It’s amazing how quickly things have changed inside and around One Buccaneer Place over the course of just a year.

This time last year, Tampa Bay’s 2004 season was already out of its misery and the players were in hibernation after producing their second losing season in as many years.

In their quest for answers as to why Tampa Bay had fallen so quickly from the top of the NFL mountain to the bottom of the NFC South division, some fans and members of the local media speculated that head coach Jon Gruden and his right-hand man, general manager Bruce Allen, were flushing what had been a successful team started by Tony Dungy and Rich McKay down the non-working toilets of One Buccaneer Place, which was causing an overflow of criticism and skepticism.

As a result, Gruden, who seemed like he could do no wrong just three years ago after winning the franchise’s first-ever Super Bowl in his first year as the Bucs head coach, and Allen took cover at One Buc Place this offseason, but it wasn’t necessarily to avoid the huge wave of criticism that came their way.

Contrary to popular belief, Gruden and Allen had a plan, and they worked behind the scenes with the Bucs coaches and personnel people in the offseason drawing up and executing the blueprint that they felt would right the Bucs’ ship.

The plan was simple, yet prudent. Build through the draft and use the newfound camaraderie amongst the coaching staff and front office people to bring the locker room closer together, as referenced in Pewter Report’s Teamwork article in its June issue.

An 11-5 record and Tampa Bay’s first NFC South division title since 2002 are two feats that serve as a clear indication that Gruden and Allen’s plan is indeed working.

“All of us have come together, the coaches, the players and all of us just believing in ourselves as players,” said Bucs running back Michael Pittman. “We’re tighter now than we’ve ever been, even the Super Bowl year. Guys are always hanging out, and we have a lot of camaraderie. We’ve become closer as a team, and we believe in each other and trust each other. That’s what we didn’t have last year.”

When asked about those who questioned whether he had or was losing his team and locker room, Gruden reiterated the circumstances in which salary-cap and draft pick-less Bucs have had to endure since winning Super Bowl XXXVII.

“A lot of people are full of (expletive),” Gruden said when asked about those who suggested he was losing his locker room. “This team was (expletive) about as split apart as any team I’ve ever seen when I got in here. [Defensive tackle] Warren [Sapp] hated [wide receiver] Keyshawn [Johnson] and Keyshawn hated Warren, or at least that’s the way I had heard it. We haven’t had a full draft class until this year, so it’s hard to bring in a lot of young players. The first draft that we netted here was [wide receiver] Marquis Walker and [running back] Travis Stephens, and nobody made the team other than [safety] Jermaine Phillips, so there wasn’t an injection of young talent. A lot of the young players that were picked around here weren’t good enough to make our team. With the salary cap and the fact that we had to cut a lot of people like [safety John] Lynch, that was really hard on the chemistry of our football team.”

With several escalating player salaries and a lack of premium draft picks over the past several seasons due to the trade with Oakland that brought Gruden to Tampa Bay in exchange for two first-round and two second-round picks, the deal for Johnson that sent two first-round picks to the New York Jets and the trade for tackle Kenyatta Walker that cost the Bucs a first- and-second round draft pick, the Bucs were forced to fill several vacancies on their team through free agency. Unfortunately, some of those players didn’t have a “team first” attitude since they knew their tenures in Tampa Bay would likely be short-lived.

“We added 19 guys last year, most of them to one-year, league minimum contracts, and that’s not the greatest morale to some of those guys who come in here with a one-year contract when they’re used to making a lot of money,” said Gruden.

Critics were correct in suggesting Tampa Bay’s locker room had some issues over the past two years. Keyshawn Johnson and Gruden didn’t see eye to eye, and that’s putting it mildly, and WR Keenan McCardell wanted a new contract that he claimed his head coach promised he’d help him get.

But the players in Tampa Bay’s locker room today insist neither Johnson nor McCardell were criticizing Gruden on behalf of the entire team.

