Bottom line: Bucs must find offense
A few miles away, President Clinton was being impeached. Bob Livingston imploded as House speaker. America was weak-kneed. Wondering. Halfway around the globe, U.S. missiles clobbered Iraq. On a Saturday when pro football became a trivial plaything, Tampa Bay found a way to bomb against the Washington Redskins, all but resigning from the NFL playoffs. Shame. Tampa Bay, on merit, will be missing from the NFL post-season. Bucs just aren't good enough. Let's count the ways. Jacquez Green was a villain this time, fumbling a kickoff return to grant Washington the short-trip chance it needed for a 20-16 upset.

Michael Husted muffed an easy field goal (how many is that?), a kick that could've been a lovely Tampa Bay lift just before halftime. But, below all, the dream killer for the Bucs is an offense that remains three strikes shy of excellence. Defensively, the Bucs were harassing Redskins quarterback Trent Green. Keeping a stranglehold. Mixing some exotic blitzes that got two sacks for safety John Lynch. Covering well in the secondary, most notably by escalating second-year pro Ronde Barber.

If the Bucs could've scored a second-half touchdown. Just one. They could have wiped out the mediocre 'Skins. "We didn't drive a nail in them," coach Tony Dungy said. Didn't drive at all. Tampa Bay's offense, in a 7-8 season that grates on Bucs souls, has been pretty good at times, but too frequently that was the drawback for a team that had sadly underachieved. As in Saturday's second half.

Tampa Bay's first six possessions after recess would reap net yardage of 0-32-5-5-0-1. That one lonely 32-yard journey, when the Bucs were starving for a knockdown TD, earned only a field goal and a 16-7 lead. During those doomed half-dozen possessions, quarterback Trent Dilfer had 0-for-6 passing, including a killer interception that clanged off wide receiver Bert Emanuel. Playoffs? Whom are we kidding?

Brad Culpepper, the blond sage who plays nose tackle, was asked what needs to be changed to make the 1999 Bucs a stronger, more legitimate, more feared NFL contender. Brad is a good talker. Effusive. Bright. But, this time, he seemed stumped. Or, more likely, guarded. "Do you mean," Culpepper finally said, "other than the obvious." Obvious, as in offense.

If, between now and September, the Bucs do not uncover and/or create a formula for radically enhancing their offense, there will be definitive reason for mass Tampa Bay disappointment in both Dungy and general manager Rich McKay. Got to fix it, guys.

It's not as simple as saying Dilfer remains less than sufficient, although the QB position cries for far more sharpness and consistency. It is more complex than recognizing and working to cure a shortfall in tackle-to-tackle talent. It's harder than just blaming offensive coordinator Mike Shula, although his play-calling can have a conservatism that's somewhere to the right of the Republican majority.

This season is torched. Down in flames. Get the Bucs to Cincinnati and get it over. In groping for even a quivering playoff chance, they now must hope Arizona gets team food poisoning and the other all-but- dead NFC operatives, New Orleans and the New York Giants, do the right thing and resign. Whom are we kidding?

Work toward next season. Through the college draft or free agency, find at least two large and able bodies for the OL. Bring in a quality placekicker for heated competition with Husted. Go for another wide receiver. On defense, maybe a corner plus a free safety.

I'm no good at coaching. GM is not my arena. Dungy and McKay are marvelous professionals. But it doesn't take the eyes or mind of a Tony or a Rich to see that Tampa Bay has a bunch of solid players who, with definitive off-season help, can seriously contend next season. But they must recognize it. Do lots of stuff that makes it better. If the offense is allowed to stay in a semi-swoon, we could be carving another Bucs gravestone same time next year.

Hubert Mizell, The St.Petersburg Times 1998