Rising Standards
No one is quite sure what it is the Bucs owners want from Jon Gruden this season. Surely, they want to see their team improve under his guidance, but the degree of improvement Gruden needs to obtain to keep his job remains a mystery.

Whatever the answer, Gruden isn't leaving anything to chance. That, at least, was the feeling you got while listening to him in the wake of the Bucs' seemingly convincing 24-3 victory against the Rams at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday.

Even after winning for the second time in as many weeks, even after seeing his defense shut down one of the league's more potent offenses, even after watching his offense close out the game with heretofore uncharacteristic aplomb, Gruden still wasn't satisfied.

'It's still not good enough,' Gruden said in a demanding tone. 'The goal here is to win a championship, and you're not going to do that by turning the ball over at your own 15-yard line in a 10-0 game. You're not going to win the Super Bowl if you're not able to score touchdowns on defense and make some real quick three-and-out stops and create field position for your offensive football team.

'Turning a team around and having more wins than last year - that's for losers. That's a loser coach talking to you. We want to win a championship, and we want to win it this year. It's bold, but that's our objective.'

Gruden may argue the point, but the Bucs seem to be on their way to possibly meeting that objective. At 2-1, they are tied for first in the NFC South with a game against fellow-division leader Carolina next Sunday in Charlotte.

But to win there and keep their modest two-game winning streak alive, the Bucs will have to play better in several areas on both sides of the ball. And it's not just Gruden who's saying that. 'It's never good enough, and that's the mentality you have to have,' cornerback Ronde Barber said. 'As soon as you feel like you've got it, you're on a descending path. We want to keep searching for the ceiling. That's how we'll find out if this is how we're really going to play or if we've just hit a hot streak.'

If it is just a hot streak, it's one of the hottest the Bucs have hit in a while. They had one two-game winning streak last year, but their combined margin of victory in those games was three points. The Bucs have won these last two games by a combined score of 55-17, and both were accentuated by a punishing defensive style established early in the contests.

The Rams got their message early in the second quarter when receiver Isaac Bruce was temporarily knocked out of the game by a vicious hit delivered by safety Jermaine Phillips. That hit and interceptions by Phillips, cornerback Phillip Buchanon and middle linebacker Barrett Ruud helped the Bucs keep the Rams out of the end zone on a day when they moved the ball on the ground. They did that by running Steven Jackson up the gut. While Jackson gained 115 yards behind a patchwork offensive line, he needed 30 carries to do it, and his longest gain was 14 yards.

'We've eliminated a lot of the mistakes we were making last year, and the physical part of our game is back,' Barber said. 'It's sort of like 2002 again, with guys flying around, creating turnovers and having fun.'

As fun as it might have been for the Bucs, who gave up 245 yards, it still wasn't good enough. To reach the standard Gruden wants, the defense needs to get the ball back for the offense more quickly, it needs to get to the quarterback more and it needs to score.

As for the offense, the fact that it took until well into the second half to reach the end zone was one of the things Gruden didn't like about that effort. It wasn't that the Bucs didn't move the ball, as they gained 322 total yards. It's that they didn't hold on to it very well. Wideouts Ike Hilliard and Michael Clayton both dropped catchable balls, and Clayton fumbled the one he did catch.

Cadillac Williams also lost a fumble, that coming on a first-and-10 from the Rams' 33-yard line early in the fourth quarter and Tampa Bay holding a 10-0 lead. Williams, who scored earlier in the game, never saw the field again, leaving some to question whether he'll continue to see it as much as he has.

After watching Earnest Graham run eight times for 75 yards and two touchdowns as a replacement for Williams down the stretch, Gruden said he likely will revisit the way he doles out carries to his backs. 'He's run the ball well when he's been given the ball,' Gruden said of Graham. 'So now we have to put our minds together and figure out how to get him a little more involved, because he's obviously deserving of the football. But that's a good problem to have.'

Here's a better one: winning when you don't play your best football. The Bucs did that Sunday against the winless Rams, winning a game when they didn't get to the passer the way they'd like, didn't get off the field as fast as they should and didn't hold onto the ball as well as they need to. 'We're playing pretty good,' Gruden said. 'It's not like we're laying an egg out there. But we have to do better. Like I said, our goal is to win a championship.'

Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune 24 September 2007