Offense appears at long last
It arrived, swift and sudden, at the most unexpected of times. It came with sizzle and snap, with calm and cunning. It showed up, of all places, here. In other places, they call it "an offense."

Golly whilakers. At first glance, it seems to be a whole scoreboard full of fun. Who would have believed this? The Bucs, feared in the deep? On Monday night? The Bucs, wearing out the end zone? In the biggest game of the year, arguably the biggest regular season game of any year? Air Les, as opposed to Hap-les?

Finally, points. Hello, gorgeous. And where have you been all our lives? At long last, this was an offense. Finally, this was a quarterback. It was as if the first 14 games (and 25 years) of this franchise were spent in the rope-a-dope mode, setting up a Monday night when the team looked smart, quick, efficient, powerful, potent. Finally: an offensive reason to use a thesaurus.

This was Shaun King, whose career was born on a Monday night, allowed to play. This was Keyshawn Johnson, looking like a wise investment. This was Warrick Dunn, and his electric feet. This was Les Steckel, chessmaster. And, in the most amazing sight of them all, this was the Bucs' offense, outrunning the Rams in a sprint to the end zone.

There are certain things in life you never expect to see. Pigs flying. Fish signing. Another Adam Sandler movie. Even by those standards, this was amazing. There were a lot of ways you could picture the Bucs being successful against St. Louis, but most of them ended, say, 5-3. But not this. Not the offense bailing out the defense, time after time.

Okay, maybe you could imagine Warrick Dunn having a better game than Marshall Faulk. And maybe even you could picture Johnson, the forgotten man, being better than Isaac Bruce. But who would have seen King outplaying Kurt Warner like this?

For weeks, it had seemed, the major goal of the offense was to stay the heck out of the way. King was trusted to take a snap, but not a lot more. Every week, it seemed, the Bucs were running further from their own playbook. King looked worse by the dropback, and Steckel looked more confused, and the Bucs looked like a house that was half-built.

Imagine the surprise of Rams defensive coordinator Bud Carson, then, when the Bucs came out like an offense that could swim in the deep end of the pool. It was aggressive. It was hungry. And, for one of the few times in years, it left the Bucs looking like a complete team. Not to mention a team to be feared in a playoff game coming soon. By halftime, when the Bucs had 24 points, you figured Carson was asking Mike Martz why someone had given him the wrong game films to study.

Oh, it started slowly, of course. The Bucs started on the Rams 20, thanks to yet another defensive play, and quickly turned it into a 3- yard drive and a field goal. Then, when King threw an interception on the first play of the Bucs' second possession, you figured it was even worse than usual. Not only were the Bucs not scoring, they seemed to have forgotten about Dunn along the way. It all changed on the Bucs' next possession. Behind 7-3, at their 18, the Bucs looked as if they were in trouble. But King found Johnson for 37, then 23, and the Bucs were on an 82-yard touchdown drive.

Next series, same thing. King completed five of six passes, including the final play, when he stepped around a charging London Fletcher and fired a bullet to Johnson for a 19-yard touchdown. The finest drive, however, came in the final three minutes of the half, when the Bucs held a three-point lead. In weeks past, perhaps they would have sat on the lead. Not this time. King led the Bucs 58 yards in 109 seconds, hitting Johnson again.

It was coldly, ruthlessly efficient offense, and it is all anyone has ever asked of the Bucs offense, really. After all those ugly afternoons, when critics would ask Tony Dungy for a bit more offense, Dungy never quite seemed to grasp that this was what people wanted. Dungy would always bristle and respond as if people were asking him for 300-yard passing performances. It isn't a fashion show, he would remind us.

But when you see a team function the way the Bucs did Monday, you wonder why they have kept this offense on cement blocks all season. Yes, Tony, there are a lot of ways to win. But over the course of a season, a team needs to know it can win in a lot of different ways. Guess what? Offense is a way, too. Around here, you never would believe it. This franchise has done so much to try to build an offense, and it has never happened, not for Young or Testaverde, not with Harper or Emanuel, not under Perkins or Wyche. For so many years, this offense was cursed and often by the home fans.

Funny thing. For most of the week, the talk about this game was about revenge. The word was used so often you would have thought the teams were doing a version of Hamlet. But for all the talk about the past and this game, the best thing you can hope for is that this was about the future. If this really was the shape of things to come, then the Bucs are going to be a handful in the coming playoffs. If they let King play, and if he keeps playing like this, then ask yourself: What playoff opponent wants this team on the other sideline?

Monday night, a team finally discovered what offense was. Now that it's here, can we keep it?

Gary Shelton, The St.Petersburg Times 2000