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Passing Bucs in Tampa

Keyshawn's problems no worse than team's

The final straw, as well as all you really needed to know about how wrong things have gone in Tampa this season, came last Sunday around 1 p.m., when Keyshawn Johnson walked out alone from the locker room at Raymond James Stadium to face the Green Bay Packers. Normally a team bursts out as one, often roaring from the locker room like the rush of a waterfall. Johnson chose another path. He chose to be a meandering tributary barely connected to the flow of his team.

Johnson wanted to walk a solitary path because he has always believed he is bigger than any team he has played on. It is that same path that has prevented him from becoming all that he should be as an NFL player and it is what led the Buccaneers to make an almost unprecedented move and deactivate him for the rest of the season Tuesday.

Effectively they have done what Johnson's egocentric autobiography of a few years ago demanded from its title page. They have thrown him the damn ball and told him to take it home.

The oddest thing about the collapse of the defending Super Bowl champions and the demise of Johnson as a noticeable force in the NFL is that one had little to do with the other. Johnson has long been perceived to be a selfish brat, but in reality he is not. He is insecure, afraid that he might not really be what he hopes to be, and his reaction to those fears is to beat his chest and stomp his foot.

He is not selfish. He is a young man without a sense of self, lost in the ego-driven mania of professional athletics. There was never more proof of that than when ABC miked Johnson during the Bucs' stunning collapse against the Indianapolis Colts a few weeks back. That night Johnson, who certainly knew his microphone was on, spoke little about the game or the Colts defense he never quite solved. All he could talk about was Indianapolis's brilliant wide receiver, Marvin Harrison.

Johnson demeaned Harrison every chance he got during a game in which Harrison played like what he has become, which is the best receiver in football. Harrison played a key role in a record-breaking rally in which the Colts came back from a 21-point deficit in the final four minutes to beat the Bucs' supposedly impenetrable defense. While Harrison was running pass routes, Johnson was running his mouth, his insecurities on full display for anyone who was paying attention.

Such a situation is a sad one, but it fits what has gone on in Tampa this year. When the Bucs square off against the equally disappointing New York Giants tomorrow night, it will be a meeting of two teams as lost as Keyshawn Johnson. Both are 4-6 after having entered the season with bright hopes. Both are 1-4 at home. Both have played so dismally that Giants linebacker Mike Barrow remarked that the game was "almost like the Toilet Bowl."

The Bucs are on their way to becoming only the sixth defending Super Bowl champion in 37 years to end up with a losing record the following season. Certainly with six games to play they could avoid that fate but nothing they have done thus far, at least until Johnson was sent to his room without dinner, has indicated they were ready to defend the title they won barely 11 months ago.

Removing Johnson from the locker room last week was a wise decision but his presence was not why they are 4-6. Tuesday coach Jon Gruden said his team had to grow to understand that, "It's not only a physical toughness game. It's about mental toughness. We've got to go back to gearing that up and finding a way to return this team to where it can go. Any time we lose, it's the most difficult time in my life, honestly.

"Execution and performance are the No. 1 criteria in winning games and I think the level that we've slipped in some areas is our execution and our performance. I certainly take full responsibility for that and I think a number of our players do also."

One of them was not Keyshawn Johnson. Five weeks ago he told general manager Rich McKay, in what McKay claims were "emphatic terms," that he would never again play for Gruden or the Bucs. He told others he would rather retire than play for Gruden, a cry frankly for someone to tell him they needed him and loved him. When your team is 4-6 and taking on water, though, there is no time for love. You just need to keep bailing.

Johnson didn't understand that and maybe he isn't alone in that in Tampa. Tuesday he became the scapegoat for a failed team that has played as if it's poorly coached (repeatedly being penalized at the most critical junctures and repeatedly folding in the final minutes of close games). It is undermotivated and underachieving.

Keyshawn Johnson was most assuredly part of the problem in Tampa this year, but he was more than that. He was also a symbol of the larger problem there. His team, and his coach, couldn't handle success.

There's a price to pay

Johnson was not released outright because it would have cost the Bucs $6.1 million on its salary cap this year. That would have left them roughly $6 million over the cap and resulted in an immediate gutting of their roster. If he is released or traded next year it will be about a $5 million cap hit . . . At the end of Sunday's loss to the Packers, Johnson had his back to the field and was gesticulating and laughing with some fans. The next day he failed to show up for a mandatory team meeting. By the end of that day his nameplate had been taken off his locker and his belongings had been packed away. Just 24 hours later, Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson was saying, "It's over. His career here is over with the Bucs and we'll move on with the guys we have." . . . Keyshawn's agent is a familiar and hated name in Boston. Remember Jerome Stanley? He was at the center of some bitter disputes with the Celtics over Reggie Lewis and Brian Shaw . . . In the midst of all the turmoil in Tampa, cornerback Ronde Barber did a conference call with his twin brother, Tiki, who is having his own problems holding onto the football for the Giants. It seemed a bit odd but also a bit symbolic of the times that the two would engage in such an activity to hype Monday night's showdown between two embattled teams, but that's pro sports in the new millennium -- celebrity comes before anything else . . . A year ago the Barber brothers were included on People magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People list, but not this year. "We're not in it," Ronde Barber joked. "No way. We're one-hit wonders.". . . One guy who did seem to understand the situation the Bucs are in was Brad Johnson, who when asked about the Giants said, "I'd like to sit here and talk about them but there's probably more to talk about us. If we stay away from penalties and offsides, we'll take care of the game. I don't think it's anything that anybody's done to us all season long." . . . Not surprisingly, Keyshawn will get an instant forum to express his views on Fox's NFL pregame show today. It will be interesting to see if any of Fox's football-players-turned-journalists have the spine to ask him to explain his selfishness and the self-centered approach he has taken to life ever since he entered the NFL. The bigger question would be to ask if he realizes yet how it has hurt his career. Once the league's overall No. 1 draft choice, Johnson has now been given up on by two teams -- the Jets and the Buccaneers. One traded him away because he couldn't get along with the coach, Al Groh. Now a second is ready to do the same. As even his teammate Barber said last week, "I love playing football. I enjoy getting up at whenever I have to get up and be here and get on the field and practice. The team and the organization obviously thought that wasn't a motivating factor for him anymore. There's some impressionable guys in here and you can't afford at this point to have a split locker room because of some guy's opinion or some guy's attitude. They made the necessary decision."

