There is no explosiveness in the Bucs passing game. They have misplaced the bomb. With all the check-downs, dump-offs and flares in the flat, it's like playing quarterback in a phone booth. After five games, Jon Gruden's offense is averaging 5.45 yards per pass attempt, tied for 28th in the league with the Seahawks, which makes a simple game of catch in the driveway seem like a Hail Mary by comparison. "When I watch the film, I can see that it's not an explosive offense," said ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski, who spends hours breaking down plays each week for NFL Matchup. "Big plays come in the passing game, and they don't have the speed outside to attack down the field. They've got a lot of possession-type receivers and no one who is going to make the safety bail. The quarterbacks have to throw into small, tight windows. And really, neither quarterback, (Brian) Griese or (Jeff) Garcia, have NFL guns to rifle the ball downfield." Of course, there are several reasons why the Bucs have had only five passes of more than 20 yards this season (only the Ravens and Browns have fewer). By design, the West Coast offense contains mostly horizontal routes.
But the lack of a deep threat — with Joey Galloway, 36, nursing another injury — a collection of possession receivers, average-armed quarterbacks, a smashmouth tailback and penalties that sabotage drives have made scoring difficult.
"It's a sideways offense," said Sports Illustrated columnist Mike Lombardi, who spent 22 years in NFL personnel departments, including with the Raiders. "Until they decide to vertically attack the ball up the field, you can't make the playoffs averaging 5.5 yards per attempt. With the running game they have, there's got to be a way to do it."
Unlike the Bucs passing game, let's go a little deeper.
Gruden bemoans the lack of continuity at quarterback, but no one is more responsible for it. When the Bucs return to Garcia today against Carolina, it will be the 17th time Gruden has used a new signal-caller. In fact, this makes six switches at the position in the past 11 games, dating to last season.
Griese is out with a right elbow bruise and shoulder sprain. Although he went 3-1 in relief, he was intercepted six times, completed 57 percent of his passes and averaged a career-low 5.47 yards per attempt. This despite a 407 yard passing day in an overtime win at Chicago.
Had Griese not been hurt, Gruden might have replaced him anyway.
Last week at Denver, the Broncos rushed three and dropped eight into zone coverage on 23 plays. Gruden took that as a sign of respect, but the Broncos knew the Bucs had no one to threaten them deep and created tighter throws for Griese.
"When I look at that zone defense the Broncos threw at them, I think why they did it was to make the quarterback throw into those small windows, read his eyes and jump the throws," Jaworski said.
"When I watch Griese, I don't see a quarterback who is making throws with great anticipation or has any confidence in his decisions. He's waiting for someone to get open, and by that time, it's too late. There is no rhythm to the passing game. So Mike Shanahan probably saw that and decided to play that zone to cloud his thought process."
Lombardi suggested the Bucs are playing with two backup quarterbacks. "They have no ability to work the ball up the field. Two quarterbacks who can't throw the ball outside the numbers. Take away the first crosser, take away the fullback in the flat and it's over."
Gruden says the Bucs still take plenty of shots downfield.
"We beat the Bears with a shot play, and we didn't see very much man-to-man in Chicago, either," he said. "We saw a lot of zone blitzing. We had some success; we had some failures. We'll throw it deep. We're not going to throw it deep every play. But we'll throw it deep."
At 36, Galloway is still the only Bucs receiver who can stretch the field. But he has played just one full game since December. Shoulder surgery, a groin strain and now a right foot sprain have kept the perennial 1,000-yard receiver off the field.
The problem is, the Bucs' other receivers can't produce big plays. Ike Hilliard is 32, and Michael Clayton is an asset in the running game but not a game-breaker. Antonio Bryant can make some runs after the catch, but he's not striking fear into safeties.
Gruden defends his receivers, as a group.
"They're playing really hard," Gruden said. "The tape is fun to watch. Guys are running full speed patterns, we don't have a lot of broken assignments, and we block together and we run hard for each other. That's a great start. That's something that hopefully we can build on."
Hilliard, in his 12th year, leads the Bucs in touchdowns with three and led all receivers a year ago with 62 catches. Meanwhile, second-round pick Dexter Jackson, a speedster from Appalachian State, rarely sees the field as a receiver.
"I said it from Day 1," Hilliard said. "Give me 84 (Galloway)."
Penalties a factor
Facing a team that has Earnest Graham and Warrick Dunn, both averaging more than 5 yards per rush, should force opponents to commit to stopping the run, thus creating opportunities in the passing game. But look behind the numbers.
Graham has three runs of more than 45 yards, disproving the theory that he can't make explosive plays while ratcheting up his average. Some of Dunn's runs have come on third-down draw plays when the distance is too much to overcome.
Penalties have been the culprit. Only two teams — the Packers and Saints — have been flagged for more yards than the Bucs' 321.
"Yeah, we've had a lot of penalties," Gruden said. "We've had some unsuccessful first-down runs, too. We won a game against Atlanta in the first half when we had some stuffs, and now it's second and 10, second and 11. But that's every team in football. We can overcome that. We can overcome an incomplete pass. But we won't overcome negative-yardage plays.
"The conversion rate in the NFL in third down and 10-plus is incredibly low."
Many of the flags have been dropped on the offensive line, particularly right tackle Jeremy Trueblood. "I thought their tackles, Trueblood and Donald Penn, really took a step back last week," Jaworski said.
A healthy Garcia has a better chance of keeping plays alive, making those windows bigger and moving the chains.
"Oh, he's going to be moving," Jaworski said. "He plays like he's just had seven cups at Starbucks."
In truth, it hasn't been all bad for the Bucs. They are seventh overall in total offense, averaging 350 yards per game, and eighth in rushing offense at 135 yards per game. Tampa Bay's 22.8 points per game is in the middle of the pack, but it includes three defensive touchdowns.
But as Jaworski says, points come from the passing game. And in that respect, 5.45 yards per attempt won't win many games in the NFL.
"Again, we have done some good things on offense," Gruden said. "It's not all gloom and doom. We like the film we're looking at."
Sunday, October 12, 2008, Section C * * * *