Jon Gruden has never had a problem exuding confidence. It's in his determined walk and chilling gaze, which can unnerve even the most hardened opponent. More than anything, it's in his smirk. When the Tampa Bay coach curls and purses his lips, he's telling the world he has everything covered. Gruden smirks often when asked about his running game.
But why is this man smiling? While the Bucs have nearly everything else in place from last year's Super Bowl championship team—including nine starters returning to the NFL's top-ranked defense—they have no clear idea who will be carrying the ball. Gruden's top choice is Michael Pittman, who led the Bucs in rushing (718 yards) last season and gained 124 yards in the Super Bowl. Pittman, however, was charged with two counts of aggravated assault following an altercation with his wife, Melissa, in Phoenix on May 31; each count carries a penalty ranging from five to 15 years in prison. A pretrial hearing is scheduled for Sept. 3. If convicted, Pittman would be in violation of the probation he's serving for misdemeanor charges of criminal trespassing and criminal damage after arguing with Melissa in 2001, for which the league suspended him for one game. He could be sentenced to as much as six months in jail for violating probation.
"We're obviously hoping that Mike will be available, but we do have other options," says Gruden, whose offense ranked 27th in rushing (97.3 yards per game) last season. "We have Thomas Jones. We have Aaron Stecker. We have Mike Alstott. Those are all good backs. But it's not just the backs who will help us run the ball. It's the line, the tight ends, the decisionmaking by the quarterbacks and my play-calling. All those factors play a role."
Pittman, who isn't speaking publicly, is the player who impressed Gruden most early in camp, particularly with his conditioning. If he's not available, the Bucs would be forced to lean on the same backfield-by-committee approach that brought Gruden success in Oakland. The top threat in that scenario would be Jones. Tampa Bay traded for the fourth-year veteran shortly after Pittman's arrest, thinking the former first-round bust of the Cardinals might benefit from playing in a winning atmosphere. Jones is a shifty runner and a polished receiver who needs to stay healthy. (Last year he missed one game with a hairline fracture in his left ankle and six games with a broken left hand, but still gained a career-high 511 yards.) Stecker, one of the Bucs' top special teams players, has vision, patience and good hands, making him valuable as a third-down back. Alston: is the banger who will carry primarily on goal line and short-yardage situations.
"Gruden will find a way to make it work," says Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson. "He knows how to utilize each person to the best of their abilities. Even with Michael available, there won't be one featured guy. The only question is how to get everybody enough touches."
Tampa Bay has all its key offensive play-makers back from a unit that averaged 26.4 points in its last seven games. Johnson led the NFC with a 92.9 passer rating. He still has big targets like Keyshawn Johnson, Keenan McCardell and Joe Jurevicius. And the line, the unit that struggled with chemistry issues and ineffectiveness early in 2002, has stabilized. "We had a lot of new faces up front last year, but now we know each other," says tackle Roman Oben. "And we know what to expect."
That—and, of course, the defense, which led the league last season in fewest points allowed (12.3 per game)—will be essential to Tampa Bay's hopes of repeating this season. By the way, Gruden doesn't even use the word repeat. "We talk about winning a championship, not defending one," he says. "Let's talk about what we know, and we know how to win a title."
That said, the Bucs know that a healthy running game was an important factor in their march to the title. If the running game isn't in place, Gruden will have to work overtime to keep the smirks off the faces of Tampa Bay's opponents.
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