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Tampa Bay Buccaneers create their Bizarro World

TAMPA — Coaches have been replaced before. John McKay quit, Tony Dungy was fired and Richard Williamson presumably got lost on his way to the office. And stars have been let go before. John Lynch was pushed aside, Warren Sapp was lowballed and Keyshawn Johnson was three states away before finishing his last sentence.

So as surprising as it was to see Jon Gruden get whacked and as shocking as it was to see Derrick Brooks wearing the forlorn expression of a former Buccaneer, there was some sense of inevitability to those events.

On the other hand, I'm not sure if this realization has a precedent. I'm thinking this discussion might be unchartered. Because, improbable as it sounds, Tampa Bay's offense might be in better shape today than its defense.

Now if you were around to see Steve Spurrier play quarterback in 1976, you know how strange that sounds. If you bore witness to the George Yarno era at left tackle, you understand what I'm saying. For more than three decades, a good offense has been like a picturesque snowfall on Christmas morning, something we watch from afar with a sigh every winter.

"I'm excited about the weapons we have," new general manager Mark Dominik said Tuesday. "I'm looking forward to Sundays."

Depending on your perspective, this development is either groundbreaking or heartbreaking. You are either intrigued by the additions of Kellen Winslow and Derrick Ward, or you are lamenting the possible decline of a remarkable defensive run.

Except for a blip or two along the way, Tampa Bay's defense has been practically without peer since the mid 1990s. It produced two certain Hall of Famers, several other Canton candidates, seven postseasons and a Super Bowl title.

The offense, for the most part, was along for the ride.

Yet in recent days, there has been an unmistakable shift in balance. Three starters on defense have departed in the past week, and two more are entertaining offers as free agents. None have been replaced from the outside.

The offense, meanwhile, has invested more than $20 million in guaranteed money to re-sign its starting receivers. Winslow was brought in a trade, and Ward has been Tampa Bay's first big-ticket free agent acquisition. Along with the draft picks devoted to the offensive line in recent seasons, the signing of Jeff Faine and the new contract given to Luke McCown, the devotion to scoring points has been as noticeable as we've seen in years.

"Our plan has been to … help this offense and surround, at every position, players who have been productive," Dominik said.

Maybe you think this is hyperbole. Perhaps you believe I'm exaggerating the change in tenor at One Buc Place. If so, consider that in this franchise's 33 seasons, the Bucs have been in the top 10 of the NFL in scoring one time.

One time.

Just based on the odds, a typical team would have had 11 seasons in the top 10. Even an atrocious team would have had four or five strong offensive seasons by either fluke or luck.

One time?

It's like that scene in Pulp Fiction when the guy bursts in the room and unloads his gun point-blank at John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson yet somehow misses them both. You couldn't be that awful even if you were trying.

Yet today, you are imagining a life less dedicated to third and long. You are picturing new guys in new roles and old faces with happier expressions. Ask yourself this: Would you swap Ward for Warrick Dunn? Of course. Would you swap Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard for Winslow? Sure. Would you swap McCown for Jeff Garcia? Have to get back to you on that one.

For now, quarterback is the biggest mystery on the offense. Not the only mystery, just the biggest. You figure the offensive line is still growing and should at least be adequate. You figure Winslow means there won't be such a large gap between the No. 1 and No. 2 receivers on the stat sheet. You figure Ward provides greater versatility and play-calling options.

All that leaves is the guy in charge of the huddle, which means the Bucs might want to do a little more quarterback shopping.

Naturally, this guarantees nothing for we have seen other attempts to attack the scoreboard. Some have fallen short, some have overshot, and one or two veered off toward the parking lots.

At one point in the 1980s, the Bucs surrendered two first-round picks, one second-round pick and the No. 1 pick in the USFL supplemental draft while acquiring four different quarterbacks. All of this was done in less than four years, and not one of those quarterbacks ever had a winning season in a Tampa Bay uniform.

Once upon a time, they signed a clueless Alvin Harper and a worthless Bert Emanuel. Gary Anderson did not produce much, and Charlie Garner produced even less. The Bucs had some success with acquisitions earlier this decade, but it's not like they found a secret passage to the end zone.

So enjoy this miniature flurry of activity. Allow yourself to picture touchdowns instead of field goals. Think about the potential of long drives and short conversions. It might not be guaranteed, but for the first time in a long while, it seems possible.

Now, about that defense …

John Romano can be reached at [email protected]

Tampa Bay Buccaneers create their Bizarro World 03/03/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 4, 2009 6:48am]
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