Yoder? Heller? Mystery Men Help Give Offense A Spark
The Tampa Tribune, published 13 October 2003

The Bucs were running out of players on offense so fast, quarterback Brad Johnson admitted he didn't even know who was in the game about half the time. Looked like it, too. For a time Sunday at FedEx Field, the bloated injury list made it seem entirely possible we were seeing the end of a championship era. No Mike Alstott, Joe Jurevicius. Where have you gone Rickey Dudley? Karl Williams? Oh, and Ken Dilger got hurt too, not long after the game began. But out of the gloom and sputtering on a fabulously perfect fall afternoon, we saw instead the emergence of: Todd Yoder. Go-to guy. Or Will Heller. Take your pick.

How deeply Jon Gruden had to dig into his playbook to find two touchdown passes to Yoder we may never know, but chances are they were somewhere north of the neighborhood for the one he found for Heller, whoever he is. Whatever works.

As the Bucs left town with a 35-13 victory against the Washington Redskins, all you could do is marvel at Gruden's bold play-calling. That, and reach for the media guide to find out more about whoever those two guys were catching touchdown passes. Think of Yoder and, well, you really don't. He blocks well and helps out on special teams. They say he plays tight end. Think of Heller, a rookie from Georgia Tech, and ... well, you probably don't do that much, either. He's a tight end too. They had combined for one catch totaling 8 yards between them coming into this game. Yoder got that one. ``I've never been in this state,'' Gruden said. ``Really, we left training camp feeling great about Dudley and Dilger [at tight end], two guys who helped us win a Super Bowl, and neither one of them played today really. Mike Alstott, in spite of his statistics on paper, is a key guy here as a leader. He's a big-time player for us. You lose Jurevicius, who's become a clutch go-to guy for us, we lose Karl Williams, we didn't know about Keyshawn. It ain't easy, man.''

It had been a frightful week, with daily yaps about blowing the game to Indianapolis and the scary medical updates. The Bucs answered all this the way champions should and it sent us all stampeding to find Yoder, which obviously doesn't happen very often. ``I'm a happy guy right now,'' he said, as well he should be. These were his first and second NFL touchdown catches in this, his fourth year as a pro.

It was, perhaps, the best show of team depth and Gruden's cunning that we yet have seen. ``Jon's pretty darned good,'' safety John Lynch said. ``Since the beginning of this season, one of our strengths has been that deuce, or two-tight end package. It lets Jon really tinker with defenses. A lot of Jon's genius on offense is that he can really dictate to a defense what they can do. You get into that deuce package, and they're shifting guys all around. Then you get into bootlegs [from Johnson], and the tight ends are wide open.''

They were, too. Part of it is Gruden's willingness and ability to adjust on the fly. After Dilger went down, a lot of coaches would eliminate the tight ends from anything that didn't involve blocking, but not Gruden. On the first TD to Yoder, he had Warren Sapp and guard Kerry Jenkins lined up as eligible receivers, and running back Michael Pittman executed a tremendous fake and dive from the 1-yard line. The Redskins forgot all about Yoder. Gruden didn't.

Sure, he might have had only seven pro catches before Sunday, but he caught 80 passes in four seasons at Vanderbilt, including 25 and two touchdowns as a senior. Think Gruden knew that? It's almost too good to know that he holds a degree in chemistry, because he surely brings that to the Bucs. ``I just work hard,'' he said. ``When I got my opportunity, I'm glad I could take advantage of it. It makes you feel good.''

In the fourth quarter, with the Bucs leading by just 14-13, it was Heller's turn to catch a 4-yard touchdown. But it wouldn't have happened had not you-know-who made a fine catch and stretch for a first down on third-and-eight at Washington's 14. In case you don't know who, it was Yoder. The Bucs needed this. Really needed it. Until they can get healthy on offense, until Jurevicius, Williams, and maybe even Dudley can come back, the Bucs will need help from the Yoders and Hellers. ``[Offensive line coach] Bill Muir said it best last night,'' Gruden said. ``He said every year in the NFL, you're going to read about seven to 10 guys who explode on the scene, guys who have been obscure players.''

The two who exploded Sunday couldn't have been any more obscure, and that's the point. Like Gruden said, it ain't easy, man. But it sure was fun to watch. Whoever those guys were.