Last Friday, Harper and the rest of the wideouts stayed after practice to work on timing routes with Aikman. But the drill ended after only a handful of throws, when Harper dropped a seven-yard sideline pass, then punted the ball 20 yards in frustration.
Bucs' Struggling Offense
Can Zeier Make A Difference?
Maybe he's just clueless, but when Bucs quarterback Trent Dilfer was informed of his benching on Oct 25, he thought someone was playing a practical joke on him. After making 70 consecutive starts for Tampa Bay, Dilfer, 27, had a career quarterback rating of 68.3 and had developed a strong tendency to make ill-advised throws. What's more, he had completed just one of his last 18 passes of 10 or more yards, with three interceptions. So after contemplating the move for more than a week, coach Tony Dungy named Eric Zeier his starter. (Rookie second-round pick Shaun King remains the third-stringer.)
Zeier, 27, is three inches shorter and has a weaker arm than the 6'4", 229-pound Dilfer. But Zeier plays with more fire than his predecessor and with an eye down the field, the very elements that had been missing from the Bucs' air attack. On April 17, Tampa Bay traded a sixth-round draft choice to the Ravens for Zeier, who, despite his 4-7 career record as a starter, had put together stretches of 175 and 115 straight attempts without throwing an interception.
"Eric brings us accuracy, smarts, energy and emotion but without the turnovers that put us in a hole," says Dungy. "We are not a team that is going to throw 15 times down the field or 38 times in a game, so our quarterback has to make the most of his limited opportunities. If Eric can do that, it will help—a lot."
True to form, Zeier didn't throw an interception against the Lions on Sunday. He was particularly sharp early on, completing nine of his first 10 passes for 96 yards, and, trying to play catch-up, he finished 29 for 44 with 256 yards. But his third-quarter fumble was returned for a touchdown, and he failed to get the Bucs into the end zone in a 20-3 Detroit win.
Since coming to Tampa Bay before the 1996 season, Dungy has become more and more inclined to run the ball; the idea is to control the clock and let a swarming defense try to dictate the outcome. "We do have a great defense," says Zeier. "But that doesn't mean we can sit back and do nothing on offense. We have to start scoring some points."
En route to an 8-8 finish last season, the Bucs rushed a league-high 52.3% of the time. With bruising fullback Mike Alstott elevated to featured back, they have run 60% of the time on first down. Tampa Bay has completed two passes longer than 26 yards and is awful on third-down conversions of seven to 10 yards (15.2%); the Bucs are also terrible in the red zone, ranking 30th in the league in the number of touchdowns scored from the 20 and in. "The pressure increases when everyone knows you're going to pass," says wideout Reidel Anthony, who is second on the team with only 21 catches. "People are just waiting to tee off on us."
If the Bucs' offense continues to struggle, Dungy will have to look higher up the ladder, perhaps at offensive coordinator Mike Shula. Dungy seems prepared to do that. "If this doesn't work, you go down the line," he says, "and maybe change some other places too."
Coates Gets Frustrated