Nobody expected Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden to take the podium at Monday’s press conference laughing and joking like Jay Leno giving a monologue.

But on the eve of elections, the Bucs’ commander-in-chief befittingly came off like a politician trying to convince his constituency that the ship is not sinking.

That, despite some public opinion and exit polls at Raymond James Stadium that continue to point the finger at the regime’s demise at 2-6.

“I’ve got a lot of pride,” Gruden said Monday. “So do our players. There’s a lot of pride in that room. We’re not going to tank it. Nobody tanked it [against the Saints]. The effort was good yesterday. The results were bad.”

It’s possible that Gruden may be more frustrated at this point than at any other time in his tenure with the Bucs. He has consistently pointed to veteran’s injuries, playing rookies and a tough schedule as valid defenses for the team’s woes.

Wins against Cincinnati and Philadelphia provided a marginal buffer between some of the worst football exhibited by a Bucs team in the last decade. The scary part is that had it not been for a questionable roughing the passer penalty against the Bengals’ Justin Smith and a 62-yard field goal by kicker Matt Bryant, the team could be winless at the midway point in the season.

As hard as it may be for outsiders to see the silver lining in the defending NFC South champs’ sudden fall among the mediocre, Gruden continues to look at the glass as half full.

“All I can say is, I really like the football team, the men that we have,” Gruden said. “They’re going to practice hard. They’re going to learn from their mistakes today.

“We have several things that need to be corrected but the sky is still up there. The sky is still there. I’m going to keep that in perspective. You know, we’ve got a lot of things here we need to get better at, there’s no question. And I certainly have my hands in all of it, but were going to continue to work hard and at least were going to lead the league in effort.”

That’s where there is little argument. Not so much the effort part, but the several things the team can get better at part. However, Tampa Bay’s brutal schedule over the next two months does not provide the most opportune time for a reversal of fortune as five of the next seven games are on the road.

The Bucs’ remaining opponents are a combined 38-32 (.543 winning percentage) so far.  Washington, Pittsburgh and Cleveland have losing records while Carolina and Dallas are .500. That’s optimistic. But take a closer look and the task isn’t so appealing.

On Monday, the Bucs travel to Carolina to face a 4-4 team that many experts pegged to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl this year. The Panthers are coming off a bye week in which they had extra time to marinate over a stinging loss to Dallas.

To make matters even more difficult for Tampa Bay, Carolina has won six of the last seven meetings with the Bucs. And it bears repeating, it’s Monday night.

After that, Washington comes to Raymond James Stadium, the place the Redskins beat the Bucs in the NFC Wild Card game last season.  At 3-5, the Redskins may appear as one of the lighter teams on the remaining schedule. But they are a Jekyll and Hyde team. They lost to Minnesota and Tennessee, but beat Dallas and Jacksonville, and even led the Colts at halftime at Indianapolis.

The next week the Bucs are at Dallas on Thanksgiving Day, where the Cowboys are pretty good. Then, it’s at Pittsburgh, home to Atlanta and at Chicago and Cleveland. Nobody needs reminding of the team’s historical performance in cold weather games.

While Gruden declined to rank the team’s problems in order of importance, it has become obvious that the lack of a running game and an inability to pressure the opposing quarterback are paramount.

“We’re struggling right now to rush the passer,” Gruden said. “We’re just not getting there. We’re getting close, but yesterday Drew [Brees] had a lot of time to throw the football, and he made some big plays because of that. He bought time with his legs, he escaped contain and we totally bottled down the run.”

Tampa Bay forced the Saints into predictable passing situations like second-and-15, second-and-13 and third-and-8 by stuffing the run. Typically, that’s where the Bucs have feasted on opposing quarterbacks and forced turnovers. But that phase of their game has disappeared, and Gruden says, “We’re sick about that right now.”

“We have to do a much better job of applying pressure,” said Gruden. “We tried to blitz a little bit. We tried a four-man rush, we tried gaming, we tried different things and we didn’t have any success yesterday.”

