closer to XXXV than sitting in luxury boxes if it weren't for pro football's quickest, most explosive and best defense.

It's hard to nit-pick with Derrick Brooks, John Lynch, Warren Sapp and their associates, but one thing was repetitively bothersome during these off-Broadway weekends. They keep being vulnerable to up-the-middle runs.

Maybe it's Booger's newness. They do miss linebacker Hardy Nickerson's skills and savvy. No. 56's replacement, Jamie Duncan, made a couple of wonderful plays against the Chiefs. He'll be okay. Confidence in the Monte Kiffin-designed defense is extremely high. You figure the Bucs will clean up this up-the-gut deficiency.

Good riddance, games of August. Tampa Bay got through the intense summer heat, the double practices and four exhibitions with not a lot of serious injuries, the loss of safety Dexter Jackson being most notable. Many missions accomplished.

Let's get to Foxboro.

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