Defensive stance

New York Jets defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell chose to defend himself and his performance last week after rumors began to swirl that he could be axed at the end of the year as a sacrificial lamb. Just a year ago, Cottrell was a finalist for head coach of the 49ers. Now he suddenly doesn't have a clue what he's doing? This is the same guy who had three top six defenses in Buffalo and who rebuilt the Jets' defense into one of the best before salary cap problems led to both of his corners being allowed to go to the expansion Houston Texans and his linebacking corps being allowed to get old. Then drug problems cost him the services of defensive tackle Josh Evans and injuries made Pro Bowl pass rusher John Abraham ineffective. Head coach Herman Edwards is a good guy and a good coach, but he should be ashamed of himself for coming out last Monday and saying Cottrell needed to simplify the Jets' defense to cut down on mental errors. "You get paid to know what you're doing," Cottrell said flatly. "If you make a mistake on something we've been practicing since the first day of minicamp, that's solely on you." That's called demanding personal responsibility, which admittedly is a foreign concept in too many areas of professional sports these days. Cottrell strongly said he was willing to stand on his record of achievement and he should . . . The real problem with the Jets' defense is a lack of enough good personnel and a philosophical clash between Cottrell's approach and Edwards's, which is based on the theories of Tony Dungy, Edwards's former boss. Edwards is certainly free to do whatever he'd like with his defense, but to place its problems at the feet of Cottrell is not only disloyal, it's inaccurate, and he knows it . . . Evans will start today for the first time since he was suspended by the league 10 weeks ago for violating NFL drug policy. He was so enthused about his return to uniform that he nearly caused a fight during a no-pads workout when he grabbed an offensive lineman's facemask and jerked it down during a simulated pass play . . . Coaches were having meltdowns all over New York and New Jersey last week. Not only was Cottrell defending himself, but embattled Giants head coach Jim Fassel was delivering what amounted to a preemptive strike with the team's beat writers. Fassel knows he very likely has to sweep the final six games and win at least one playoff game to avoid seeing his tenure at the helm end after seven seasons. Although Fassel and others have denied it, sources in New York insist the coach made an impassioned appeal to his team recently, telling them he would rather quit than be fired and that they needed to win the final six games if they wanted to keep him around. If he did, that was something less than wise. If he didn't, it happens to be the truth and his players know it. Whether they can do anything about it, or even care to, is another thing entirely.

Rush to judgment?

Things are so overheated in New York that Giants All-Pro Michael Strahan lost his cool during a weekly conference call with opposing beat writers after a Tampa reporter alluded to Packers quarterback Brett Favre having taken a dive to allow Strahan to break the single-season sack record two seasons ago. The question was in reference to Favre not allowing Warren Sapp to get a free sack last week that would have kept the Buccaneers' streak of 69 games with at least one sack going. "If you want to say they gave it to me, that's your opinion," Strahan said. "But you repect me and I'll respect you because right now you're not respecting me. It's easy to disrespect somebody over the phone. I'll be in the locker room and I invite you to come over to my face and introduce yourself and tell me you're the one who asked this question and I'll answer for you. How about that? But you'll probably be a coward and won't do it. Come up to me after the game. I'll be looking for you. Now get off the phone. I'm not answering your questions anymore." . . . There are a lot of reasons why the Giants have stumbled this year, but a key one is red-zone defense. Since the third quarter of the game with the Patriots Oct. 12, they have not stopped a single team from scoring once it got inside the 20-yard line. The Giants' defense has given up 12 straight touchdowns inside the 20, including 3-for-3 efforts in each of its last three games. Oddly, the Giants had given up only five touchdowns in 17 red-zone penetrations in the first five games but over the last five have been unable to stop anyone (11 for 11) . . . Miami coach Dave Wannstedt is another guy whose job is in jeopardy and there may be no way for him to save it. With the Dolphins at 6-4 and their offense all but nonexistent, Wannstedt must find some way to go 5-1 or no worse than 4-2 down the stretch to have a chance at the playoffs. Right now the Dolphins are two games behind the Patriots in the AFC East and likely will be battling the Broncos for a wild-card spot.

Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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