The Bucs Didn't Invent Winning Ugly, But They're Starting To Perfect It
Looking for tingling, spellbinding NFL drama? Better lower your standards. Otherwise, pull up a chair. You may be here a while. The Bucs' 12-9 win against the Carolina Panthers was like any other NFL game Sunday, except with the fun and exciting stuff cut out. Only if your tastes run more toward Demolition Derby than Daytona 500 was the afternoon anything but laborious.

The trouble with the Bucs and Panthers sending offensive teams onto the field at Ericsson Stadium was it took away valuable time from their defensive units. The Bucs came into the NFC South divisional meeting with the NFL's No. 1 defense and 24th-ranked offense. The Panthers arrived as the league's fourth-best defense and 25th-best offense. You do the math; fingers and a couple of toes will be more than enough to handle the count. The Panthers ripped and roared their way to 130 total yards - 15 of them in the first half. The Bucs managed 226. It wasn't offense. It was football interruptus. Official game reports indicated the offenses took the field. In any other business they'd call it a work stoppage. ``An ugly game to watch. An ugly game to play in,'' Rob Johnson said. ``You just had to fight through it.''

The Bucs did. Without scoring a touchdown. Four Martin Gramatica field goals did the trick. He hit from 32 yards in the first quarter and from 52, 53 and 47 in the fourth. Gramatica's third kick, tying the game 9-9, came with 1:55 left to play. The winning boot sailed through the uprights with 5 seconds on the clock. ``He is a weapon,'' Jon Gruden said. ``This is Barry Bonds. I say it every day: Put the ball down, protect him and he's going to hit three-run homers. He's going to do his little thing. We were able to do that today.''

The only problem is tomorrow's another day. ``We haven't been able to get the ball in the damned end zone,'' Gruden said. ``That's inexcusable. This was a physical defensive unit. In certain areas, we didn't do a good enough job blocking. You can't look in your little bag of tricks, or you can't wave your magic wand. We've got to do a hell of a lot better job. Until we do, it's going to be a grind-it-out, find-a- way-to-win type approach. I don't like it, but we're going to try to improve to where we are not like that.''

For reasons completely clear to no one, the Bucs have been sucked into an offensive scheme based on Chinese water torture. Slow and maddening. They can't run and they can't throw deep. Johnson, making his first start for the Bucs, in place of injured Brad Johnson, completed 22 of 33 passes for 179 yards. Two of the completions went to tight end Ken Dilger for 15 and 22 yards. Three others went to wideout Joe Jurevicius for 16, 15 and 14 yards. That means the other 17 completions netted a little more than 4 yards each. Rob or Brad, all Johnsons are starting to look alike by the numbers.

``Until you establish a consistent running game, where you can hand the ball off and make an occasional 12-yard run - forget the 3- and 4-yard run - or maybe a 15-yard run just to give you some juice and rhythm, so you don't have to always convert third-and- three or third-and-five ...'' Gruden said, his voice trailing off much like his team's offense. ``We've got to do a better job running the football, pass protecting, diagraming plays. We've got to do a better job playing and coaching in all areas. That's obvious to all of us.''

Nonetheless, no matter how it came about, there is no denying the Bucs' 6-2 start, which matches the best start in team history. And while the Bucs didn't invent winning ugly, few organizations have come to better symbolize the beauty of such madness. ``When you get in a game like that, the most important thing, obviously, is to win,'' Johnson said. ``Everyone would like to be putting up 40 points a game, but that's not us right now. We're finding ways to win. It's tough. It's frustrating, but you keep fighting. Hang in there until the fourth quarter and hopefully get the wins.''

They would like also to get a break. As Bucs general manager Rich McKay was leaving the press box following the game, he crossed paths with Fox television analyst and former Cowboys all-pro Troy Aikman. ``When is your team going to get to play a 26th-ranked defense?'' Aikman asked.

McKay smirked. ``Not soon enough,'' he said.

Mick Elliott The Tampa Tribune October 2002