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Good or bad, answers start to arrive today

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By GARY SHELTON

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 9, 2001


DALLAS -- For six weeks, we have taken their measure.

We have held them up to the light, and examined them this way and that. We have turned them over and spun them round. We have talked about them almost as much as they have talked about themselves. We have watched, we have listened and we have taken notes.

And so far, this is what we know about the Tampa Bay Bucs: Nothing.

The first chapter will be written today against the Cowboys, and what we have is a mystery. After six weeks of practice, after four preseason games, it seems we know less about the Bucs than we did the day they showed up for camp. The facts keep getting blurred, the clues keep disappearing.

Will the offense finally be better this year? Is Brad Johnson an upgrade at quarterback, and will he remain upright? Will Clyde Christensen be a better offensive coordinator than Les Steckel the obstacle?

Who knows?

Can the team figure out how to use Keyshawn Johnson? Will Mike Alstott be a good enough blocker to stay on the field as a fullback? Will the offensive line, with three new starters, hold up without holding?

Who knows?

Is too much being asked of rookie left tackle Kenyatta Walker? Is Dave Moore a good enough tight end to give Johnson the safety valve he expects from the position? Can Warrick Dunn stay healthy?

Who knows?

Face it. For a team that's supposed to have all the answers, the Bucs are simply eaten up with questions. Believers should line up on one side of the room, doubters on the other. As for the Bucs, they'll line up between the two.

For most of the preseason, those who follow the Bucs have been searching for clues, for any suggestion that this team will turn into something mighty after all. So far, no one has seen mighty. In fact, there haven't been many sightings of "sufficient."

In its limited time, the starting offense has pieced together one scoring drive of more than 25 yards. It has not struck deep. It has not been efficient on third down. Who knows? Maybe this will turn out to be a good highlight film after all, but you couldn't tell from the coming attractions. Give the Bucs credit for this: If there is firepower there, they've been doing a fine job of keeping it a secret for the past few weeks.

(Federal regulations require a paragraph here that says the Bucs have only been playing preseason games, blah, blah, blah, and that no one remembers preseason records, and on and on, and the last time the Bucs offense lit it up in the preseason was 1999, when it came about and stunk up the joint in the season opener against the Giants, yada, yada, yada. There is some truth there. If the Bucs had lit it up during the glorified scrimmages of August, would you really be convinced? No, not if you've been paying attention to what the Bucs have called offense for a quarter of a century.)

Around the Tampa Bay area, the offensive sputtering has taken its toll. Already, the fans sound vexed. Odd, isn't it? The better the Bucs are supposed to be, the less happy their fans appear. In the old days, when there was no way the Bucs were going to win six games short of federal assistance, the fans were cheery enough, finding whatever hope they could. These days, everyone seems grumpier. Fans don't want to climb Mount Everest; they want to push someone off to it.

The moral is that nobody likes to be clueless. This offense leaves you feeling that way. You see the hired guns at quarterback and wide receiver, the water bug at running back, and you wonder why it cannot move the ball more efficiently. There has never been this much offensive talent on a Bucs' team, but to date, the Bucs have looked disjointed, less than the sum of their parts. So the fear grows that, once again, this offense will look like a collection of individuals rather than a unit.

Such is the mind-set as the journey begins. Once again, Bucs fans feel pretty good about their defense, even though it sagged a year ago. Once again, no one trusts the offense to remember to bring the ball.

Want to hear a wacky prediction? The Bucs offense is going to be okay. Not great, but okay. It's going to be ranked 17th in the NFL in yardage gained, which should be plenty for the playoffs. Warrick Dunn is going to have 1,304 yards. Keyshawn Johnson is going to catch 87 passes, and Jacquez Green 41, and Reidel Anthony 36 and Dave Moore 37. Brad Johnson is going to throw 21 touchdown passes. Kenyatta Walker will make you forget he's a rookie. Mike Alstott will have 35 catches.

But those are numbers. What happens when the Bucs need to drive 75 yards for the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter? What happens on those days when the defense is merely good? Does the offense ever become an efficient unit?

Who knows?

The gut feeling is the Bucs' offense will remain a work in progress for the first month of the season. So where does this leave them coming into today's game? It leaves them thankful they are playing the Cowboys, that's where.

The offense will be fine today, because the Bucs defense figures to give it good field position for most of the game. The offense will struggle early, when the Cowboys are still in denial as to their weakness, but they should do enough to win by, say, 20-10.

That will make everyone happy. For about an hour. And then people will remember who the Cowboys are, and they'll start talking about the Eagles, and instead of wondering what can be told from a preseason, they'll wonder what can be told from an opening game.

Who knows?

But wouldn't it be nice to have some hints?

JOIN SHELTON ONLINE: Chat with Gary Shelton about the Bucs' new season. He'll take your questions online at at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday. Go to www.tampabay.com/chat to join in.

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