The Bucs rank 31st in the NFL in sacks per pass play, averaging less than one per game. In 2005, the team averaged 2.5 sacks per game with defensive end Simeon Rice accounting for 14 on the season.

Rice has taken the brunt of blame for the team’s lack of production in the pass rush. He has just two this season, a number he failed to add to against the Saints despite playing against a left tackle who was putting his hand in NFL dirt for the first time.

Ellis Wyms, who was recently promoted to under-tackle in place of Booger McFarland, leads the team with four sacks while reserve Dewayne White is next with three.

Those numbers just won’t do.

“The other team’s quarterback has to be under siege to win in this league. You’ve got to disrupt him,” Gruden said.  

Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin has tried just about every way he knows to get that pressure. When he brings the blitz, like he did against the Saints Sunday, teams are picking it up and the Bucs are getting burnt downfield because of it.

Through eight games, only two sacks have come from non-defensive lineman. Linebacker Ryan Nece and cornerback Juran Bolden have each recorded a sack.

Linebacker Barrett Ruud said the blitz packages haven’t been working.

“Sometimes you have a blitz called and you’re going to come free,” said Ruud. “It’s the right call at the right time, but when the offense sees the blitz and they do a good job of picking it up, somebody has to beat a block.

“It’s just as simple as that. When they have been picking it up, we haven’t been beating our man one-on-one. Just because you call a blitz does not mean it’s going to come through. Sometimes you have to beat a block.”

Tampa Bay finished the 2005 season with the league’s No. 1 ranked defense and was sixth in the NFL against the pass, surrendering an average of 183 yards per game through the air. This season, that number is up to an average of 208.

So what’s different about last year’s defense and this year’s defense? Some say age has caught up with the players. Others point at a lack of cohesiveness or motivation.  Ruud says he’s not sure where to place blame.

“I know it’s not a lack of preparation or effort in practice,” he said. “We’re practicing the same way we did last year. Everybody is still coming in on their off days and watching film. Me, Shelton [Quarles] and Ryan [Nece] still come in every day at 6:00 a.m. The preparation is the same, for some reason the results aren’t the same this year.”

McFarland got shipped out for his lack of production. Rice is getting a pass, at least publicly, from Gruden, on account of a shoulder injury. Greg Spires, who has one sack, has never been notorious for rushing the passer. His most productive season came in 2004 when he had eight sacks.  Defensive back Ronde Barber is typically good for a couple each year and Shelton Quarles will come up with one here and there.  

On Monday, Gruden was searching for answers himself.

“We have to get off blocks quicker and faster and our disguises need to be better,” he said. “I think we’re maybe showing some of our looks a little too soon. The center can re-declare the point and they can get numbers to pick it up.

“And I do think we’ve seen some damn good quarterbacks. I give [Drew] Brees, who we’ve seen twice, a lot of credit. McNair is a veteran guy. We’ve seen some of the best quarterbacks in football. McNabb has played a lot, Carson Palmer some of these guys the blitz doesn’t bother them as much as it does some other guys.”

Rushing for an average of 82 yards per game is not what Bucs head coach Jon Gruden expected out of the team’s ground attack this season. In fact, that number ranks 30th among the entire NFL.   

The blame Monday? Too many defensive players hovering around the line of scrimmage, daring Tampa Bay to beat them throwing with a rookie quarterback.

“The statistics don’t say so, but when you have a young quarterback, opposing defenses are no stooges these days,” Gruden said. “They’ll make it really hard for you or me or whoever the hell else calls plays to turn around and hand the ball to that guy. They’re going to say, you better do something else because we’re not going to let you run the ball, and if we do let you run it you’re going to have a hard time making many yards.”

If you look Arizona as an example, that argument may have merit. The Cardinals are dead last in the league in rush offense with a rookie QB under center and a proven running back in Edgerrin James, who is averaging 2.8 yards per carry. But they were a pretty bad rushing team when Kurt Warner was in there, too.

Tennessee starts rookie Vince Young and the Titans are averaging 113 yards per game with Travis Henry getting a majority of the touches at running back. Henry was inactive for Young’s first start against Dallas earlier this year when Chris Brown ran 12 times for 33 yards in a loss.

