CHARLOTTE – It's all of a quarter through the season, but already you can sense the Tampa Bay Buccaneers might be on to something special from the mania in coach Jon Gruden's voice.
Gruden, whose team controlled the Carolina Panthers from start to finish in a 20-7 victory Sunday, tries to contain himself in times like these. After all, he knows all too well that a 3-1 start is worth about as much as getting a "date" with a Las Vegas stripper.
Yet after going 4-12 last season while losing one quarterback (Chris Simms) to injury and dealing with sixth-round pick Bruce Gradkowski as his starter, Gruden can put a little swagger back in his speech.
And he did in his postgame presser when asked to compare this start with last season's meltdown. Gruden pounced on the question faster than he hits the wings and beer at Hooters.
"We're not going to talk about last year," said Gruden, who entered this season on the hot seat. "Goddamn, I'm so tired of talking about last year. We had a rookie quarterback. We had about 19 guys on (injured reserve). We're putting the train back on the track this year. The train is on the track and rolling. If you want to talk about last year, (director of public relations) Jeff Kamis is available."
Gruden then turned to Kamis and said, "Sorry about that."
He wasn't done preening.
"We're 3-1. We finished the first quarter with authority today. That doesn't guarantee us anything. But we did finish the first quarter with authority, and that's a great accomplishment."
The good feelings were eclipsed by a season-ending injury to running back Cadillac Williams, whom a source said tore the patellar tendon in his right leg. Williams will have another examination soon but admitted the injury was "serious." Patellar tendon tears can be career-threatening, particularly for running backs.
The Bucs also lost left tackle Luke Petitgout to a knee injury, although he was able to walk off the field.
Still, a 3-1 start is a big deal in a division where attrition is taking control. Carolina fell to 2-2, but lost for the second time at home and looked bad in the process. Backup quarterback David Carr looked awful, which is really bad considering that Jake Delhomme's elbow injury is worse than the team is letting on (Fox reported he'll need surgery at some point).
Beyond that, Carolina's supposedly fearsome defensive line featuring Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker continued to be a nonfactor. Panthers defensive tackle Kris Jenkins confirmed that in a calm but direct assessment of his team.
"I'm going to be honest," Jenkins said. "I think the players owe the fans an apology. I would be as upset as they are if had to sit in the stands for four hours and look at that garbage. … That's what it was, garbage.
"This is our issue as a team. As a team, collectively, we have no heart. We have no energy. We have no drive. Football is about pride and passion. I'm going to repeat that again.
Football is about pride and passion. The pride and the passion that you have for this game makes you want to win. It's not about the money. It's not about looking the part. It's not about standing on the field so everybody can see you on TV."
As for the rest of the division, Atlanta mustered up enough pride to beat Houston so as not to get embarrassed in the return of backup quarterback Matt Schaub. But the reality is the Falcons are mighty lost in the aftermath of the Michael Vick fiasco.
Finally, there's New Orleans, which is playing more like Milli Vanilli after the truth came out. In fact, quarterback Drew Brees and running back Reggie Bush are hitting enough sour notes that if you threw a couple dreadlock wigs on them, it'd be the early '90s all over again.
Enter the Bucs, who tore up the Panthers with relative ease on the way to a 17-0 first-half lead. This was the third consecutive win in which the Bucs were cruising from the start. Quarterback Jeff Garcia was quick and decisive. When he saw the Panthers were trying to take away No. 1 receiver Joey Galloway, Garcia went to veteran Ike Hilliard for seven catches and 114 yards, all in the first half. That's Hilliard's best performance in his three years with the Bucs.
When the 37-year-old Garcia, whom the Bucs stole from Oakland in free agency before the Raiders could get a contract finalized, wasn't finding a receiver right away, he was getting out of the pocket and creating on his own. That happened on the first series when Garcia had a choice of two receivers after a play-action fake. Neither was open, and Garcia tucked it away for a 3-yard score.
"This is a team building on its confidence right now," Garcia said. "It was a little frustrating in the second half that we didn't finish the some drives, but that's stuff we'll continue to work on. … This is a team that really likes each other, and with each game, it's a team gaining."
More than anything, it's a team and a quarterback who is allowing Gruden to think big, both in terms of play-calling and the season.
"There's not a play in the playbook that (Gruden) won't call with Jeff back there," Hilliard said. "As long as we keep him clean and allow him to go through his progressions, we're going to be fine."
As for Gruden …
"I'm sure he sleeps easier at night now," Hilliard said. "He has to."