Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden worked wonders with a Buccaneers team that lost 13 players to the injured reserve list, including a few key starters in running back Cadillac Williams and left tackle Luke Petitgout. Other starters, such as quarterback Jeff Garcia, wide receiver Joey Galloway, running back Michael Pittman, tight end Alex Smith and cornerback Brian Kelly missed more than one game with injuries, yet this Tampa Bay team was able to bounce back from a dismal 4-12 season in 2006 to win the NFC South and finish the season 9-8 after Sunday’s 24-14 playoff loss to the visiting New York Giants.
Through the injuries, backup players stepped in and stepped up, and fantastic team chemistry and solid coaching alone seemed to push this Buccaneers team to a 9-5 record after drubbing Atlanta 37-3 on December 16.
However, Gruden chose to rest some of his ailing and tired starters for the playoffs over the last two games – both of which resulted in losses – and took some heat from the fans and media for that tactic after a third straight defeat, which came on Sunday against New York. A month ago, Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen appeared to be locks for contract extensions, as their current deals are up after the 2008 season.
But after losing four of the last five games, and with Tampa Bay’s offense – which is Gruden’s specialty – underwhelming onlookers with a 17.5 points per game average in those losses, which is two points below its season average of 19.6, there are doubts that contract extensions may be forthcoming for Gruden and Allen. Of course, any decision on contract extensions for the head coach and general manager will be made by the Buccaneers’ owners, the Glazer family, and they are typically secretive in nature with their decision-making process and rarely talk to the media.
While the Buccaneers players in the locker room were obviously disappointed with the way their season abruptly ended, most felt that the season was a successful one and expressed confidence in Gruden as a head coach. Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber was asked about his feelings for Gruden after the game.
“We're a well-coached football team, no doubt about it,” Barber said. “We have probably the best coaches in the league on defense. Jon is a great offensive mind, as well. He's got great assistants. I wouldn't put it on Coach [Gruden]. Jon's done his job and we just didn't execute well enough in a lot of different areas and they beat us today.”
Barber even went so far as suggesting that Gruden get a contract extension when asked.
“Yeah, I do,” Barber said. “It's not for me to say, obviously, but Jon did a lot of good things for us. You start to grow a love for what the guy does for this football team. Unfortunately, we let all of ourselves down today. That's frustrating.”
Tampa Bay nose tackle Chris Hovan had no issue with Gruden as his coach and seemed surprised that the media was asking questions about his future coaching the Buccaneers.
“I always expect Jon to be my coach,” Hovan said. “Jon is the coach of the Buccaneers. I can't speak to that point, but right now, my head coach is Jon Gruden. Until things happen, I don't know, but Jon Gruden is the coach and that's how I always look at it.”
In the coming days, pundits will have a field day second-guessing whether Gruden gaffed in resting some injured starters for the postseason and perhaps losing some momentum in the process.
“We really didn’t have a choice,” Gruden said. “People can question it, here I am and I’ll answer any more questions. We tried to get [wide receiver Joey] Galloway andArron Sears and a number of guys to the game today. The best way to do that was to get them an opportunity to rest and heal. I will be happy to take the criticism. We didn’t lose a game because of what occurred last week. We are unhappy to lose but there are plenty of people that would handle it the same way, I am sure.”
Barber said that resting some key veterans over the past two weeks had little to do with Sunday’s playoff loss to the Giants and the facts bear that out. The Bucs came out and outplayed the Giants in the first quarter – when rust would be the most evident – outgaining New York 78 yards to minus-2 and outscoring the G-Men 7-0.
“You can make a lot out of that, but I don't think we will, obviously,” Barber said of Gruden’s decision to sit out some starters in Tampa Bay’s 21-19 loss at San Francisco and 31-23 loss to Carolina. “This team was rested and ready to go. We had a good game plan. [The Giants] just out-executed us a little bit.”
Buccaneers running back Earnest Graham was very enthusiastic in his support for Gruden.
“Jon Gruden is a fantastic coach,” Graham said. “I can't imagine playing for any other coach that has you more prepared. We over-prepare, which is great in this game. That's what defenses and people in the league try to do. I've never gone into a game feeling like I wasn't prepared. He's a fantastic play-caller, he did a great job with the team this year, and the future looks great. I think the guy's a great coach.”
When asked how he would define this 2007 season in which the Bucs rebounded from last year’s 4-12 record to win the NFC South championship, yet stumbled to a 9-8 finish, Gruden said: “I’m not going to go there. There are plenty of people that can make that assessment, but we overcame what I think people predicted us to do. Combine that with the number of dramatic injuries that we suffered and it’s a great accomplishment. It’s a tremendous accomplishment by these players and I’m really proud of them for that.”
The Glazers may choose not to extend the contracts of Gruden and Allen in the offseason and wait until the 2008 season is under way before making a decision on extensions. That scenario took place this year in Tennessee with Jeff Fisher and in Baltimore with Brian Billick. Both coaches were coming off non-losing seasons but weren’t in danger of losing their locker rooms heading into 2007 despite their lame duck status. Fisher and Billick did receive contract extensions during the ’07 campaign, however, Billick was ultimately fired at the end of the season as the Ravens finished with nine losses out of their last 10 games.
Of course with one year remaining on his deal in Oakland, Gruden and his agent, Bob LaMonte, were angling for a contract extension after the 2001 season season and forced a trade to Tampa Bay when Raiders owner Al Davis refused to extend Gruden’s contract with a sizeable raise.
In 2007 under Gruden, the Bucs improved by five wins over their 4-12 mark in 2006 and won their third NFC South title in six years. Gruden’s offense improved from 29th in the NFL in 2006 to 18th in the league in 2007. The rushing offense improved from 28th to 11th, while the passing offense rose from 26th to 16th.
The Bucs offense scored 20 touchdowns, while averaging 11.9 points per game a year ago, and scored 33 offensive touchdowns, averaging 19.6 points per game – an improvement of eight points per game.
Is that enough improvement for the Glazers to merit contract extensions for Gruden and Allen? Tampa Bay has also lost two straight home playoffs games under Gruden (in 2005 and 2007), and that too may weigh on the Glazers’ decision-making process.
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