Garner's loss is the epitomy of the Bucs
He is old. He is fading. Whatever he has left, he has kept it a secret. Why, then, does the loss of Charlie Garner sting so deeply? He has seen few holes. He has shown little flash. On a rickety, creaking offense, he seemed to fit right in. Why, then, does the moment feel so final?

On a field he once owned, in front of fans he once thrilled, Garner lay crumpled in pain. The patellar tendon in his right knee was torn. His season was over. Just like that, and you felt his absence a lot more than you ever felt his presence. As plays go, this one looked ordinary. Garner swept right for a loss of 1, which pretty much sums up his career in Tampa Bay. This time, his right leg gave way, and players from both teams rushed to him. When they brought out the cart for him, it was almost as if they packed the last hope of a lost offense alongside him and hauled them both away. Two games, two quarters and 30 carries into his new job, Garner was gone. Initially, the Bucs called it a sprain, but that was wishful thinking. It never looked like a sprain. What it looked like, maybe, was a career.

Who carries the hope for this team now? Don't trust the late outburst in Sunday night's 30-20 loss to the Raiders. That was an illusion. On offense, the Bucs remain rusty, rooted and rotten. Just you watch. As for Garner, he had not done much. He had not said much. As running backs go, he has been a temporary solution at best. With him in the backfield, however, there was at least a possibility that this team might scare somebody somewhere along the line. Garner had spent his career running free. If the offense jelled and the line got better and the quarterback got time, perhaps Garner could have found daylight again. Perhaps.

Certainly, that seemed to be what Jon Gruden had in mind when the Bucs signed him. It is a dangerous game, signing 32-year-old backs who are coming off knee surgery and placing them behind newly constructed lines. It is especially dangerous to use those backs as the primary ball carriers rather than pick their spots. Wouldn't it have been better for the Bucs to pursue Thomas Jones, who seems to gain 100 yards every day in Chicago, including Tuesdays? Wouldn't it have been better to pool the money and invest it in a player who may still be in the offensive huddle in two years? (Answer: Of course.)

Ah, but Gruden had coached Garner twice before, and he seemed enchanted with the idea of having the man he calls "Instant Offense." The thing is, nobody knew what Garner had left, not Gruden and not Garner and certainly not anyone who has watched the Bucs through three games. Perhaps Garner was done; perhaps not. Who could tell? Behind this line, surrounded by these weapons, it's hard for a running back to make the highlight reel. But at least Garner had the 25-yard run against the Seahawks, the 31-yard reception against the Raiders. There are 13 games left, but for those two plays, Garner might still win the team's offensive MVP award.

In other words, he didn't make you notice him nearly enough, but Garner at least made you reserve judgment. He allowed you just a sliver, a thin one, things might get a little better as the year went along. He had been such a playmaker through his career, averaging more than 1,000 yards rushing and more than 70 catches over a four-year stretch, it's hard to believe he is completely empty.

When the Bucs played the Raiders in the Super Bowl two years ago, it was Garner who made the defensive coaches nervous. As all-around backs go, there was Marshall Faulk of the Rams, then there was Garner. That was then, however. This is now. In fairness, Garner has not been raw electricity with the Bucs. He has looked like a once great athlete at closing time. He looked like a man who wanted one more cup of coffee before the check came. On the other hand, what do you do without him? Hold your breath until Michael Pittman returns? Move Chris Simms to running back?

In some ways, the loss of Garner shows how bare the talent is on the Bucs' offense. Given the talent, given the salary cap, they seem at least two years from any real spark. In other words, get used to the sight. If you believe in fate, perhaps Garner's career was meant to end in Oakland. They love him here. Before the game, there were fans in a corner of the end zone still wearing his jersey. Garner ran to them, hopping and slapping palms, rekindling the bond.

Today, it will be hard for Bucs fans not to envy what those fans saw of Garner. He was a great player in Oakland, a great player in San Francisco, a very good player in Philadelphia. He made electric runs and fantastic catches. In Tampa Bay, fans saw none of it. He was another veteran, like Anthony Munoz and James Brooks, who stopped by. He ran 30 times for 111 yards. He caught nine passes for 62 more. There has not been time to learn his voice or memorize his jersey number.

Who knows? Perhaps Garner comes back next year. Perhaps he surprises us all. Perhaps not. If not, they paid him too much. They used him too often. They didn't get him enough help. Why, then, does it feel as if he left too soon?

Gary Shelton The St.Petersburg Times 27 September 2004