“We had some distractions here,” said Pittman. “Keyshawn was one of them, you know, with he and Coach Gruden going at it. Keenan’s situation was another one where he was talking about Coach Gruden. Those were personal issues between two guys, but neither one of those guys was talking on behalf of our locker room. They’re their own man, and they might have had reasons for doing what they did, but at the same time we couldn’t have that type of stuff around here. We needed to do what we needed to do to be a better team, and those guys found better situations for themselves. We just believed in our coach and our coaching staff, and most importantly, believed in ourselves again, and that’s been the biggest thing in this turnaround.”

Defensive end Greg Spires echoed Pittman’s sentiments.

“I didn’t question it, and I don’t know of anybody that did,” Spires said of the direction of the team. “I don’t know anybody that was questioning the coaches or the way Coach Gruden coaches or the direction of the team. I mean, guys have their own opinion, and you’re allowed to have your own opinion. But I didn’t sense that at all, and if there was anybody that was questioning Coach Gruden or the direction of this team I’m sure they’re out of here now.”

Even defensive end Simeon Rice, who publicly criticized Gruden near the end of the 2004 regular season for what he perceived to be inconsistency in discipline and preparation, said his head coach has played an important role in Tampa Bay’s turnaround this season.

“[This] could very possibly be his best coaching job this year,” Rice said of Gruden, who disciplined the defensive end twice over a one-year span for missing two mandatory team meetings. “Nothing beats the Super Bowl, but to manage the team, to get the players that he got in this year, to do the things that he did with the tight calls that he made at the time…everybody has, I think, a piece of the victory that we’ve done this year. In the road that we’re about to embark into, we’re going to need the best from everybody – our personnel, our special teams, our units – to really do the things that we want to accomplish this year. So from that aspect of what he’s done this year, managing this team, you can’t really say enough about it.”

Over the past two years, Gruden’s critics have questioned his credentials and ability to coach and manage a team, suggesting he simply reaped the benefits of an Oakland Raiders team assembled by owner Al Davis and a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team put together led by Dungy.

But ask the Bucs players whether Gruden won the Super Bowl with Dungy’s team and one will find that that particular argument doesn’t carry much weight around One Buc Place.

“It was Dungy’s players, but it was Jon’s team,” Bucs Pro Bowl cornerback Ronde Barber said of winning the Super Bowl. “It wasn’t difficult. Guys approached it like it was a job. You have to deal with the personality that you’ve got in a head coach. Jon was definitely different than Tony, but that was not necessarily a bad thing.”

Despite the cap challenges that have been brought on by several escalating contracts negotiated by McKay and a few suspect deals for players like tackles Derrick Deese, Todd Steussie and running back Charlie Garner, which were executed by Allen, Gruden and Allen have given the Bucs a much-needed infusion of youth in their first two drafts together.

Tampa Bay had 22 draft picks over the past two years, and 18 of those players are still with the team by way of the active roster or practice squad.

To Allen’s credit, his second venture in free agency as Tampa Bay’s general manager proved to be more fruitful, giving the Bucs several players who have played key roles in the team’s success this season, and for a much better price.

“It’s been a grind, it’s been a grind, but fortunately for us, Bruce has hit the lottery with [defensive tackle Chris] Hovan, [wide receiver] Ike Hilliard, [tight end] Anthony Becht, [kicker] Matt Bryant, and you can throw [cornerback] Juran Bolden in there,” said Gruden. “Those guys have really come through for us. We’ve also added some draft choices that are damn good players. They aren’t just draft choices. Three of them are starters, and one of them is Rookie of the Year. They’re great people, and they’re guys you can build your franchise around. Hey, Chris Simms has come through, too. We’ve realized that we’ve had our work cut out for us, and our work is cut out for us. We still have some restraints in terms of what we want to do, but we just have to keep pushing on.”

While there are still veteran leaders like Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Brooks, fullback Mike Alstott, cornerbacks Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly, center John Wade, wide receiver Joey Galloway and defensive end Simeon Rice on the Bucs roster, the youth movement at One Buc Place has helped to bring Tampa Bay’s locker room closer together.

