By HUBERT MIZELL
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 26, 2000
TAMPA -- They're now long shots.
So disgusting and devastating was losing in Chicago that the Bucs, instead of prancing with a 7-4 record rich with playoff promise, are a poorly 6-5, stumbling against the November ropes.
Tampa Bay has maybe a 40 percent chance of being alive for the NFL post-season. Ten wins are needed. How can you like Bucs chances of a 4-and-1 stretch, with an offense that's a dangling chad or two shy of mediocre?
Buffalo's nasties are in town today, with the Little D Cowboys next, followed by a Miami road ruckus, then a Monday nighter against Super Bowl champ St. Louis plus a teeth-chattering, frost-bitten Christmas Eve finish at Green Bay.
Ice is Bucs poison.
In the NFC jungle, perhaps some 9-7 team will slither into a wild-card opportunity, but Tampa Bay is in lousy shape for tiebreakers. "First," said coach Tony Dungy, "we must win No. 7." After a 3-0 beginning, the Bucs have gone 3-5.
Against the Bills, who've won a few in sub-40 temperatures, Bucs hope is that a hungry Raymond James Stadium houseful will be the ultimate motivator. Another episode of their Chicago-style offense and a supposed Super Bowl XXXV contender will resemble the picked-clean bones of Thanksgiving's bird.
Everybody knows the fluttering heart of Bucs shortfall: a passing game that was notably rotten against the Bears. "We had open receivers," Dungy said. "We ran the football pretty effectively with Warrick Dunn. Our defense didn't allow a lot of points. Special teams made some plays."
Let's see, what's left?
Hey, I'm no Bill Walsh or Johnny Unitas, but I, like you, clearly can see what is most crippling to a 6-5 team that should be no worse than 8-3. Even a hint of air efficiency in a 13-10 failure would have slapped aside the Bears.
How many times was it, a dozen in the second half, that King retreated to pass, searching for downfield receivers, getting reasonable blocking protection, often buying extra seconds with nimble footwork, but almost never even getting off a pass that had a whimper of a chance for completion?
We've heard it a TV-jillion times: "Give an NFL quarterback four or five seconds and he'll almost always connect with a receiver who is running free." It's a cliche that got Bucs-butchered on Soldier Field.
Shaun was hammered by unblocked blitzers a couple of times, but he frequently had ample time to be efficient. With snappy Chicago winds and a ghastly early interception that Chicago returned for a touchdown, King appeared a few quarts low on confidence.
Who doesn't love this kid? He's barely 23, local to the core, grew up a Bucs fan, and is just now reaching a full season of pro football experience. King has become a bothersome study of ups and downs.
Just when you think he's overmatched, Shaun has an extraordinary game, like against Minnesota when the Vikings got splattered at Ray-J. Conversely, just when you think No. 10 might be reaching true stability, along comes a mess up like against the Bears.
What now against Buffalo?
In recent hours, with a unique locker-room boom, has roared Warren Sapp's blame for offensive coordinator Les Steckel. A furious slap, dripping with ire and desperation, from last season's NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Directing the blame at Steckel, not King.
Today will be intriguing.
We outsiders tend to overemphasize a quarterback's impact. Too easily we paint him as the golden hero when good Sundays emerge, then we're too trigger-happy to blame the pitcher when assessing ugly defeats.
That said, in King's case, even hearing Sapp's oratory, the kid QB must take a grand artistic leap if this Bucs a contingent of high September promise is not to splinter with no further Super Bowl threats.
Needs are, frankly, multiple.
Tampa Bay, in the future, would be enormously helped by an offensive tackle from the Tony Boselli/Jonathan Odgen mold. But, next to superior quarterbacks, that is the toughest-to-secure NFL commodity.
Would it not be terrific to have a big, fast, low-error running back more like Marshall Faulk, Edgerrin James or Stephen Davis? Warrick Dunn, at 178 pounds, cannot be expected to carry a heavyweight load. He should be your changeup, not your fastball. But the No. 1 need is dependable production from the passing game, meaning the QB and receivers.
Keyshawn Johnson needs to double his catches, yardage and touchdowns. I'm not sure how much blame to lay on No. 19, I mean, with the King/Steckel elements already churning. Chicago videotapes showed Key frequently open with no football thrown his way. I haven't noticed Bucs receivers dropping a lot of passes lately.
QB questions must be answered soon; between now and Christmas Eve in Green Bay. King, more than anyone, will decide if the Bucs have a flicker of a chance for a magnificent 11th-hour rally, challenging to stay alive for January. If there's no sweet rally, it's time to evaluate the future sternly.
If the answers are negative or insufficient on King, Tampa Bay management must consider -- I say consider, not necessarily exercise -- options for 2001. Like checking free agents, who are likely to include Trent Green and Brad Johnson. If it came to one of those, I'd say give the name Trent another whirl here.
I'm hoping King does it.
What is it, historically, about Bucs offense? I've been around this franchise since its 1976 beginning, from John McKay to Dungy, and never has the "O" been as good as the "D" as we kept dislodging Doug Williams, Chris Chandler, Steve Young, Vinny Testaverde and Trent Dilfer, quarterbacks who all did better with other franchises.
Stop the misfires!
Calm the underachieving beast.
I mean, today.