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Bucs have forgotten they are running team

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By GARY SHELTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 20, 2000


TAMPA -- It ended, all of it, in the hands of the wrong guy. Maybe that is what you should remember about the short, tortured season of the Tampa Bay Bucs.

It ended, the game and the season and the hopes and the energy, when a second-year quarterback in the midst of an awful second half rolled to his right and threw another incompletion. That's when the sky started falling and the roof started leaking and the swimming pool filled with sharks.

It ended on a fourth and 1, supposedly a running down, when the Tampa Bay Bucs, supposedly a running team, chose to ignore Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn once again. It ended in underachievement and underproduction and under the cleats of a mediocre team the Bucs had mauled a month ago.

And in the end, for those of you totaling the casualties, the Bucs turned out to be a team that was much ado about very little. A contender? They weren't even average. A Super Bowl in Tampa Bay? The Bucs will be fortunate if they're allowed to watch it.

So what happened? And why did it happen so quickly?

When things are this spectacularly disappointing, there are plenty of things to blame. Try this one: On their way to trying to be somebody special, the Bucs forgot who they were.

Go back to the last two plays that counted, when the Bucs trailed by only a touchdown with four minutes to play. It was third and 1. If you have spent any time around Tony Dungy's teams, you know what that used to mean. Run and rerun. Alstott and Dunn. Maybe Dunn and Alstott if the Bucs felt tricky.

Ah, but the Bucs, from all indications, are no longer a running team. They barely seem interested in the concept anymore. Which makes you wonder. Have the Bucs forgotten about their running backs? Or worse, do they still believe in them?

Say this about great teams. They know who they are, and they know what they do. It doesn't matter if you run it like the old Packers, hunt and peck like the 49ers, or bomb it like the Rams. A team knows its knockout punch.

Which leads us back to the Bucs, the artists formerly known as a running team.

They kick field goals.

Wheee.

In case you haven't noticed, the Bucs aren't a running team anymore. More and more, they seem intent on taking the ball out of the hands of Dunn and Alstott (who fumbles too much) and getting it instead to Jacquez Green and Keyshawn Johnson (who fumbles too much). Which is fine, until you remember the second option involves putting your fate in the hands of Shaun King, who is not yet ready to grip it.

Yet, all Thursday night, the Bucs kept allowing King to throw it (he had three interceptions in the second half, two with the score tied). Meanwhile, there are cobwebs on Alstott and Dunn. They combined for three carries in the second quarter, three more in the third, one in the fourth. Silly me. I would have thought the Bucs' chance of winning would be better with Alstott and Dunn.

Now for the key question:

What does the shift in philosophy mean? And is it indicative of Les Steckel's faith, or lack of it, in his backs?

Let's be honest. The image of the Bucs as a relentless running team really isn't accurate. They were 15th last year, and the last three-fourths of the season they were awful. For instance, only once in their final 12 games did their running game average 4 yards per carry. And the image of both Alstott and Dunn has been inflated by the highlight reels. Both can make special plays, but both have flaws. Alstott is slow, and his hands leak. Dunn is small, and he tends to turn a lot of first downs into second and 9.

Already there are those with the Bucs who believe Dunn is a third-down specialist and Alstott is a game closer. But the team needs a back for first and 10. They probably have a point.

But this is the midpoint of a nightmare. And when a team needs to hurry, it seems running would be a fine idea.

Look, there is nothing wrong with the forward pass, Mike Shula's protests to the contrary. It was completely logical that the Bucs open up their offense just to give the opposition the idea they might. But eventually the opposition figured the Bucs would come back to the run.

Maybe, you thought, that time would be early, when the Bucs were in the red zone. Maybe it would come later, when it was obvious it wasn't King's night. Or maybe when the Bucs were tied at 14. Or maybe on that last fourth and 1.

In the end, it didn't come at all.

In the end, the Bucs sputtered and spewed. Identity? Sometimes Clark Kent isn't really Superman. Sometimes he's only Clark Kent.

In the end, it doesn't matter that the Bucs didn't bother to run. Turns out, they aren't in such a hurry after all.

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