“I think it’s been huge for our team,” said third-year quarterback Chris Simms. “During the offseason we closed the generation gap a little bit. We have a good amount of young guys, we have some middle-of-the-road guys and then we have the veteran leaders. When I first got here it was all veteran leaders and all first- and second-year guys. That’s hard because all of the veteran guys have families that they go home to. The younger guys want to go out and go party a little bit. This is a really close group we have this year. We’re all close to the same age. When you go through two losing years like we had here and it makes you wake up and say, ‘We have to turn this thing around a little bit.’ We took some time out to go out and eat together and do things together. We go to each other’s house and play video games together and do things kids would do, just screwing around.

“We’re pretty close. On most teams in the NFL you’re probably going to find one, two or three guys that don’t get along, but we don’t seem to have that on our team. Everyone seems to get along real well. We all enjoy being around each other, and we’re all on the same page.”

But simply building Tampa Bay’s roster through the draft didn’t guarantee the Bucs having a close and united locker room this year. That’s why Gruden and Co. made a point to bring the players together both on and off of the football field.

“It starts with coaching staff and comes down to us,” Pittman said. “Coach Gruden took us to the movies and bowling and things like that during the offseason to help show us the importance of working together as a team. The next day in practice he’d work us hard. It’s a good balance, and it worked.”

Of course, there are other people besides Gruden and Allen who deserve credit for helping to build a better team and chemistry in Tampa Bay this season.

“Jon is doing what he’s always done, but he’s really put a lot of faith in his players,” Barber said. “I don’t know if governing themselves is the right way to say it, but he puts a lot on his veteran players to lead his ball club. That’s his job. If everybody buys into that system, which I think we did better this year than we did in the past couple of years, you see the results. You have a team that plays together. You have a team that really enjoys winning for each other. That’s a reflection of Jon and what he believes in doing.”

Critics will say what they want about Gruden, who has often been accused of having an ego the size of Florida, but if he did have such a huge ego, Tampa Bay’s head coach was certainly humbled by two straight losing seasons. In fact, he’s pushed ego aside and recognized and tackled flaws that existed with his team. He still relies on the feedback of some of his players to help him remedy those problems if and when they surface.

“I’ve got 10 or 15 guys, players, that I lean on,” said Gruden. “I talk to Derrick Brooks during special teams period, and I walk over and see Ronde Barber and Mike Alstott. I talk to the quarterbacks who are in the huddle with the team. I talk to John Wade. I talk to about 10 or 15 guys, and some of the guys I am concerned with I check on myself. That’s just what you have to do these days. Those guys have a great will. They want to be good. They are good, and they’re one of the best teams in franchise history. People can say what they want, but these guys have earned the right to be called a good football team.”

When the Bucs were losing in 2003 and 2004, some pointed the finger at Gruden and Allen, and certainly a portion of the criticism was warranted. However, some of the Bucs players will tell you that they probably didn’t receive enough of the blame for the Bucs’ shortcomings over the last two years.

“I never sensed that Coach [Gruden] was losing the locker room,” said Simms. “Those were just rumors that got started because people probably couldn’t figure out why we were losing. The analysts and everybody out there will naturally start speculating, but we as a football team and the players alone didn’t find a way to win some football games over the last two years, and they were games we should have won. That’s the difference in this league. The difference between a Super Bowl champion and a team that doesn’t make the playoffs can be as little as 10-12 plays all year. We’re finding a way to come through with those plays this year.”

Simms has a point. Tampa Bay lost 20 regular season games from 2003-04, and 15 of them came by seven points or less, which was a clear indication that those two Bucs teams couldn’t figure out a way to win enough tight games.

This year has been similar in a lot of ways, but has produced much different results. Eight of Tampa Bay’s 16 games were decided by seven points or less, and the Bucs found a way to win six of them.

There are a few reasons why the Bucs have been able to win the games this season that they probably would have lost last year.

The Bucs are much healthier now than they have been over the past two seasons. They’ve also limited turnovers, going from minus-9 turnover ratio at the end of the 2004 season to a plus-7 turnover ratio in 2005.

Field goal kicking has also been huge. From 2003-04, the Bucs had the worst field-goal kicking percentage in the league. This season, Bryant has made 84 percent of his kicks.

