Champs Reside In Mediocre City
Joe Henderson, The Tampa Tribune, published 3 November 2003

Anyone can see something is wrong. Bad wrong. There is no Joe Jurevicius available on third-and-seven. Or when the Bucs need a yard for a first down, they can't hand the ball to Mike Alstott. Guys are moving all over the place on the offensive line, and it shows. A team that averaged 30 points a game early in the season has just four touchdowns in the past three games.

They've lost two of those games, including 17-14 Sunday to the Saints. They can't win at home, can't win two in a row - can't seem to make two first downs in a row. Brad Johnson threw for 321 yards Sunday, but the Bucs had six turnovers. Six!

OK, one of them came on the final play of the game, a goofball desperation everybody-eligible thing that, if you drew it up, would have looked like a 5-year-old's scribbling. It wound up in a fumble about five minutes after the play started. But they wouldn't have had to run that play if they hadn't lost three other fumbles and two interceptions - including one the Saints turned into a 73-yard touchdown - or if they had anything that remotely looked like a running game.

They are 4-4 after starting this season with comparisons to the finest teams that ever played the game. They have arrived in Mediocre City, and you know that because the P.A. announcer at Ray-Jay felt compelled to scream to the fans that CAROLINA LOST! Yes, anyone can see something is wrong. Bad wrong. Anyone, except the occupants of the locker room. ``Oh yeah, we'll make the playoffs. Just go ahead and say Keyshawn Johnson says he's Jim Fassel. You can say I guarantee that if it'll make you feel better about what you write,'' Keyshawn Johnson said following a game in which Brad Johnson threw him the darn ball a lot.

Even 10 catches for 124 yards couldn't get the Bucs a win, however. Something is wrong. Guarantees make great copy, but what's Keyshawn supposed to say? Of course he believes they'll still be playing in January, and he wasn't the only Buc who shrugged off talk of missing the playoffs. Brad Johnson did the same thing. Michael Pittman too. ``Right now, as a team on offense, we're not getting the job done,'' Pittman said. ``Our coaches put a great game plan together, but we didn't get the job done. But we're not concerned, not concerned at all. Guys are frustrated now, but we'll be all right.''

Guarantees won't make that so. Neither will believing it'll all be better next week ... just because. That's why you wonder what's really up here, because you didn't see a lot of anger after this one. Didn't see a lot of anything, really. It was a strangely tranquil postgame locker room for a team that has lost three of four at home, including two games against division opponents. Talk to anyone in there and you get the feeling that 4-4 is a fly to be brushed off their shoulder. The other teams haven't beaten the Bucs; the Bucs have beaten the Bucs. They're either calm professionals, or in denial.

``[The 4-4 record] is a very, very, very, very big surprise. Those games we should have won, we lost the games ourselves. These teams aren't beating us - there's no way, they're not beating us. We beat ourselves,'' Keyshawn said. ``We're moving the ball up and down the field. We're not closing the deal. We're coming into the ninth inning and our closer is giving up two home runs. That's how it is.''

Well, yes. That is how it is, which is really the point. When's it gonna stop? ``You don't start worrying until I think you get to the sixth game you lose, or the seventh game. Right now we're not worried,'' Keyshawn said.

Maybe they should be. Will the offensive line automatically protect better next week, and in games after that? The secondary had David Gibson at safety on the Saints' final drive for the winning field goal because John Lynch, Brian Kelly and Jermaine Phillips are hurt. Will things automatically improve back there next week? ``I still believe in this team,'' Pittman said. ``We've got a great team here.''

The record says otherwise. The record says the Bucs are 4-4. Four-and-four is not great. You can make all the guarantees you want, but at some point you have to acknowledge 4-4 might not be a fluke. It might be reality. Anyone can see that. Almost anyone, that is.