Key, Gruden Slowly Building Some Trust
On the surface, it's hard to understand why someone catching just his second touchdown pass in 22 games matters all that much. Of course, his only one last season won a game. And his one Sunday jump-started a lumbering offense and put his team ahead to stay. Leave it to Keyshawn. Derrick Brooks has scored three touchdowns to Keyshawn Johnson's one. We're not sure the Bucs even need an offense, by the looks of the William Tecumseh Defense they unleashed in Atlanta on Sunday. Michael needed Vick vaporub for his shoulder. The Falcons were parakeets.

But Keyshawn mattered. Even with all that defense, he managed to matter. He knew he would as he lined up late in the third quarter. A single Atlanta defender, Juran Bolden, was on him, and playing back. Brad Johnson threw it up perfectly. The rest is the longest touchdown catch of Keyshawn's career - 76 yards. Bolden wiped out and couldn't pursue. ``I wish the guy would have stayed on his feet and chased me,'' Keyshawn Johnson said. ``I wanted to pull away from him.''

Maybe he pulled Jon Gruden closer. ``That's all it's about,'' Gruden said later. ``Make the play.''

Keyshawn made the play. Made the play we haven't seen him make here very much, for whatever reason. He went vertical. He ran away. We have no idea what it means for him and the offense or him and Gruden or him and anything. Nor does Keyshawn. Nor did that matter Sunday. All you need to know is the afternoon began with reporters crowded around two televisions in the Georgia Dome press box before the game. On one screen, Jimmy Johnson interviewed Gruden. On another screen, Jamal Anderson interviewed Keyshawn, all in the name of the story that got its legs when the coach and catcher snapped in the Monday night limelight.

Gruden smiled with J.J. and complimented Keyshawn. Keyshawn hung with Jamal and said nice things. Tape recorders shut down. Notepads slammed shut. For a reporter, it was worse than a buffet closing. Keyshawn said nothing. He spoke on the field. The Falcons led 6-3 and it felt like it could end 6-3. It felt like the Bucs were going to waste this magnificent defense.

Keyshawn mattered. And Gruden knew it. ``We kept punching, we kept punching, and Keyshawn Johnson delivered the big blow,'' he said. ``We're building a relationship,'' Keyshawn said. ``Whether that relationship works or not, who knows? But so far we're 4-1. It works for me.''

``This was big for Keyshawn,'' said Bucs receiver Keenan McCardell, whose presence and talent helps Keyshawn on every play. McCardell is getting to know Gruden, too. It's about trust. ``It's always about trust,'' McCardell said.

It's always about trust between any coach and any player. No matter what they say, Gruden and Keyshawn aren't totally there yet. Keyshawn doesn't think Gruden completely understands him. Gruden thinks Keyshawn fights him on everything. And there was Keyshawn missing organized team activities in the spring, or Key's whole West Coast thing, or Keyshawn's 106 catches last year with only one score. A tiny voice inside Gruden's head must say: Hey, make a play.

Everyone thinks it's easier because Keyshawn jawed with Bill Parcells and Gruden often squared off with Rich Gannon. I think it makes it harder at first. Gruden isn't Parcells. Keyshawn isn't Gannon. These are two different guys. They have to work through that, because this offense works better with Keyshawn in it. Not running it, like last season, but in it. The man still hasn't caught the ball in the red zone.

Gruden used him all sorts of ways Sunday, always a plus in the current, predictable, can't-run offense. One way was a route where Keyshawn made the grab and kept his feet in. Great play. And there was the way that went 76 yards. Does it mean they get each other? Does it mean trust? ``It means it's coming,'' Keyshawn said. They're 4-1. Works for them.

Martin Fennelly The Tampa Tribune October 2002