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Six teams failed to score an offensive touchdown in Week 1 of the 2007 regular season. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were one of them. Sound like 2006 all over again? It sure seems like it.
Tampa Bay’s inability to penetrate the end zone is becoming an all too familiar sight for Bucs fans, who watched their team score just 20 offensive touchdowns in 2006 and fail to reach the end zone in the 2007 regular season opener in Seattle.
The Bucs traded two first-round draft picks, two second-round draft selections and $8 million to the Oakland Raiders in exchange for head coach Jon Gruden back in 2002.
He has delivered a Lombardi Trophy, the team’s first and only to date, and two NFC South division championships. However, some would say he forgot to bring his offense with him to Tampa Bay.
While his overall regular season record as a head coach in the NFL is 77-68, Gruden has compiled a 39-42 regular season record in Tampa Bay and watched his team produce losing records in three out of the last four seasons.
Gruden was brought to the Bucs to implement an offense that Tony Dungy never had and win a Super Bowl. He’s accomplished the latter, but time might be running out for him to establish a proven offensive attack in Tampa Bay.
Since his arrival in 2002, Tampa Bay’s offenses have ranked 24th, 10th, 22nd, 23rd and 29th, from 2002-06, respectively. Not exactly the type of production the Glazers or Tampa Bay fans were expecting when Gruden joined the Bucs.
There are several reasons why Gruden’s offense has yet to work on a consistent basis in Tampa Bay. One of the main reasons is continuity, or lack thereof.
In Gruden’s first year in Tampa Bay, his offense featured eight new regular contributors – running back Michael Pittman, left tackle Roman Oben, left guard Kerry Jenkins, tight end Ken Dilger and wide receivers Keenan McCardell and Joe Jureveicius.
The fact that this veteran-laden group stayed healthy throughout the majority of the 2002 season allowed them to grow in the offense and helped Gruden’s offense peak in the post-season, where they scored 21, 20 and 27 points against the 49ers, Eagles and Raiders, respectively.
But the continuity hasn’t been there since the confetti fell in San Diego. The Bucs have had eight different starting quarterbacks under Gruden, and with fullback Mike Alstott on injured reserve, only one offensive player – Pittman – remains from Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl team.
“The biggest thing that hinders you from firing on all cylinders is continuity,” said Bucs assistant head coach/running backs coach Art Valero. “We haven’t had that continuity at quarterback. We haven’t had it at fullback. We haven’t had it at tight end. We haven’t had it at wide receiver, and Lord knows we haven’t had that continuity on the offensive line. I’m not making excuses, but continuity is key.”
Injuries, a lack of premium draft picks and salary cap problems have all played a big part in Tampa Bay’s lack of continuity on offense over the last several seasons, too. But the Bucs have moved past some of those circumstances.
Gruden and Bucs general manager Bruce Allen have assembled Tampa Bay’s current offense. Out of the 11 starters on offense, six of them – running back Cadillac Williams, wide receiver Michael Clayton, guards Davin Joseph and Arron Sears, tackle Jeremy Trueblood and tight end Alex Smith – were first-day draft picks under the Gruden-Allen regime.
Clayton and Williams, both former first-round picks, had spectacular rookie seasons with the Bucs, but both players suffered through their own versions of sophomore slumps. Joseph, a 2006 first-round selection, struggled mightily last Sunday. One can only hope that the “When Good Bucs Rookies Go Bad” series doesn’t see a third season. Otherwise, Joseph is destined to be the main character.
Four of the offensive starters – quarterback Jeff Garcia, left tackle Luke Petitgout, fullback B.J. Askew and center John Wade – were acquired by the Bucs through free agency. The final player — wide receiver Joey Galloway — was acquired via a trade with Dallas in 2004.
Last year, Tampa Bay’s offense took nearly two and a half games to score its first touchdown of the regular season. The Bucs were also held without a touchdown in Seattle last Sunday. That type of production just isn't going to cut it in the NFL.
Many outsiders have lost their faith in Gruden’s offense, playcalling ability and/or players, but the players themselves remain confident in Gruden’s version of the West Coast system and their ability to execute it.
