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Bucs deserve new offensive leader

Tony Dungy was never close to quitting the Bucs over the Mike Shula firing.

There should be no Tampa Bay community concern over the popular coach becoming so angry that he says, "I obviously don't have ultimate control over who's on my staff, so I have no choice. I'm outta here!"

Though the coach would not have pulled the trigger on Shula without the urging of general manager Rich McKay, with nods from ownership Glazers, you can bank on this: Mike never would have been jettisoned without Tony's okay.

Dungy's no puppet.

He has lost no power scrimmage. I see no sign of coaching weakness, only of Tony's rare level of personal concern for a professional associate Tony talked into joining the Bucs in 1996.

There surely was talk of wiping out the Bucs offensive staff. That, if forced by McKay/Glazers, could have nudged Dungy toward resignation. But there's no way McKay would have allowed it to go that far. Shula appears to be a compromise sacrifice.

Life goes on.

Next challenge for the Bucs is replacing Shula. There is extreme pressure to make it work this time. There is a parallel need to upgrade players, beginning with an offensive line that is among the NFL's half-dozen poorest.

Mike's successor will come from outside. Don't look for Clyde Christensen (quarterbacks coach), Chris Foerster (offensive line) Tony Nathan (running backs) or Charlie Williams (receivers) to be promoted.

I've got one strong prospect, even though he may not be interested: St. Louis quarterbacks coach John Ramsdell. Mike Martz, the Rams coordinator who has replaced Dick Vermeil, will continue to make the calls for his Kurt Warner/Marshall Faulk offense.

Ramsdell's effect has been obvious with the Super Bowl champion's creative, productive philosophy. Another bright possibility is Jim Zorn, who coaches Detroit's quarterbacks.

I'm not sure if Dungy, who will call the shot, as specified in his contract, would see Zorn's experience as adequate to be a coordinator. Even if the old Seahawks left-hander has a portfolio at least as ample as that of Shula when he was hired from the Bears.

Dungy has a plum to offer. There is sure to be heavy interest among assistants from 30 other franchises. Everybody knows about Tampa Bay's defensive might. New guy gets an imposing partner. It's like being asked to become the wrestling tag-team cohort of King Kong.

Don't expect a decision on Shula's replacement until well after Dungy returns from Hawaii. Prospects will be sorted, analyzed and interviewed. Tony will call around the NFL, asking opinions.

Lots of care taken.

Searching for Mr. Touchdown.

When a candidate is brought to Tampa, he will be asked about specifics, like getting more consistent production from running backs Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott. Dungy and McKay will want to know ideas about working with Shaun King, who will be a second-year quarterback.

One thing I always had trouble discerning was Tony's effect, as a quite conservative coach, on the philosophies of Shula. I know Dungy asked Mike for a run-first plan. More ball control than is today's NFL norm. Passing more as a changeup maneuver than a constant diet.

But when it came to the actual run/pass mix, or calling specific plays, or ordering whatever blocking schemes, you can bet Tony left that to his coordinator. With results too steeped in shortfall.

Tampa Bay's coach and GM should be cheered for making a move on Shula that was personally difficult for both, especially Tony.

It would've been a pity to see the Bucs defense grow old and/or become less imposing without having been provided the best possible vehicle for a Super Bowl ride.

If the new Tampa Bay offensive chief can perk up the league's 28th-ranked offense, to even 15th or 20th, the Bucs should make a stout run at Super Bowl XXXV, to be played on their home grass at Raymond James Stadium.

Look how close the Bucs came, despite struggling to score more than two TDs per start. Losing an 11-6 heartbender in St. Louis. In five games this season, Tampa Bay went without an offensive touchdown.

Statistics can lie, but in Shula's case the numbers were lethal. Fourth-worst offense in the league, coming up a touchdown shy of making Super Bowl XXXIV. Just one franchise had a worse passing game.

Too predictable. Too stoppable.

For four seasons the Bucs were dragged down by offensive deficiencies. This isn't like the Ray Rhodes deal in Green Bay, being bounced after one season.

Shula's ejection is most justified, even if the timing was rather odious. When some of us media people saw Dungy in Atlanta two days before the Super Bowl, I'm convinced he knew. Tony made an uncharacteristic crack about a shortage of mystery with Tampa Bay's offensive schemes.

If that's true, Shula should've been told before flying across five time zones to Honolulu. Thinking as he flew with fellow Tampa Bay coaches, about a few sweet days of Pro Bowl fraternizing, getting some sun and looking forward to the 2000 season with the Bucs.

Dungy epitomizes loyalty to a fault. He now suffers from deep agony. Tony never had fired an assistant. He is in Hawaii, but there is pain in paradise. Dungy might as well be beached in Siberia or purgatory.

Tony can't quit thinking about Mike. Whatever the shortage of Bucs touchdown production, Shula is a good guy who merits the most soulful considerations. Handsome and recently married. His dad is the pro football coach with the most wins. Mike doesn't deserve to be abused. He got a huge chance from Dungy in 1996 and worked extraordinarily hard to make it successful. Shula, we must conclude, was deemed to be in over his head. McKay, then eventually Dungy, did what was necessary.

Dungy embraces all ramifications. Acids torment the stomach of a rare boss in professional sports, one who truly cares.