When Henry came back to the lineup for Young’s next two starts, he went for 123 and 178 yards in consecutive games.

Here’s the ironic part. Against Houston in Week 8, Henry carried 15 times for just 29 yards. Vince Young completed only seven passes for 87 yards, yet   the Titans still won. So maybe Gruden is right when he says stats don’t tell the whole story.

But there is one stat that is usually pretty reliable when it comes to football at any level; teams that run the ball win.

The top four rushing offenses in the NFL, Atlanta, San Diego, Denver and the New York Giants, all belong to teams with winning records and teams that are leading, or within one game of leading, their division.

“It’s been very frustrating here the last couple of weeks,” Gruden said. “Once again, you look at what you’re doing, at what you’re trying to ask your players to do. Can we do a better job of blocking? I hope so.”

The Bucs need to get the running game going and they have the back in Cadillac Williams to do it.

Gruden also said the team has “the makings at right guard and right tackle of having a very solid right side,” which would make one wonder about his thoughts on the rest of the line.

Dan Buenning has been out of the lineup because of what Gruden said were lingering effects from a preseason injury to his ankle. Sean Mahan, who might be better served at the center position, has been getting the start at right guard with mixed reviews to say the least. Left tackle Anthony Davis and center John Wade would be best labeled as ‘serviceable’ at this point.

“We didn’t open up gaping holes yesterday. We didn’t give Cadillac any consistent looks,” Gruden said. “We tried the perimeter. We tried a lot of different venues. But it’s hard to run the ball. To run the ball you’ve got to convert third downs. You can’t go five or six possessions three and out and expect to really establish a running game. You can’t false start on third-and-5, third-and-6 and sacrifice the football.

“You have to convert the third downs and then maybe you can run the ball a couple more times,” said Gruden. “But until we get that kind of rhythm, we’re going to struggle doing much on offense.

“Some of the looks are a little bit hard right now. But that’s no excuse. We have to find a way to get him some better looks and stay with the run and to do that we have to have more success on third downs early in football games.”

On several occasions during Monday’s press conference, Bucs head coach Jon Gruden expressed his admiration for rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski and his ability, which he believes is untapped and potentially great. But Gruden did say he thinks his young QB may be, “a little bit quick pulling the trigger on some things early in games.”

“I’m not going to point it all at Bruce, because he played at times magnificently yesterday,” Gruden said. “But we are sluggish to start football games offensively and it is maddening. We tried everything from the no huddle, different personnel, alignments.

“We’ve used very conventional methods and basic plays. For whatever reason we have not started worth a hoot and all you can do is be critical of the play selection and the pre-game speech that you’re making.”

The Bucs went three-and-out on their first six possessions against the Saints and Gradkowski was 1-of-4 for five yards in the first quarter. He did heat up just before the half, hitting wide receiver Joey Galloway on two long touchdown passes.

The young upstart, who has been known for throwing up just prior to kickoffs in some games, said that he is trying to work through slow starts and early game jitters.

“The beginning of games is always an exciting time and everyone is always jacked up for the game,” Gradkowski said. “And that definitely is a time when I need to just settle down and take the game slower. That’s one thing to concentrate on and work on for the future.”

Gradkowski says he can talk himself into coming out relaxed and taking one play at a time by taking a few deep breaths. As a quarterback, he says he knows he has to be confident and relax everyone else.

With no run game to speak of, a rookie quarterback and a struggling defense, the identity of Tampa Bay’s team is in question.

In the past, the Bucs hung their helmets on defense, a defense that controlled the tempo of games and kept the Bucs within striking distance, no matter how much the offense lacked.

It’s obvious teams no longer fear the Bucs defense and to say the Cadillac has been stalled is now cliché. But until teams see Gradkowski and the Bucs offense put together more runs like he did in the second quarter against the Saints, the team’s identity is anyone’s guess.

“Right now it does look bleak,” Gruden said. “It doesn’t look positive. But we’re working on the identity. Right now it’s nowhere to be found. We have to continue to pound the rock and come up with something quickly.”

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