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Middleton still talking the talk

But now the outspoken guard is beginning to back up his words with strong play.

He can be only one way, and that's Frank.

He'll tell you what he thinks. Make jokes when he wants. Talk trash with whomever he pleases.

On the football field, Bucs right guard Frank Middleton is determined, dirty and derogatory. And he doesn't give a dang about what his critics think or what they say.

"Randall McDaniel is a nice guy who doesn't do the things I do," said Middleton, in his fourth season out of Arizona. "I do stuff above and beyond the call of duty. I look at myself sometimes and say, "Why did I do that?' I take shots. If you give me a shot, I'm going to take it. No matter where it's at on your body. Rib shot, knee shot, ankle shot. Wherever, I'm going to take it."

After three years of perfecting his bad-boy approach to blocking, the 6-foot-3, 334-pound Middleton has a reputation in the league. He is known, teammates say, not just for taking a shot at a player but also for reminding him about it many plays later.

"Among the guys, he already has a reputation for being dirty," right tackle Jerry Wunsch said. "But that's the way Frank plays, and he can't play any other way. Guys have different styles of playing. Frank's style is to get in your face and play football. He wants to be talking, blowing people up, getting after people.

"If he changes, it wouldn't be effective for Frank. You would be asking him to be something that he is not. He likes people to be thinking all the time. As long as you're on the field, he wants you to be thinking, "Where's Frank Middleton?' That's one tone he has set for our team."

Once against the Vikings, Wunsch said, he was getting ready to block John Randle and heard Middleton berating the defensive end before the snap, even though it was Wunsch's assignment to deal with Randle.

"He was over there talking to John all the time," Wunsch said. "He was like, "Hey, John, don't bring that weak (stuff) back in here. Don't come in here because I'll be here next time.' There have been times when I have had my guy set and all of a sudden Frank will come flying out of nowhere and blind side the guy. It's his favorite thing to do. And he'll say, "That's what I'm talking about.' "

But talk is cheap. Players and coaches are less impressed by someone's ability to lay down smack than by his ability to do his job. For every sound bite of bravado, the player better be ready to back it up with a moment for the highlight reel.

This season, in the final year of his contract, Middleton is doing backing up his talk. His run blocking has been outstanding, and his pass blocking has improved. He had a solid preseason and hasn't slowed.

"Frank has (paid) a little more attention to detail and has worked very hard," coach Tony Dungy said. "I think he understands a little more about professional football. He's just been very sharp. He's blocked his game very well and made very few errors."

None of it is by accident. Middleton has steadily improved since the Bucs made him a third-round draft selection in 1997. Entering this season, he had added incentives to improve. Not only is Middleton in the final year of his contract, he also is being pushed by rookie Cosey Coleman, the first player the Bucs drafted this year.

"You know when you're going to be homeless in a few weeks or a few months," Middleton joked. "You know when those things are right around the corner, and some people do get up for that, or after a big signing. But my (family) is all the inspiration I need."

Middleton said he is not offended by the the opinion that his game has picked up because he is in the final year of his contract. He said he wants to return to the Bucs but knows he has options.

"Even if I don't have a good year, someone's going to pick me up," Middleton said. "They way things are going right now, you can give up seven sacks a game and still get picked up. I mean, just look around the league Some of the offensive linemen are awful. I'm thinking of the 30-something teams; I can beat somebody out. But really, it's not like I have to do this because it's a contract year. It's just time for me to grow up."

Middleton is the healthiest he has been since joining the Bucs. Hampered by ankle and shoulder problems for years, Middleton had surgery in March on both ankles and his right shoulder.

"I had bone spurs everywhere," Middleton said. "They opened me up, and bone spurs started flying around the operating room."

Wunsch said there has been a noticeable change in Middleton since he reported to training camp.

"He's flying around," Wunsch said. "I think he's more comfortable with what we're doing, and he's got the confidence now that he's healthy. It's a snowball that's rolling down the hill and getting bigger and bigger."

Dungy recently said Middleton has the physical ability to be a Pro Bowl guard.

Though flattered by the praise, Middleton said he has no thoughts of the Pro Bowl. By his thinking, linemen have to pay their dues before being considered.

"If I can look at film and watch the right guard from Washington get whupped every play and he can make (the Pro Bowl) again this year, I can say, "Okay, everyone liked him,' " Middleton said. "(Sunday) some unnamed guy ran down the field and didn't hit anyone. If I had done it, they would say Frank Middleton missed his block.

"People are going to say what they want to say, so I'm not going to suck up to them just for them to like me. I'm not going to blind side you and help you up and say vote for me please. Coaches and owners, they know who can play football."