“I have a tremendous amount of confidence in this system,” said Bucs quarterback Luke McCown. “From what I came from in Cleveland, it’s night and day in terms of what is going to be successful and what is successful.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Coach Gruden. More than you could measure. He does a tremendous amount of work and he puts us in great situations, especially as a quarterback, to succeed and help our team win. There’s nobody else in the league that does it like him. I believe in his system like I believe in my hand. It’s going to work and it’s there. Eventually it will all come together and gel.”
Even though some of Tampa Bay’s current players weren’t even in high school when Gruden was in Philadelphia and Oakland, they are well aware of the success the West Coast offense has had under its creator, the late Bill Wash, and head coaches and playcallers like Mike Holmgren and Andy Reid, among others.
“This system is proven,” said Bucs tight end Anthony Becht. “It’s been proven for 25 years now.”
Gruden was often referred to as an offensive genius during his tenures with Philadelphia and Oakland, and understandably so. Philadelphia’s offense ranked third overall in 1997, and Oakland’s offenses ranked 5th, 6th and 7th in 1999, 2000 and 2001, respectively.
In fact, over the past 10 years, Gruden’s offenses have finished five seasons ranked in the top 10. That includes the 2003 season, which was when the Bucs ranked 10th overall in total offense, which tied the franchise record for highest-ranking offense, a feat that hadn’t been accomplished since 1984.
Those are some of the reasons why the coaches and players Pewter Report spoke with regarding the Bucs’ offensive woes still believe Gruden’s system can and will work in Tampa Bay.
“My perspective on the system is it’s outstanding,” said Valero. “It is technically and fundamentally very, very sound. It is for a running back, tight end, wide out and quarterback, especially. I don’t know if there’s a better system out there that utilizes everybody. This is a precision offense, just like most West Coast systems are out there. That means everybody has to do their job as if it’s the most important on the field. They’ve got to block, run routes at the right depth, pull when they’re supposed to pull, take care of the football – you have to do all of those things.”
The players and coaches can still believe in the system, but that doesn’t change the fact that Tampa Bay’s offense has struggled mightily. In fact the Bucs have failed to score an offensive touchdown in seven of the last 17 regular season games.
Needless to say, that type of production, or lack thereof, doesn’t warrant a "guru" label or sit well with a lot of people, including Gruden.
“That doesn’t make you a very offensive guy. It’s offensive, period,” said Gruden. “All we can do is stay on the drawing board, keep working and try to magnify our strengths. At some point we also have to establish some field position. I don’t believe Seattle is going to score without the punt return from [Nate] Burleson. You start at your 20-yard line and last year it’s the story of field position in a lot of ways. I think we had 12 drives that started on the other side of the team’s 50 last year. It’s hard to go 80 yards in this league. You better be really good at a lot of places and right now we’re still finding our way.”
Critics question whether Gruden’s offense, which features multiple audibles, shifts and motions, is too complicated for some of his players. But the players believe it all comes down to execution, which is something they haven’t been good at doing collectively as of late.
“You have to believe in the system. I mean, it has been proven to work in this league,” Joseph said. “I think it’s a great offense. The times we don’t do well it’s more about execution than anything else. You have to be able to execute to be successful in any offense, including this one. You can’t allow the quarterback to get hit, not run the ball well, not convert third downs and turn the ball over. That’s what gets you beat. The offense isn’t the problem. This is a great offense.”
It might not be impossible to learn, but the players agree that you have to be an intelligent person and quick study in order to digest Gruden’s offense in a timely manner.
“This is definitely an offense that’s fit for certain people,” Joseph said. “You really have to be a smart player to function in this offense. That’s not a bad thing at all. To say it’s too complex is not really accurate. As long as you love football and you understand football you should be able to play well in this offense.”
Because the play calls are so wordy and involved, and Gruden’s offense is based on timing and mismatches, the 11 players on the field have little room for error. The slightest mistake can throw everything off.
“In this offense everyone has to be on the same page and all 11 guys have to do their job. That’s the way this offense works,” said Becht. “Everybody has to be pulling their weight. Everyone has to be accountable. Otherwise, it’s probably not going to work.”
