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Boos all around for this staggering team

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By GARY SHELTON

© St. Petersburg Times,
published October 22, 2001


TAMPA -- Go ahead. Boo.

Let it come. It is time. Let the noise start deep in your chest, and let it explode from your lips. Today, there is no defense for the Tampa Bay Bucs, and precious little offense.

Go ahead. Rant.

The season is not only slipping away, it is on the ground like a fumble. The Bucs are 2-3, and it is the two victories that look like flukes -- not the three defeats. Whatever criticism you have is deserved. Wherever you would place the blame, it fits.

Go ahead. Vent.

The Pittsburgh Steelers took whatever was left of the Bucs' image as an elite team Sunday and threw it under the Bus. They ran over the Bucs, through them, around them. In the end, they even did a little stomping on the their reputation.

"I'm tired of Tampa," Pittsburgh safety Lee Flowers said. "They talk so much, and they go to the Pro Bowl because they talk. They ain't nothing but paper champions. That's all they are, and that's all they're ever going to be."

Perhaps you have problems with Flowers' comments. Perhaps they anger you. Perhaps they incite you. Perhaps they sadden you because they are just, well, so darned accurate.

It is hard to put up much argument because the Bucs didn't put up much argument. Average? Did someone call the Bucs average? That's an insult to anyone who ever made a C on a test. Across town, average is calling to complain. Below average, on the other hand, could not be reached for comment.

The Bucs, present-tense, are the most overrated team the world has seen since last year's Washington Redskins, who -- in turn -- were the most overrated team since the Spanish Armada. They are 2-3 and, from here, you can see trouble. If the Bucs don't beat Minnesota this week, you might as well start discussing next year's NFL draft.

All underachieving teams, such as the Bucs, sound the same. They use the same familiar phrases about not panicking, about digging deeper, about fighting harder. What else would you expect them to say? They talk of past bad starts, and how they have been 3-4 in each of the past three seasons.

This year feels different, however. In the past, whenever the Bucs got off to a slow start, there has been some part of the Bucs -- usually the defense -- that anchored your hopes, something that allowed you to believe next Sunday might be different. This season, it's hard to see that. The offense has not progressed. The defense has regressed. If you ranked the NFL teams, it would be hard to have the Bucs in the top 20.

Offensively, the Bucs do not run the ball well, they do not throw deep and they do not block well. The one thing the offense does well is short passes to Keyshawn Johnson. But it takes a lot of those in a row for the team to put together a touchdown drive. The Bucs are not particularly creative, not particularly explosive, not particularly productive.

Ten sacks? Hadn't the Bucs seen a blitz before?

A 3.4-yard rushing average? And 10 of the 16 rushes by running backs gaining 2 yards or less?

Two straight runs with a first and goal at the 8? When Keyshawn Johnson is trying to take over the game?

One touchdown? Again?

Defensively, the Bucs counter by not rushing the passer well, by not tackling well, by becoming lesser players, not greater ones, on third down. They do not dictate to opposing lines or harass opposing quarterbacks. They do not play with urgency. There has not been a sighting of their stars for some time.

An 8.4-yard rushing average by Jerome Bettis? Gee. What would he have done if he didn't have a breathing problem?

Sixty percent of third downs converted? By Kordell Stewart?

An inability to stop the pass? By Bettis?

One sack by the defensive line? Again?

Stop the denial. This no longer is a team having an off-day or a bad streak. This is a team that has one keeper on its string. This is a team that stammers and sputters and spins. At the end, it reminds you how many weeks are in the season.

"We were kind of lax," defensive end Simeon Rice said. "We didn't play like our hair is on fire. We need to play with urgency."

"It's fighting time now," Keyshawn Johnson said.

A couple of questions. Why wasn't it fighting time earlier in the day? Why wasn't it fighting time against Minnesota or Tennessee? By now, why hasn't this team turned into Mike Tyson? And would whoever took the urgency please return it?

Go ahead, then. Doubt.

With every week that passes, with every live demonstration of all the things the Bucs lack, this looks less and less shocking. What it looks like is the truth of what the Bucs have become.

They seem, as Flowers suggest, a team with more name than game, longer on reputation than results.

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