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Dungy searches for answers

By RICK STROUD

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 15, 2000


TAMPA -- Fans are hoping for a repeat of 1999, when a slow start galvanized the team and it went on to win eight of its last nine regular-season games.

But in many ways, the Bucs are performing like they did in 1998, when they melted under the bright lights of expectations and failed to make the playoffs.

After that 8-8 season, coach Tony Dungy thought his club had tuned him out and searched for a way to convince players that his style works.

The serene, expressionless manner developed cracks and a more emotional Dungy took charge. His benching of starting quarterback Trent Dilfer gained the attention of his team.

Dungy may have done a poor job this season of allowing distractions, like receiver Keyshawn Johnson's one-man show before the loss in Week 4 to the Jets. But he regained control, benching defensive tackle Warren Sapp for the first quarter at Washington the next week as punishment for being late to a team meeting.

There are so many new elements to this 3-3 team, especially on offense, that Dungy is having problems getting players to buy into his system.

"In some ways it is like '98. And we're in that little mode and we've got to pull out of it," Dungy said. "In '98, we never did.

"It's similar in a lot of ways. And we had that a little last year, even. But we zoned in on our fundamentals after our bye week and got some things done and started playing sharper ball."

While the 1998 Bucs started 1-2, this season's Bucs were 3-0. But their victories masked mistakes. New England forced them into a last-second stand. Chicago trailed 6-0 with two minutes to play in the first half. They yielded a 50-yard touchdown at the end of the first half at Detroit.

"In '98, it was like that from the beginning," Dungy said. "This year, we had a good camp, we played well, we were winning in the preseason. We're doing things right. We come out 3-0. Then we have these situations where we're letting games get away at the end just on things that should be relatively simple.

"I don't know what it is. I haven't changed my approach and that's one of the things I looked at. Not counting '96, I think in '97, '98, '99 and this year, we're 10-5 in September, 9-4 in November and December and 3-10 in October. And you wonder if you are doing things differently, if you're not paying as much attention to detail. You go back and look at the notes and what you've said and how you practice and we do everything the same way. But we're not getting the results in the second quarter of the year. Hopefully, we'll zero in and get going because we can't afford to go too much longer like this."

The perplexing thing is that this is the best Bucs team that Dungy has had -- making it the most talented in franchise history.

"I know we're a better team personnel-wise," Dungy said. "In the past, we've gone to Detroit, Green Bay and Minnesota and never had a chance to win the game. We go to Washington, and even though we don't play well, we're in the game and send it to overtime. They're punting to us and we should get the ball at the 40-yard line with a chance to win it.

"We go Minnesota and we have the lead in the fourth quarter. We are at times playing better than we've ever played, but we're not finishing the games when we have a chance."

BRIAN'S SONG: It's probably unfair to single him out, but Brian Kelly, the third-year cornerback out of Southern California, has been involved in nearly every blown defensive play of late.

In the NFC Championship Game, he was beaten by Ricky Proehl for a 30-yard touchdown with 4:44 remaining, costing the Bucs a trip to the Super Bowl.

The 24-year-old blew coverage on Jets wideout Wayne Chrebet, biting on the run fake and giving halfback Curtis Martin an easy target for his winning touchdown pass.

Monday night, the 5-11, 193-pound Kelly was late on a corner blitz, arriving just as the 6-4, 250-pound Daunte Culpepper unloaded a 42-yard pass to Randy Moss.

"There's a lot of plays in the game and you can't pin the game on one guy," Dungy said. "But if you want to be great, you have to make the plays in those situations. You've got to get there, you've got to knock the ball down. That's the difference between being a Deion Sanders, where you might not do anything all day, but that crucial punt return when the light is on, you somehow make the play."

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