This offense still doesn't pass
Gary Shelton, The St.Petersburg Times, published 20 September 1999

Eventually, it comes to this. It is not only how a team moves the ball, but where it intends upon winding up. With that in mind, it should be said that the Bucs' offense Sunday was something swell. It was strong enough, it was big enough, it was efficient enough. Provided, of course, what one has in mind is winning the Philadelphia City Championship. For anything grander than that, this offense is going to need jumper cables.

As they say, it isn't deja vu if you have been here before. This time, the tired, familiar sight of the offense sputtering came in Philadelphia, and it is only the team's good fortune that the offense is not in charge of driving them home. The Bucs won, 19-5, falling in line as one of the 13 or 14 teams that will beat the Eagles this year (insert rip-roaring cheer here). But about that offensive performance?

Well, it certainly was. You know the story about Achilles' heel? Well, this is the entire left side of Achilles' body, acupunctured with poisoned darts. This is the Little Engine That Couldn't. This is not going to do it. Not against the good teams, certainly not against the very good ones. There is neither sufficient power in the engine nor gas in the tank to take this team where it wants to go. This is an offense that is out of rhythm, out of sync, and one would think from looking at it, out of Cleveland.

"We think our offense is going to come on," coach Tony Dungy said. Again. "We just aren't in rhythm," quarterback Trent Dilfer said. Again. "We have a long way to go," offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. Again.

The usual suspects, the usual comments. Unfortunately, the usual results. The best thing you can say about this offense? It managed to keep the opposing defense out of the end zone. It reduced its gift points from 17 to 2. And it was better than the Eagles. Oh, the offense has power. We see it when the offensive line has to block against eight-man fronts. Oh, it has speed. We see it when the players have to chase down various defensive backs following interceptions. What it does not have is cohesion. What it does not have is clout. From the looks of it, what it does not have is confidence in its quarterback.

The Bucs ran from Trent Dilfer on Sunday. They might as well have hidden his playbook and changed the locks on the meeting rooms for all the involvement he had in this game. On the most beautiful, still afternoon you could imagine, against a team that is much better at defending the run than the pass, they went out to filter Dilfer as much from the game as possible. He passed all of 14 times, only four of them in the second half.

For the record, Dungy said that wasn't his purpose, that he was not afraid of his own quarterback. Dungy hasn't been happy with his running game, he said, since training camp began, and he wanted to use this game to establish it. He was convinced, he said, the Bucs could pop some big runs on the Eagles. Still, 14 passes? What? When Dungy made the game plan, did he think there was going to be a snowstorm? "I told the team earlier in the week there were going to be some ugly plays," Dungy said. "We weren't playing to make it look exciting, or to make it look like fun. We were playing to win."

Which is fine and good. As long as the Eagles are on the other side of the field. Rumor is, the schedule gets more difficult. Eventually, the Bucs are going to have to turn to their quarterback. Right now, the game plan of every team in the NFL is to put the game in Dilfer's hands, except, it would appear, for Tampa Bay.

Take the Eagles. Every snap of the ball, and Philadephia's linebackers were running wind sprints toward the line of scrimmage. Six times on first down alone, they threw Bucs' runners for losses. Nine more times, the Bucs gained 2 yards or less. Now, mathematics suggest that if there are eight guys close enough to smell your chewing gum, perhaps the solution is to throw it on the other side of them. But even with his reduced attempts, Dilfer threw two more interceptions. "I've got to get better," said Dilfer. Again. "I've got to play better for us to win the big games, and I'll do that. We don't have that rhythm right now. Against a good football team, you have to have everything."

The bottom line to all of this, you see, is that you can't protect your quarterback. By running so much, the pressure builds on Dilfer with each succeeding down. Eventually, the Bucs have to trust him to throw enough to discourage the blitz to make the defense play honest to lessen the odds the offensive linemen face and make more daylight for the running backs. On the other hand, both of his interceptions were on first down, so he isn't exactly his own best witness.

But this isn't just about a quarterback or an offense. This is about a team and a goal. Right now, the thumb is up. Right now, the offense is along for the ride.