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Bucs must remember their essence

By RICK STROUD

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 22, 2000


TAMPA -- The last time the Bucs played this poorly, somebody changed their uniforms. If this poor play continues, they might try changing the players in the uniforms.

After four straight defeats, Tampa Bay has lost any chance of defending its NFC Central title. The Bucs have lost home-field advantage for the playoffs. And they have lost their confidence.

But all is not lost for the Bucs.

Nine games remain in the season, and they still have time to find their identity as a team.

Tampa Bay used to be a team that won close games and fought to the end.

Last season, after realizing rookie quarterback Shaun King would have to take the helm, the Bucs accepted that their offense was not going to score many points and they would have to win by producing turnovers and field position, and by slamming the door in the fourth quarter.

Then came all those off-season acquisitions on offense. Randall McDaniel and Jeff Christy. The trade for Keyshawn Johnson. The hiring of Les Steckel as offensive coordinator.

Those moves convinced NFL pundits that Super Bowl XXXV at Raymond James Stadium might just be another home game for the Bucs.

"If you would have told me this would happen, I would have never believed you," defensive end Marcus Jones said. "It's never supposed to happen. I guess this is professional football and anything can happen."

What happened was the Bucs started 3-0 and averaged 31 points.

It was party time. Somebody open another restaurant. Launch another Web site. Hop a limo to another radio show.

Then the games got close and the Bucs realized how far they had drifted from the formula Tony Dungy took four seasons to establish.

The Bucs couldn't run the ball and make first downs, especially in the fourth quarter. The defense couldn't come up with a play to protect leads. Now they have a mess on their hands.

Steckel has placed too much burden recently on King, a 23-year-old who is enjoying too many of the spoils of being a first-year starter in the NFL before earning them.

Thursday night, the Bucs were gashing the Lions for 8 yards per carry in the first quarter. Then Mike Alstott lost a fumble. Although the score was tied until midway through the fourth quarter, Steckel attempted only four rushing plays in the second half, even though the Bucs had 5.7 yards per rush for the game.

For the record, Bucs officials are not particularly fond of their running backs.

What they say they have is a good third-down back in Warrick Dunn. In Alstott they say they have a 260-pound fullback who refuses to block and runs downhill so often that he needs to line up 7 yards deep on short-yardage situations (which he rarely converts).

You can bet the Bucs will use a high draft pick next year on a running back who can gain yards on first down.

But Dunn and Alstott were good enough to take the Bucs to the NFC Championship Game last season, so the Bucs have to find a way to make that combination work again.

The absence of a running game has meant more risk of turnovers in the passing game, and it has kept the defense on the field too long -- for 75 plays Thursday night against the Lions.

What's frustrating is the Bucs have more talent than at any time under Dungy.

Johnson and Jacquez Green give King two game-breaking receivers. The defensive line will shatter the club record for sacks.

But teams are running like watercolors through the Bucs, with three backs gaining more than 100 yards in two of the past three games.

And ask yourself this: When was the last time linebacker Derrick Brooks made a big play?

Brooks is arguably the Bucs' best all-around player and gave Warren Sapp a run for NFL Defensive Player of the Year last season. But without Hardy Nickerson, much of the responsibility for making reads and adjustments has fallen on his shoulders, and for some reason, his play has suffered.

More than in any other pro league, teams in the NFL reflect the personality and philosophy of their coach. So any rally will start with defense.

"We got to come up with some plays," Brooks said. "I look at history, and the way that the Bucs have pulled out of holes that we've dug ourselves is the defense coming up with turnovers. We're playing hard, and we're playing well. But we're just not coming up with turnovers. That's how we got the whole thing turned around last year. The defense started coming up with turnovers, helping the offense, making the field short. They started turning turnovers into touchdowns.

"That's how we're going to have to come out this hole. ... And I'll point the finger at me. It's going to have to start with me. Whatever I've been doing, it hasn't been good enough."

The team hasn't been good enough, either.

But there is time. Tampa Bay likely will have to finish with a better record than only, say, New Orleans, Philadelphia or Green Bay to earn the sixth and final wild-card spot. That would mean playing well enough to win six or seven of its last nine games.

But the Bucs won't do it by turning the ball over. Committing penalties. Throwing 40 times a game. Or using the crutch that they did it a year ago.

They'll achieve it only by being the adoring, boring Bucs that expected more from themselves than everybody else.

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