The Bucs won with only 65 rushing yards in Cincinnati, but they don't expect that formula to hold up down the stretch
In a way, it's like Brian Billick taking the Baltimore Ravens to the Super Bowl championship with the league's 22nd-ranked passing attack and an unparalleled defense.
Given Billick's days as ringmaster of the Minnesota Vikings' high-flying passing attack, it was a shock to see him win in such a different manner with his own team.
Tony Dungy's 2001 Tampa Bay Buccaneers are winning, also, though perhaps not as much as originally expected. They've won two in a row to go to 6-5 on the season and they have designs on another dramatic December finish.
And they're doing it with the worst running attack in the Bucs' 26-year history.
Certainly, a Lombardi Trophy made Billick comfortable with his new approach to winning. Dungy, on the other hand, does not want to continue down the path his team has taken to this point. He remains surprised and unhappy about the Bucs' inconsistent running attack.
"I've not been around a team – really, I'd have to think back – where we were not a good running game," said Dungy. "It's been a long, long time and it goes against my beliefs on how you win games."
From 1980 through 1995, the Buccaneers' running attack never ranked better than 12th in a given season and was usually in the 20s. Dungy arrived in 1996 and his 6-10 finished 22nd on the ground.
However, the Bucs' improved to 11th in rushing in 1997, their breakthrough season, a 10-6 campaign that earned Tampa Bay its first playoff berth since 1982. The next year, the Bucs ranked fourth in the NFL in rushing but missed the playoffs at 8-8. Rankings of 15th and ninth and two more playoff berths followed.
Many expected Tampa Bay's best season yet to come next, but it has been another dogfight, and in no small part because the Bucs are ranked 29th in the league in rushing, with just 79.8 yards per game. The worst average in team history was 80.6, in 1993. The only two teams in the NFL this year averaging less on the ground are the floundering Detroit Lions and Carolina Panthers, who have a combined 1-22 record this season.
Tampa Bay has won with precision passing, turnovers and enough defense at the right times. Except in its 41-14 downing of Minnesota on October 28, it has not won with the running game.
Billick may have rode the Ravens' approach to the top, but Dungy and the Bucs don't believe their current formula is the way to win down the stretch.
"I think it's hurt us all year, and not just in the red zone," said Dungy. "It's hurt us closing out games at the end, making first downs to win games, not getting the big start. It's hard if you don't run the ball well. It's hard to be effective in a lot of phases. It's something that we've got to work through and we've got to get better in the last five weeks."
Last December, when the Bucs won four straight games to secure a playoff spot, beating Buffalo, Dallas, Miami and St. Louis, they averaged 167.3 yards per game. Though there are two members of the offensive line and a new offensive coordinator this year, much of the offense is still intact and the Bucs believe they can regain those big rushing days if they put their minds to it.
"We just have to play better," said Dungy. "We've got to take advantage of our opportunities. We've had some good runs, but it just wasn't consistent enough. We've had too many minus runs and we've got to get that taken care of. We've looked a little bit over the last couple of days at the reasons for that. We'll see if we can get it going. But running it is a mindset many times, and we've just got to get into that mindset that it's December and it's time that we start running the ball."
As Dungy indicated, the Bucs have put a special emphasis on their running game in practice this week. Rather than point fingers for the rushing problems, he believes improvement has to come from effort across the board.
"It starts with all of us," said Dungy. "It starts in practice, how we're setting up the game plan, what we're trying to do. It starts with our offensive team, me, the coordinator, all of us. We've got to get it going. It's one thing to say we're just going to call 30 runs, but we can't have 45 yards on 30 plays. We've got to make it happen and we've got to find out what's going on and adjust it if we need to."
It is possible, of course, that the Bucs can win their final five games without finding a way to improve its ground attack. They did win with only 65 rushing yards and 2.2 yards per carry last weekend in Cincinnati. But the Bucs aren't counting on it.
"We have to execute our running game better all the way around," said Dungy. "It's got to be a mindset. We've got to go in with the idea that we've got to get it going."