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Biggest weakness being addressed

Hours after the Bucs won Super Bowl XXXVII, offensive line coach Bill Muir was told he was a hero by several members of the coaching staff.

Why? It should be obvious by now.

Even above re-signing linebacker Shelton Quarles, the Bucs' priority in the offseason has been to revamp the offensive line.

Starting center Jeff Christy and backup Todd Washington were released. Giants free agent Jason Whittle signed a five-year, $8.2-million contract and could push Cosey Coleman out of a job at right guard. Jaguars center John Wade could be the next addition. Left guard Kerry Jenkins struggled with injuries.

Tampa Bay is trying to re-sign left tackle Roman Oben, its most consistent offensive lineman. Only he and right tackle Kenyatta Walker, who began the season in the doghouse, showed improvement. And the Bucs are interested in Broncos free agent Blake Brockermeyer as a backup to both tackle positions.

"Jon (Gruden) and Bill did a nice job of simplifying things, and I think we got better as the season went on," general manager Rich McKay said recently.

But coaches ask themselves: How did we win a Super Bowl with that offensive line?

OBSESSION: It has been said of Gruden that he falls in love with every veteran, and this offseason is no exception.

Although the Bucs realize there's almost no chance of signing him, former Steeler and free agent Kordell Stewart topped Gruden's quarterback wish list.

"Jon loves a lot of players," McKay said. "Of course he loves Kordell's talent. But we know he's going to go somewhere for a lot of money as a starter."

Stewart, 30, has been offered a contract by the Bears and the Cardinals.

Another player linked to Bucs rumors is former Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith.

It makes sense that Smith would want to return to his home state. The Bucs don't want to trample on the legend, but they would consider Smith only if he were willing to play for minimum salary as a backup to Michael Pittman.

Under that scenario most Bucs officials would just as soon see the 33-year-old Smith retire.

IT MAKES SENSE NOW: If you're wondering why Brad Johnson insisted the Bucs honor his $1.5-million guaranteed salary in 2004, take a look at Giants defensive back Jason Sehorn.

The Bucs tried to convince Johnson that even without the guaranteed money, he could not be cut or traded because of salary-cap implications. But teams cut players all the time, even if it means taking on dead money.

The Giants and Sehorn discussed reducing his salary to $1-million, but when he asked for the club to guarantee the money it refused and absorbed an $8-million hit on the salary cap.

If ever there was a case for Johnson's stance, that was it.

BIG BUCS: Simeon Rice's five-year, $41-million contract, which included a record-setting $20-million in bonuses by March of 2004, will have a ripple effect.

Rice led the NFC in sacks with 15{ and perhaps was the league's premier pass rusher. But he plays next to defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who has a year left on his contract that pays him $6-million in 2003. Sapp, 30, is seeking an extension that would allow him to play his entire career for Tampa Bay. If he demands a bonus or guaranteed salary close to Rice's deal, the Bucs may balk.

Already talks have started on a new contract for defensive tackle Anthony McFarland, the youngest member of the defense at age 25, who also has one year left on his original deal.

McFarland will earn $2.2-million next season thanks to about $1.7-million in escalating clauses.

Sapp's age, plus the fact his sack total has not eclipsed 7{ in a season since 2000, makes determining his value difficult. But he is the identity of the defense.

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