There was a time when 10 to 15 hometown friends of Bucs wideout
Jacquez Green would make the five-hour drive from Fort Valley,
Ga., to watch Green play. They came expecting to see him make
spectacular catches. Now they've found better ways to spend their
time. "My friends hate our offense," says Green, who has 43
receptions this year. "They know that we're not going to throw
much and that I'm only going to see two or three passes a game.
They told me they'd rather watch on TV."
Forgive Green's friends. After all, this was going to be the year
Tampa Bay opened up its attack. In the off-season the Bucs added
three Pro Bowl players--wideout Keyshawn Johnson, guard Randall
McDaniel and center Jeff Christy--as well as offensive coordinator
Les Steckel, who helped the Titans reach the Super Bowl last
January. Instead, Tampa Bay is as conservative as ever, relying
on a defense that carried it to within a whisker of the NFC title
Take the Bucs' 16-13 win over the Dolphins on Sunday. The defense
forced five turnovers that led to 13 points, including Tampa
Bay's only touchdown, linebacker Jamie Duncan's 31-yard
interception return. The offense's contribution: a 77-yard drive
that set up one of Martin Gramatica's three field goals.
Given how the Bucs started the season, averaging 31 points in
winning their first three games with a balanced offense, things
looked like they were going to be different. But a four-game
losing streak followed, during which the offense committed 13
turnovers, and Steckel pulled the offense back into a run-first
mode virtually devoid of deep passing. Going into Sunday's game,
quarterback Shaun King had thrown for an average of 87.3 yards in
his three previous outings, and though King completed 11 of 15
attempts against the Dolphins, Johnson was the only wideout to
catch a pass (four for 41 yards). Johnson, who variously has been
critical of and resigned to how he is being used, didn't want to
talk about his role last week. "We're 9-5, and I'm happy," he
said on Sunday. "The only people complaining are in the media."
Not exactly. After a 13-10 loss to the Bears on Nov. 19, Tampa
Bay defensive tackle Warren Sapp ripped Steckel, saying, "A high
school team has more base plays." Sapp later said he was trying
to fire up his teammates, but the words of strong safety John
Lynch may have made a greater impact. On the eve of the next
game, against the Bills, Lynch stood up during a meeting and
implored his teammates to have faith in the system. His words
were especially moving to some Bucs because Lynch rarely speaks
out. Tampa Bay knocked off Buffalo 31-17 and followed with a 27-7
win over the Cowboys on Dec. 3.
With a home game against the Rams this Monday, the Bucs seem to
have rediscovered their identity at just the right time. "We may
have lost sight of how we won games earlier this year," says
coach Tony Dungy. "Our style is to win by hustling and playing
penalty-free, hard football for 60 minutes. That's what we've
gotten back to."
COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER Best offense Duncan, a linebacker, got Tampa Bay's only TD.