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'We believe in balance. I think you'll see that.'

By RICK STROUD

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 3, 2000


FOXBORO, Mass. -- Coach Tony Dungy is a man of faith, but he doesn't look skyward for help when it comes to selecting an offense.

Dungy believes in running the football, milking the clock and playing to the strength of his defense. The Bucs never will lead the league in passing. Deal with it.

That is why he selected Les Steckel as his offensive coordinator. But here is the shocker. Dungy told Steckel to fire at will. The offense will be better as a result.

"He's been real receptive, and he's been very encouraging about our passing game and likes what he sees," Steckel said. "I like the passing game as long as we know what we're doing and protect the ball."

That is not to say that the offense will be a chuck-and-duck. In fact, Steckel is nearly as conservative as Dungy. Against the Patriots, the Bucs believe they can pound the ball successfully with Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn.

"Our philosophies are really identical," Steckel said. "We want to be a run-oriented team and be as physically dominating as we possibly can and mix in the passing game when it's appropriate. And we believe in balance. I think you'll see that. Secondly, when it comes to the run-pass ratio, usually the run will outweigh the pass if you're winning and the pass will outweigh the run if you're losing."

But the addition of Keyshawn Johnson at least makes passing the football a formidable alternative. And Steckel has implemented the shotgun and rollouts to make the most of quarterback Shaun King's talents.

Steckel did a good job of disguising the offense during the preseason. He featured the passing attack in the first preseason game. He emphasized the running game in the final one. Hopefully, the offense will be a balance of the two.

"Obviously, we've shown our base protections and base runs, but we'd like to think we have somewhat more versatility now with the season coming," Steckel said. "Just depending on how the game goes. Like I tell the players, the key thing is scoring one more point than the opponent and keep our defense off the field. If we don't need to show a lot (Sunday), then we won't. But we've got to go in with both barrels loaded and see what happens."

KEY ROLE: The quarterback won't be the only player talking in the huddle this season.

For years, the offense lacked leadership and the acquisition of Johnson has fixed that problem.

"When we were in Miami, and we did two three-and-outs, he came off the field and he was flaming," Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "And he wasn't flaming at himself, he was flaming out at people. He was like, "Listen, that's bull----. Six plays on offense? We've got to get it going.' And I'm looking at him like, "Damn right!' Finally! Because we used to come off the field as an offensive unit looking like, "Uh, they stopped us that time.' And nobody stopped us, nobody really looked like they cared, externally. But he's doing it in a way where we're seeing it and he's challenging them."

TOUGH ENDING: There never has been a more loyal soldier to the Bucs than Paul Gruber.

That's why the way the news of his impending retirement was spread Friday night seemed so strange.

Agent Ralph Cindrich telephoned reporters to inform them that Gruber planned to announce his retirement on Tuesday. He also made a point of saying that neither he nor Gruber had relayed that decision to the Bucs.

Essentially, we were left to believe that the Bucs learned of Gruber's plans when they were asked to comment Friday night.

Everything Gruber did in the off-season indicated that he was bent on returning for a 13th season, if only to be part of perhaps the best team in club history.

Gruber had more fun in his past four seasons than the first eight combined. That's why he spent nearly a month in Colorado Springs rehabilitating from the broken leg he suffered in the final regular-season game.

But the Bucs did not seem willing to tell Gruber exactly when, or if, they would provide a roster spot for his return. The final decision, of course, was Gruber's. But you have to wonder whether the Bucs left him much of a choice.

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