Tampa's offense earning its keep

Previously maligned unit building reputation, points under Gruden's guidance

January 21, 2003|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

SAN DIEGO - For what seems an eternity, Tampa Bay's offense has been the tag-along little brother to the Buccaneers' precocious defense, always hanging around but rarely offering meaningful support.

For the past five years, at least, the offense was the missing link in the Bucs' annual playoff bust.

Now, in the wake of a shocking postseason run, the Bucs are rethinking the big brother-little brother relationship. Going to the Super Bowl might mean the Bucs' offense no longer has to apologize for its contribution.

Did Sunday's 27-10 win over the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC championship game prove the Bucs' offense is finally viable?

"We answer that question every week, don't we?" Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden said. "Viable? Hell, we just won an event. We had two drives go 96 and 80 yards against these Eagles. Viable? I would say that's viable, yes."

You will have to excuse Gruden if he's a little sensitive on the subject. He was hired last February, at considerable expense to the Bucs, to put some sparkle into a drab offensive design. It hasn't been easy. Or pretty. But as the Bucs prepare for Super Bowl XXXVII against the Oakland Raiders on Sunday, there are indications that maybe Gruden's new offense is starting to grow up.

In the past 10 games - eight of them victories - the Bucs are averaging nearly 24 points a game. In Tampa, that qualifies as an offensive bonanza.

The defense appreciates it.

"They have been doing it all year," cornerback Ronde Barber said. "The past eight weeks of the season, [quarterback] Brad Johnson has been to me the MVP of the league. Everybody else can say what they want about our offense struggling ... We score when we have to score. They create points off our turnovers and we work in concert as a team.

"It's a beautiful thing when we are executing like that."

Execution improved greatly once the offensive linemen began meshing in midseason and after Johnson got a better grasp of Gruden's offense.

In the beginning, it wasn't certain if the pieces would come together.

"When I saw the ball spin out of his hand, and the accuracy, I was excited about it," Gruden said of his first glimpse of Johnson. "I was just concerned about how he fit into the equation because he was a lot different than maybe some of the visions I had coming to Tampa, philosophy-wise.

"But we have kind of grown up together. We still have some growing to do, but he's a great pocket passer and he can really throw the ball."

Johnson threw for 259 yards and one touchdown on Sunday - while the running game averaged 1.5 yards a carry - in what became a validation of the Gruden system.

"Some great things have been done in the past, and [former coach] Tony Dungy deserves all the credit building up to this," Johnson said. "But Jon came in here and it's carried over to our team.

"I love playing for the guy. I felt like I've never been prepared going into a game as I do with Jon, and I'm still learning from the guy. It's a lot of fun to play with him."

A nine-year veteran, Johnson said he was more comfortable in his old offensive systems at Minnesota and Washington than he was initially with the Bucs this season. But he's an eager student under Gruden.

"I think it takes two or three years to really turn a system inside-out," he said. "I'm trying to become that seven-degree black belt, that ninja warrior. That's where you want to get to."

Johnson distributed 20 completions to eight different receivers against Philadelphia. Wide receivers caught 10 passes, running backs six and tight ends four.

When the Eagles beat the Bucs, 20-10, in October, Johnson left Philadelphia with cracked ribs. On Sunday, he left with the NFC championship and a new relationship with his defense.

"I don't know about the past," he said. "I wasn't here for all of that. Fortunately, we have one of the best defenses in the league and they are dominant ... But offensively, we are not going to back down from anyone. We are very aggressive with what we do, and we feel like we're getting better."

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