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Bucs poised to make run?

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(Nov. 27)--At least they got a Super Bowl title. Now, Bucs fans are asking, "Do we have to wait another 26 years?"

Is this the end of the Bucs as we've known them during the Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, John Lynch years? Is this a football team about to be gutted?

Many believe it is, and that the first step in the process occurred last week when the Bucs told star wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson to get out and don't come back. The Bucs announced their intention to deactivate Johnson for the remainder of this season, after coach Jon Gruden decided Johnson was a negative influence Gruden could no longer tolerate.

"When you have a person who isn't happy where he is while he's there, your performance isn't going to be all it can be," Gruden said. "I've been told he wasn't thrilled with the offense when he got here (2000), he wasn't thrilled with the offense the year before I got here (2001), and I know he wasn't thrilled with the offense with me calling the plays."

But not so fast. Don't write the Bucs off just yet. Maybe Johnson wasn't as important to their success as we thought he was. Maybe the Bucs will do just fine without him and, following their Monday night win over the Giants, are poised to make a late-season run at the playoffs and a defense of their Super Bowl title.

This Sunday night, the 5-6 Bucs face the 2-9 Jaguars in a nationally-televised game at Alltel Stadium. For the Jaguars, it's a celebration of the 10th anniversary of the team's birth. For the Bucs, it's a game they must win to avoid their "death."

The Bucs are a salary cap-strapped team most believed had enough left in their tank to make a run at a second straight Super Bowl title. But that goal has been compromised by a season fraught with turmoil and selfish play. Johnson spent the season feuding with Gruden, while Sapp seemed intent on confronting the league. Meanwhile, defensive end Simeon Rice signed a contract that incentivized sacks, and Rice has responded by leading the league in that capacity, but doing little else.

In 2003, attention has been focused on a lot of things other than winning, and now the popular belief is that when this season ends so will the Bucs as we've known them. Next year will probably be blow-it-up time in Tampa. Johnson's deactivation may have announced that fact.

"It became a problem, one that needed to be addressed because we're trying to win football games and at some point you have to say this is not in the best interest of winning," Bucs General Manager Rich McKay said. "It was made very clear by Keyshawn that he viewed this as his last season here. He felt he was going to need to move on; he made that clear to us," McKay added of remarks Johnson made earlier in the season.

"And following that I really believe Keyshawn's actions changed. His approach to us, to the organization and to the team changed. A lot of mandatory workouts were missed, and a lot of football-related functions were not attended," McKay said.

Johnson has been replaced in the lineup by Joe Jurevicius, who joins former Jaguar Keenan McCardell at wide receiver. Quarterback Brad Johnson is having a career year. He is near the top of the NFC passer ratings and he was tied with Peyton Manning for the league lead in touchdown passes (19) after week 11.

The loss of Mike Alstott has caused the running game to fall on hard times, and defensively the Bucs aren't the impenetrable force against the run they once were, but their pass-defense and pass-rush have been outstanding.

"We've got to do anything we can to stimulate our football team, whether that be the return of a player from injury or the reshuffling of the lineup here or there," Gruden said.

Whatever hope the Bucs have of rallying to make the playoffs clearly hinges on beating the Jaguars. The Bucs must win out and hope for help.

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