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Averted: offensive overhaul

Bucs seek replacement for Mike Shula a day after Tony Dungy saves several coaches from unemployment.

As Bucs coaches grapple with the firing of offensive coordinator Mike Shula _ and word that the front office wanted all offensive assistants to go with him _ the club looks to the Super Bowl champions for a possible replacement.

Among the candidates on the short list is St. Louis Rams receivers coach Al Saunders.

Whoever becomes offensive coordinator under Tony Dungy likely will be working with several coaches who barely kept their jobs.

"It's disappointing. Very disappointing," running backs coach Tony Nathan said. "I mean, they did what they felt they needed to do.

"It was not just a guy, it would've been all of us had (Dungy) not stepped in. That's my understanding. That is disturbing. I mean, to get away from home and for it to happen here "

Though Dungy denies it, several assistants said Thursday that he might have considered resigning rather than be forced to fire half the coaching staff that has been intact since he was hired in '96.

"From what I understood, yes. It's a great credit to him," Nathan said.

Dungy said the decision to fire Shula ultimately was his. Shula's offense never ranked higher than 22nd overall and finished 28th last season.

"I made a decision (to fire Shula)," Dungy said. "It might not be the right one, but it was my decision."

Dungy said the remaining assistants will be offered contract extensions.

"Whether they accept them or not, that will be up to them," Dungy said. "But, hopefully, that will all be done when we get back."

The timing of Shula's firing irritated the assistants, who are leading the NFC squad in preparation for Sunday's Pro Bowl. With Shula gone, quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen will serve as offensive coordinator for the game.

The trip to Hawaii was supposed to be a reward for the coaching staff for producing the best season in Bucs history, one that culminated with an 11-6 loss to the Rams in the NFC Championship Game.

Wednesday, Dungy continued to support the job Shula did last season, especially considering the Bucs played the second half of the season with a third-string rookie quarterback and an inexperienced offensive line.

But he changed his tune after a conference call with the owners and general manager Rich McKay on Wednesday evening. By 10:30 EST, Shula was fired.

"The timing was tough," Dungy said. "But again, we just felt it was best for him to get a chance to get going and for us to get a chance to get going."

Shula's replacement will come from outside the organization. Dungy said he plans to interview at least four candidates by early next week and already has asked some teams for permission to interview assistants.

Rams coach Mike Martz said Dungy asked about Saunders and quarterbacks coach John Ramsdell.

"I think (Saunders would be interested)," Martz said. "He's done those things before, and he might be anxious to do it."

Saunders served as an assistant head coach and receivers coach in Kansas City under Marty Schottenheimer (1989-98) before going to the Rams last season. He coached with Dungy (1989-91) and Bucs defensive backs coach Herman Edwards (1992-94) in Kansas City.

Before going to Kansas City, Saunders was receivers coach, then head coach with the Chargers (1983-88).

As for Ramsdell "I think John probably nipped that one in the bud right away," Martz said. "I think John is very happy with what he is doing."

Ramsdell has never been an offensive coordinator. Before going to the Rams, he served as receivers coach at the University of Oregon from '83-94.

Rams quarterback Kurt Warner, the NFL and Super Bowl MVP, said he benefited from Ramsdell's coaching.

"He's a great guy," Warner said, "a guy who studies the game, a hard worker."

However, Warner was uncertain how Ramsdell would perform as an offensive coordinator.

"He's always been in somebody else's offense," Warner said.

It's hard to imagine the Bucs offense could be much worse than it was under Shula. Last seasonthe Bucs failed to score an offensive touchdown in five games, including the NFC Championship Game.

Shula returned to Tampa on Wednesday and could not be reached for comment.

"It's always difficult to make these kinds of decisions because it involves someone's livelihood and family," Dungy said. "We made this decision based on the criteria we use in making all football decisions, and that involves giving us the best chance to be successful.

"We would like to thank Mike for his efforts. He played a vital role in helping us reach the playoffs two of the last three years, including this year's run in the NFC Championship Game.

"It's tough. It's tough on all of us, but again, we just felt it would be the best way to go."