Tampa Bay’s defense has also returned to its dominant ways this season, finishing the year ranked No. 1 overall. But to his credit, Gruden has gotten the entire team, including the veterans on the defensive side of the ball, to buy into his “one play at a time” philosophy, which was originally implemented for a young offense that currently has three first-year starting offensive linemen, three rookie starters in running back Cadillac Williams, tight end Alex Smith and guard Dan Buenning, and a backup signal caller in Simms.

“Right now, Coach Gruden is just a team man that’s keeping it simple,” said Brooks. “One practice at a time. I know I keep saying that, but that’s really the focus he asks us to do. Just keep our goals simple, worry about getting better from day to day. We’ll get what we deserve on Sunday. I think that mindset, set a tone for the young guys. That’s what got them playing now. You don’t give them too much, you help them succeed. That’s more or less what he has done.”

Perhaps one of the most important things that has played a role in Tampa Bay’s turnaround this season has been accountability.

“We haven’t had a real lack of accountability here,” said Gruden. “You can’t play here if you’re not accountable. We’ve already dismissed some players because of a lack of accountability, so there is a high standard here. When you lose games sometimes there’s some idol chatter that suggests there’s no accountability, and there’s no accountability when you can’t make field goals or when you’re fumbling the ball in the red zone. You’re not going to win tight games that way. But we have a staff that is going to demand accountability. We’ve added some talented players and we’ve stayed healthy at some positions, and we’ve added some better players than what we’ve had here. Those are all big reasons why we’re getting better.”

During the offseason, the Bucs brought in Hall of Fame coach Bill Wash to express to the players the importance of holding themselves and each other accountable. It was a message the players heard loud and clear.

“That’s the biggest thing, guys being accountable,” said Pittman. “We have everybody on that field believing in each other and trusting each other that we can get the job done, whether it’s throwing the ball, catching it, making a tackle, stopping ’em on third down or blocking a field goal like we did the other week. Everybody is being accountable for that job. Guys are trying their best.”

Ask the coaches and players and they’ll tell you they’re holding each other, and more importantly themselves, more accountable this year.

“He’s rebounded well and stayed the course,” Brooks said of Gruden. “More importantly, he’s just managed the football team and trusted his assistant coaches a little more. All that came in to play. He’s raised the accountability level from coaches to the players. All of those little things are important and have played a part.”

Case and point: Bucs tackle Kenyatta Walker made three “effort” plays earlier in the year when he made touchdown-saving tackles after interceptions had been thrown.

That type of effort and hustle rubbed off on Walker’s teammates. In fact, Pittman, who raced 46 yards downfield to make a touchdown- and-game-saving tackle on Atlanta CB DeAngelo Hall after Simms had thrown an interception in the Bucs-Falcons game in Week 16, said he was inspired by the plays Walker had made earlier in the season.

“It’s contagious,” said Pittman. “When you see your guy hustling and making plays, you want to make plays and get your teammates excited about something you did. We feed off each other.

“When Hall intercepted the ball, I thought it was my job to run hard and chase the guy down. I was tired, but at the same time I knew it could be a big play for us. Hey, it paid off in the end. Everybody is out there hustling and playing hard for themselves and each other.”

With all of the blame and criticism they received during their two losing seasons, it’s only right that a tremendous amount of credit be thrown the way of Gruden, the coaching staff and front office, and of course, the players, for the job they have done this season.

Several things and people have played a vital role in Tampa Bay’s tremendous turnaround from 5-11 to 11-5. The fact that 2005 was deemed a “rebuilding” year by many pundits suggests, as Gruden once said, that the future in Tampa Bay could be so bright that you just have to wear shades.

“About this time last year guys were ready to go home,” said Pittman. “There were guys that already had their cars packed. This year has been nice. We’re ready to go in the playoffs and hopefully get to the Super Bowl. You can see the bounce in everybody’s step. Everybody is excited to be in this situation. The past two seasons were rough, but the future is bright for this team if we continue to play hard and for each other.”

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