TAMPA — Halfway through the regular season, there are really only two observations to be made about the Bucs: great defense, disappointing offense.
That hardly rates as news anymore. Since Jon Gruden arrived from Oakland in 2002 with a sterling reputation as an offensive play-caller, the Bucs have ranked only once in the top 10 in total offense (2003). This season, in terms of yardage, the Bucs are 13th overall, averaging 341.2 yards per game. But they are 21st in the league in scoring at 21.2 points per game.
In fact, the Bucs have scored just 13 touchdowns this season and are on pace to have one of their worst seasons, second only to when they had 20 touchdowns in the 4-12 season with rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski.
It's somewhat perplexing, especially considering that the offensive line, with free agent center Jeff Faine, is probably better and deeper than at any time in the franchise's history. And quarterback Jeff Garcia, 38, while hobbled by injuries early, has done a decent job protecting the football.
And yet, with a win today against 1-6 Kansas City, the Bucs could enter the bye week 6-3 and a half game back of Carolina in the NFC South. Remarkable.
"I've just been very impressed with our team," Gruden said. "I don't want to speak out about any individuals, although I think we've had some guys that have really exploded onto the scene, Pro Bowl caliber players. I really think the center is a great player. I think we're getting better on the line.
"I think Earnest Graham, what he's done, speaks volumes about the kind of man he is and the football player he is. Defensively speaking, our secondary, those guys are for real. And our linebacking corps, those guys are outstanding players. Tanard Jackson — I hope some of these guys get the recognition they deserve. Barrett Ruud, I hope he gets the recognition."
So what do the Bucs have to do to challenge for the Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl XLIII at Raymond James Stadium?
Get healthy: Fullback B.J. Askew will miss his sixth game due to a hamstring tear today. His backup, Byron Storer, is on injured reserve with a torn right ACL. Jameel Cook, who hadn't played in Tampa Bay since '05, isn't up to speed on the offense.
That meant Graham had to move to fullback. And it resulted in more carries for Warrick Dunn, which led to a pinched nerve in his back that will likely keep him out today.
"Warrick and I were in there for a while, and we were kind of feeding off each other," Graham said. "Then everything that happened, injuries (to Storer) and B.J., you got out of that pattern. We've just got to get back in that rhythm. We need to get this game and get some guys healthy."
The Bucs have been without Joey Galloway most of the season. It'll be interesting to see what he and Antonio Bryant can do the second half.
Play better on the road: The Bucs have lost eight of their past 12 road games and are 1-3 this season. Worse yet, Tampa Bay's offense has scored just two touchdowns on the road.
When you consider that the Bucs have lost at home in the wild-card round of the playoffs twice in the past three years, the prospect of doing anything in the postseason on the road is daunting.
"But we've got to win some big games," Gruden said. "We've got to play better on the road. But I like this team. They're together, they play hard. We have some young players playing, too. We're building our team just like everybody else is. There's been some real positive signs. Obviously, there are some areas we'd like to clean up and get better at. Health has a lot to do with that, too. You've got to get your team healthy, and the best players have to play for you to play your best."
Beat Carolina: It's a safe bet the season will come down to the Monday Night Football game at Carolina on Dec. 8. If the Bucs win, they will own a sweep of the Panthers and the first tiebreaker.
The Panthers have tough road games to navigate the second half — at Green Bay, at the New York Giants and at New Orleans.