In Shaun King, new Buccaneer Offensive Coordinator Les Steckel inherits a quarterback in a similar position to the one he inherited in Tennessee in 1997: Steve McNair
For the second time in four years, Les Steckel is preparing to lead a revival. Charged with turning around a Buccaneer offense that has finished in the league's bottom third for seven consecutive years, Steckel was in a similar position with the Tennessee Oilers in 1997. Having just moved to Memphis from Houston, the Oilers were hoping to turn around an attack that had finished 18th, 23rd and 26th the three previous seasons.
That's where the similarities end, however. The Oilers' offensive woes were a relatively recent development, a short dip after a long period of excellence. Operating in the run-and-shoot style of Head Coach Jack Pardee and Offensive Coordinator Kevin Gilbride, Houston had finished in the top three in overall offense in each of the first four seasons of the 1990s. That attack was not built on balance, however; the Oilers were ranked first, second or third in passing offense each of those years but never better than 12th in rushing offense, usually much lower.
Jeff Fisher became the Oilers' head coach 10 games into the 1994 season and the run-and-shoot died the next season with the arrival of offensive coordinator Jerry Rhome. Houston's attack became more even, ranking 18th in rushing and 19th in passing and leading the league in time-of-possession, but still finished 23rd overall. The addition of Heisman Trophy-winning RB Eddie George the next year energized Rhome's rushing game, which finished sixth in the league as George piled up 1,389 yards, but the Oilers improved to just 18th in total offense.
Enter Steckel, promoted from wide receivers coach to run the offense in 1997. Steckel, a staunch proponent of 'hard-nosed' football, got George and the Oilers' running game up to third in the league but the passing attack slipped to 29th behind a developing Steve McNair and Tennessee remained 18th overall. Steckel achieved the balance he was looking for the next season, as Tennessee ran the ball 462 times, threw 519 passes and leapt to ninth in the overall offensive rankings. Although the Titans slid back to 13th last season, they evened out their rankings at 13th rushing and 13th passing and scored 62 more points than they had the year before. Six different Titans caught at least 20 passes, including two tight ends and a running back, and 15 different players scored touchdowns for Tennessee.
"I really believe in balance," said Steckel. "Everybody talks about a balanced team…in the Super Bowl we ran the ball 32 times and we threw it 32 times. I'd call that balance. As I tell the players, there are games when we are featuring someone against someone. We had tight ends like Jackie Harris and Frank Wycheck and strong receivers when Yancey was healthy plus Kevin Dyson and then a running back like Eddie that can catch the ball. You want to move the ball around so the defense can't say, 'They're going to throw the ball to the tight end' or 'They won't do it here.' When you go into a ballgame, you have a plan of attack, and it's not the same every week because you don't have the same opponent every week."
What Steckel faces in Tampa is not a comeback from a short downturn but the reconstruction of an attack that has never been among the league's best. Tampa Bay has employed six different offensive coordinators in its 24-year existence and operated without an offensive coordinator in 14 of those seasons. The Bucs have cracked the top 10 just once on offense, when they ranked 10th in 1984 under 'offensive moderator' John Brunner during Head Coach John McKay's final season. They have not finished higher than 16th since and have been rated 20th or worse in 13 of the last 15 campaigns.
This is not to say that Steckel's task is impossible. On the contrary, the Buccaneers have several offensive pieces in place that should remain Steckel of the hand he was dealt in '97 with the Oilers. Though McNair was in his third season, he had played little as a 1995 rookie and had taken over as the starter in the final month of 1996. Buccaneer QB Shaun King will head into his sophomore season in 2000 after taking over as Tampa Bay's starter for the last two months of 1999 (including playoffs).
The powerful George gave the Titans a consistently bruising rushing attack that finished third, ninth and 13th in Steckel's three seasons in Tennessee. In that same span, the Bucs tandem of FB Mike Alstott and RB Warrick Dunn has led its team to very similar ground rankings of 11th, fourth and 15th. In Tennessee Steckel built around a strong offensive line that mixed young up-and-comers like Brad Hopkins and Jon Runyan with veteran stalwarts such as Bruce Matthews and Mark Stepnoski. Tampa Bay has the potential for the same development with young players such as Frank Middleton, Jason Odom and Jerry Wunsch led by center Jeff Christy, a veteran in his prime.
Steckel will once again work on blending those strong elements into a varied but fundamental attack. "You guys are interested in us pulling up the passing game," said Steckel to a gathering of media. We know how to throw the football, but I believe that we're also very confident knowing that the common denominator of football is a tough, physical game."
Steckel also shared a bit of offensive philosophy that fans will certainly recognize from previous Dungy statements: avoidance of turnovers is crucial. "Steve McNair, every year in the three years that he's been our starter, has set a franchise record for fewest interceptions," said Steckel of his Tennessee tenure. "We were second this year and second last year in fewest giveaways. When people believe in something, as I think our players do and I think our offensive staff will and our coaches and players will, it will all come about."
To Steckel, balance and ball-control don't have to equal boring. Upon his hiring in Tampa Bay, he quickly disagreed with the notion that the Buccaneers' attack would be hum-drum.
"I don't think conservative is a dirty word, but I'm not sure if I'm conservative," he said. "I've been accused of being extremely creative, sometimes overboard. I don't know if 'extremely creative' and 'conservative' go together. If you look at some of the offenses that (I) have been a part of, we've lined up with one-back and no-back and thrown the ball 50 times in many games. We just try to do what it takes to win. That's a pretty simple statement, but the game's not that complex so why should we make it (complex)?"