Offensive woes set off wave of worry for fans
They were 3-0, averaging 31 points a game. Tampa Bay was wowing Pro Football America. Agonizing, infamous, long-term Bucs offensive ailments seemed to be abating. Tony Dungy said, "Wait a few more weeks, until mid-season, when everything's in place. We're going to be much better." Listening to the coach, a Super Bowl-hungry Florida community went into mass salivation. Seems too long ago.

It's now October. Instead of overdrive, the offense has clunked into reverse. Floundering backward, to old habits of low production, low creativity and low hopes. With back-to-back flops against the Jets and Redskins, the Bucs are 3-2. Still, it's premature to figure Tampa Bay 2000 is going down the NFL drain. What might November bring? Will they be alive in January?

"Obviously we're not getting it done," said Keyshawn Johnson, a $56-million receiver who is making about $5.60 worth of impact. "Maybe we're just not good enough. It's still early. We'll figure it out. Don't start to panic. I'm not. We're not going to let fans or negative media get to us."

Who does he mean? Frank Middleton, a 334-pound offensive guard, had a more stinging analysis after a 20-17 overtime death against Washington. "We s---," he said of the offense. "Opposing defenses are outplaying us. We're doing nothing to get better. It's a preview of where things are going if we don't correct the problems."

Your teammate, Keyshawn. Negative, but not media. Many of us will be dipping into the buckets of Bucs blame. There is plenty to splatter offensive players and coaches. Outsiders can only scream, guess and wonder. It's up to Dungy's employees. "I'm not thinking about any division race or playoffs," Johnson said, "I would just like to get a game won."

On that, he's right. Is it the offensive schemes, even with this season's new designs of coordinator Les Steckel? We can't keep blaming Mike Shula. Maybe it's Middleton and his line studs, who must block better. Keyshawn and receivers are inconsistent.

But the loudest public/media bellowing, between here and Minnesota, will unquestionably be about quarterback Shaun King. He made a few heroic Sunday plays, squirming and muscling away from Redskins tacklers to trigger gains that would allow an ill- fated opportunity at 17-all. But, assessing the entire 3 1/2 hours, King was well below a respectable plateau.

King was a bundle of inaccuracy. Three times in two games, the sad stuff against the Jets and Redskins, he has had Jacquez Green behind all defenders but failed to effectively deliver the football. Worse yet, he is missing many short passes. After the high feelings after wins over New England, Chicago and Detroit, even the easy stuff has become hard for King. Confidence is fine, he says. I'm not sure what to believe.

Middleton was asked about the late 10-point surge. "Maybe the Redskins got tired," said the large gent from Arizona. "Maybe they knew we s--- on offense and didn't worry about us catching up. "We've got to get better."

You wonder, has Steckel's playcalling gone especially conservative due to eroding confidence in King and his 10 mates? Are they playing scared? A philosophical back-off seemed to occur in the second half a week earlier against the Jets, when Tampa Bay wound up blowing an 11- point lead in the final 120 seconds. Dungy says no. That decaying confidence isn't a factor. Maybe so, but considerable repairs, physically and mentally, are needed if the Bucs are to have much of a shot a week from tonight against the Vikings.

We're not expecting the Rams. Nobody is asking for 35 points per. If the Bucs could only have been offensively mediocre against New York and Washington, they would be 5-0. Looking ahead to a fat Monday night ego pump at Minnesota. With a definite Super Bowl XXXV aroma.

But, instead of mid-season click, the Bucs are into a scary offensive clunk. Instead of 5-0 joy and bravado, you see worry on Tampa Bay faces going into the Minnesota challenge. Fearful that a 3- 0 will become a 3-3. Greasing the skid.

Okay, a little credit. They almost bailed out Sunday against the Redskins. As darkness fell on Maryland, the Bucs found offensive energy. King created some plays. Incredibly, they scrambled out of a 17-7 hole, forcing overtime. But, just when a lemon seemed to be turning into lemonade, precarious Bucs timbers would give way. Offensively, they went three and out in OT. Punting. Deion Sanders warmed his aging, declining bones for a killer return, permitting former Tampa Bay kicker Michael Husted the honor of putting frowns on the faces of old friends. Leaving the Bucs wondering.

Hubert Mizell , The St.Petersburg Times 2000