Gruden isn’t the only head coach that calls offensive plays in the NFL. There are several. However, some coaches have elected to strip themselves of the playcalling duties and hand them over to another member of their staff when the offense was struggling.
Although that's unlikely to happen since the Glazers brought Gruden in to call plays on offense and score touchdowns, some wonder if Tampa Bay’s head coach should relinquish his playcalling duties and pass them on to one of the assistant coaches, namely offensive line coach/offensive coordinator Bill Muir, quarterbacks coach Paul Hackett or Valero.
When asked if that possibility has been discussed inside One Buccaneer Place, Valero echoed the sentiment of the players by suggesting execution, not playcalling, was hindering Tampa Bay’s offense.
“This is Jon’s offense and he’s had great success with this offense,” said Valero. “He’s seen it from ground zero and it’s evolved. We’ve had to do a lot of different things here compared to what they did out in Oakland, but only because we had to because personnel forced us to do those things.
“Jon has a great feel for the game. When he decides that maybe he wants to go pay a little more attention to the defense or the special teams, or a different part of the offense, then that’s his responsibility and his prerogative. Until he does that, I consider him a great play caller. We just have to go out there and execute the plays.”
Gruden has at times been beyond frustrated with the production, or lack thereof, of his offense. Despite his team’s offensive woes, Gruden has not considered relinquishing his playcalling duties and still remains confident in his playcalling ability, his offense and the players that are in charge of running the plays.
“I haven’t thought about that. I have thought about jumping off the St. Pete bridge,” Gruden said. “You can only criticize your playcalling realistically. You have to look at it and say, ‘Well, did we have [the blitzers] accounted for? Did we have anybody to throw the ball to?’ You have to be critical of yourself. I’m probably leading the league in criticizing myself. I’m also real confident that we can get this thing going.”
Pewter Report surveyed the Bucs’ locker room this week, and even when given the opportunity to criticize Gruden’s offensive system or playcalling, on or off the record, the players didn’t do it.
Instead, they concurred that they must execute better if Tampa Bay’s offense is going to have the type of success Gruden’s offenses had in Philadelphia and Oakland.
Most of the players have been accountable for their mistakes on the football field, and one of the reasons they still believe Gruden’s system can be successful is because their head coach has deflected some of the blame off of them by pointing the finger at himself.
“More often than not, Coach Gruden is usually the first to say, ‘You know what? I’ll take the blame.’ That doesn’t go unnoticed,” McCown said. “He practices what he preaches and does a great job doing that. I’ve been in places where coaches throw you under the bus. Coach Gruden never does that. He’s a team coach and a team player. He’s normally the first one to say, ‘It’s my fault. I’m to blame. I need to do a better job of preparing you guys.’ You have to admire a guy like that.”
The Bucs were actually able to move the ball quite a bit on the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday. Garcia completed 19-of-27 passes for 201 yards in his Buccaneer debut.
The Bucs moved the ball inside Seattle’s 30-yard line three times, but those promising drives ended with two field goals and a fumble. In fact, the Bucs had a total of three fumbles, not to mention a few costly special teams penalties.
Tampa Bay was in the game late in the fourth quarter, but eventually lost 20-6. Gruden knows that at the end of the day he’s responsible for Tampa Bay’s successes or failures as a team, but he actually liked some of the things he saw from his offense in Seattle.
“I’m always going to back the players that give us everything they have,” said Gruden. “When things go bad you’re going to be the head coach and you’re going to take criticism. I’m certainly able to handle it.
“At the same time, I really felt good about the Seattle Seahawk film. I’d put that film up there with anything we’ve done in a while around here. We just didn’t get it done. We had the fish on the hook, but we just didn’t get it in the boat. They’re a pretty good team, too. We’re on our way back. We’ve got the train back on the track. We just have to get it rolling again. We just have to get some more passengers – hopefully Cadillac is onboard and some of the other guys that are going to help us get it going.”
At One Buc Place, the hope is that Gruden’s optimism translates into more success, and of course, more touchdowns on offense.
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