Kick In The Pants
Part of the idea behind hiring Jon Gruden as coach here was to make fans forget about the past. During his regular- season debut Sunday, Gruden and his charges could only conjure memories of it. For three quarters, a span in which the Bucs gained 161 yards of total offense, Gruden's Bucs looked a lot like Tony Dungy's Bucs - circa 1996. There also were times, most notably during a second-half rally in which a stifling defense and a suddenly efficient offense forced overtime, when Gruden's Bucs looked like Dungy's division-winning 1999 Bucs. All too often, though, there were times in this 26-20 season-opening loss when dropped passes, penalties and botched kicking plays left Gruden's Bucs looking a little like those led into battle by John McKay and Leeman Bennett. ``We probably shot ourselves in the foot a couple of times today,'' left tackle Roman Oben said.

No bullet struck deeper than the one punter Tom Tupa took in the waning moments of overtime. Standing deep in his own end zone, the right- handed Tupa first failed to avoid a right-side bull rush by Fred McAfee, then tried to save a broken play by tossing the ball left-handed to safety valve John Howell. The ball never made it out of the end zone. As Tupa was taken down by McAfee, linebacker James Allen stepped in front of Howell and picked off Tupa's shovel pass to account for the game-winning touchdown in a disappointing and sloppy debut.

This was a game in which the Bucs gained fewer yards rushing (72) than they surrendered in penalties (85), missed one field goal try and had another blocked. It was a game in which their two top receivers combined to catch 11 passes and drop three, including two on third down, and one in which their quarterback was sacked three times and hit what seemed like 43 times. ``All those flags, those penalties, those plays, they may not show up in the stat sheet,'' Gruden said. ``But they were costly. And I'm disappointed. But I'm not going to let this one fester for very long. We have a good football team and we're going to come back from this.''

They will if the play of their offensive line improves. That makeshift unit, which struggled throughout the preseason, continued to have trouble fending off pass rushers in the opener. On at least a dozen occasions, quarterback Brad Johnson was forced to throw the ball away under pressure. Once, Johnson fumbled the ball surrounded by Saints in the pocket. ``It felt at times like they had 20 guys on the field,'' center Jeff Christy said.

Most of those times were in the first half. The Bucs gained 77 total yards, converted one of six third-down tries and completed five of 15 pass attempts for 47 yards the first 30 minutes. ``They gave us everything they had that first half,'' Oben said.

Oben was speaking of the Saints defense. He easily could have been speaking of their offense. Led by the elusive Aaron Brooks, the Saints gained 203 total yards and seemingly underachieved by scoring 13 points while controlling the ball for 21 minutes in the first half. ``We didn't do a good enough job of getting the ball back for the offense in the first half,'' Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. ``We've got to do a better job of that.''

In the second half, the Bucs' defense eventually did do a better job of giving the ball back to the offense. They forced the Saints to punt the ball away on each of their last five possessions. In turn, the offense did a better job of putting the ball in the end zone. Looking more like their fans and team management expected when Gruden was hired, the Bucs drove 54 yards in six plays on their first second-half drive, cutting a 10-point deficit to trail 13-10.

The Saints came back to increase their lead to 20-10, but Tampa Bay stopped four subsequent New Orleans drives. That allowed the Bucs to tie the game on an 11-yard Brad Johnson touchdown pass to Joe Jurevicius and a 40-yard Martin Gramatica field goal that came as regulation ended. ``We just calmed down and made up our minds to play a certain way,'' receiver Keyshawn Johnson said. ``We needed to just relax and stop pressing.''

Both offenses were guilty of pressing in overtime. The Saints gained 21 yards on nine plays while the Bucs gained 27 on 15. ``It became a battle of field position and we lost it,'' cornerback Ronde Barber said.

The overtime also was a battle of special teams units, and the Bucs also lost that battle. When Karl Williams retrieved a punt at his own 10 and was taken down at his 6, the end seemed inevitable. ``We had a lot of mental errors; we had a lot of chances at the end of the game to win,'' receiver Keenan McCardell said. ``We had our opportunities, but we gave it away.''

Roy Cummings The Tampa Tribune September 2002