Bucs Are A Project That Still Needs Plenty Of Work
Not even Chucky made a face. Unless you were doubled over from laughter, Jon Gruden wore the same blank expression the rest of us did the instant his Tampa Bay debut came to an abrupt end, though it took nearly an entire overtime to get to it. Did what happen really happen?

There's not much else to say when you play awful, make a mad comeback, force overtime with a field goal as the clock runs out, then up-Chucky and die the death of Garo when your right-handed punter throws a left-handed interception while being pulled down, without the ball ever leaving his end zone. Got all that?

But it's hard to blame Bucs punter Tom Tupa for his club's 26-20 loss to the New Orleans Saints. After all, Tupa was once a quarterback and he was about to be tackled for the game-losing safety. Ah, another missed block. What the heck? Someone asked Tupa which one of his teammates was the intended receiver. ``Anyone,'' Tupa said.

That sums up this opener. You can blame anyone for this loss. Players, coaches, anyone. And maybe it's a good thing that what really happened, happened. Maybe looking pathetic is the proper pill to swallow. We begin with a reality check. This will take time.

Ask Gruden. Or just look in his eyes. Ask anyone who left Raymond James Stadium Sunday night. The truth is the preseason was no lie. The truth is that this is a project. A major project. People shouldn't have to be hit over the head with the Lombardi Trophy to get this through their thick skulls. They ain't that close. Yes, it's probably a good thing the Bucs lost. They don't start thinking they could overcome what they almost overcame Sunday.

That's what has happened here the last few seasons. The Bucs would mess around, grind along, and pull into the playoffs by doing just enough. Sunday after Sunday, everyone went home feeling safe enough thinking the mistakes were fixable and the weaknesses weren't that week. It almost happened again on Sunday. The Bucs erased a 20-10 deficit late in the game. They scrambled, and didn't quit, and Martin Gramatica kicked a 40-yarder to bring the fans back and send it into extra time. But they lost.

And maybe that's a fine way to start. With alarm bells. With everyone knowing the problems are real problems. Anyone who saw this hapless offensive line knows this. It was hard to tell the inactive Kenyatta Walker from the active blockers, since the active blockers didn't block and since Walker and his big mouth were quite active after the game. This is serious. Ask anyone who saw the Saints push around the Bucs defense, or those Saints receivers wide open, or the Bucs secondary torched for two touchdown passes. Ask anyone who saw the dropped passes or penalties. Or the blocked field goal to end the first half. And the perfectly botched two-minute drill that preceded it. It was a horrible way to start the Gruden era. You could almost see Bryan and Joel Glazer sitting in their box, trying to figure a way to blame it all on Ed. The offense often reminded us of the ghost of Christensen past.

For those keeping score, Tony Dungy won in his debut. Steve Spurrier and Marvin Lewis won. Steve Mariucci won. Norv Turner helped the Dolphins put up 49. Warrick Dunn scored two touchdowns for Atlanta. And we got this. It seemed that bad. I still say we blame Clyde. Panic? Not Yet.

Gruden tried to see the bright side of the dark side of the moon. ``You've got to learn from your successes,'' he said. ``You can't get a big fat head win you win, and you can't get in too much of a panic mood around here when you lose.''

So much for big fat heads. As for panic, this team still has talent. This team still has toughness. Take the quarterback. Brad Johnson is convinced he set a record for most balls thrown away. He would hardly plant his back foot and the Saints came marching in. You can stop talking about his lack of mobility. If you laid Johnson's movements Sunday end-to- end, he'd be in Europe this morning, which might be the place to be when Gruden starts taking his team through the game film. But Johnson didn't panic. The Bucs didn't always panic. The play that set up Gramatica's tying field goal was a broken one: Johnson just sort of rolled right, away from the ever-present pressure, and hit Keenan McCardell, who dove and came up big. Two veterans making a play. It can happen like that for the Bucs.

But what really happened can also happen. The playoffs aren't a certainty. Nothing is. Can anyone disagree? Anyone?