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There are plenty of vultures circling One Buccaneer Place after Tampa Bay’s 2-7 start to the 2006 regular season.

But the vultures have been circling longer than this season. In fact, they’ve been hovering over One Buc Place in search of dead meat since the 2003 season, which is when the Bucs went from Super Bowl champions to chumpions.

One can certainly understand the fans’ frustration with the Buccaneers, who have compiled a 25-32 regular season record since winning Super Bowl XXXVII.

This team is 2-7 and going nowhere fast, or at least not this season. Sports talk radio and local newspapers are getting flooded with calls and letters for head coach Jon Gruden’s job.

But pointing the finger at one person, in this case, the head coach, is too easy. The problems and challenges this team have endured go much deeper than that.

Now, Gruden certainly deserves his fair share of the blame as he’s ultimately responsible for how the team fares on the football field, particularly on the offensive side of the ball since he calls the plays.

His offenses have finished the past four seasons ranked 24th, 10th, 22nd and 23rd, respectively. This season, the Bucs offense, which has a sixth-round pick, rookie quarterback (Bruce Gradkowski), two rookie offensive linemen (guard Davin Joseph and tackle Jeremy Trueblood) and three second-year starters (guard Dan Buenning, tight end Alex Smith and running back Cadillac Williams), ranks 30th in the NFL.  

Critics have raked Bucs general manager Bruce Allen across the coals as well. Allen wasn’t exactly welcome by the Rich McKay loyalists, and he was held responsible for releasing John Lynch, a move that freed up $4.5 million in much-needed salary cap room and not re-signing Warren Sapp, and inking tackle Todd Steussie and running back Charlie Garner to lucrative contracts.

Although Tampa Bay managed to go 11-5 and win the NFC South division championship last season, that accomplishment has been quickly dismissed in light of the Bucs’ current 2-7 record and what will likely be the team’s third losing season in four years.

Those are some of the reasons you’ll typically hear thrown into the argument that suggests Gruden and Allen should be fired after the 2006 season.

But what some don’t understand, or perhaps don’t want to acknowledge in order to carry out their own agendas, is there are other facts that help explain why the Bucs are heading for their third losing season in five years since winning Super Bowl XXXVII.

It almost seems as if some people want Gruden and Allen fired just for the sake of doing it. You’d be hard pressed to hear anyone offer up some solutions in terms of finding replacements for these two men.

Okay, Gruden and Allen are fired today. Who are your candidates to replace Gruden as head coach in Tampa Bay?

How about Charlie Weis from Notre Dame? Not likely. He’s pretty happy at Notre Dame. How about Pete Carroll from USC? No, he’s quite content with his college gig, too. Perhaps attempting to lure Dick Vermeil out of retirement is an option, or maybe not.

But are any of these men going to fare better with what Gruden has to work with? Is Weis going to get Bruce Gradkowski to play like Tom Brady? Would Carroll miraculously teach Michael Clayton, Cadillac Williams and other culprits how to catch the football, or Williams how to find running lanes that aren’t there against defenses that are daring the Bucs to throw the football? Would Vermeil be deemed a savior by remedying whatever the heck is wrong with Monte Kiffin’s defense?

Not likely. Besides, is it ever worth the risk? The Bucs do, after all, have a lot invested in Gruden. The Glazers traded away four premium draft picks and $8 million to the Oakland Raiders in exchange for Gruden’s services.

The Glazers brought Gruden to Tampa Bay with two objectives in mind — implement a potent offense and win a Super Bowl. Through four and a half seasons, Gruden has accomplished one of those objectives. The other is still a work in progress.

Some have discredited the fact that Gruden was able to help the Bucs win their first-ever Super Bowl, suggesting he won with Tony Dungy’s team or Kiffin’s defense.

That’s just plain ignorant. When Gruden landed in Tampa Bay in late February, he was charged with the difficult task of assembling an entire offensive coaching staff and teaching them his version of the West Coast offense just days before free agency began.

Gruden also assembled an offense through free agency, signing tackle Roman Oben, guard Kerry Jenkins, running back Michael Pittman, tight ends Ken Dilger and Rickey Dudley and wide receivers Keenan McCardell and Joe Jurevicius. Eight of the Bucs’ 11 offensive starters were new in Gruden’s first year, and although it struggled throughout parts of the regular season, this unit came together toward the end of that season and helped the Bucs score 78 of the 106 points they put on the scoreboard in three post-season games.

There’s no doubt Tampa Bay’s defense, which ranked No. 1 overall that season, carried the team to the Super Bowl, but Gruden’s offense carried its own weight toward the end of that season and played an integral role as well.

So, to say Gruden won with Dungy’s defense is to say Dungy is currently winning with Jim Mora’s team or Tom Moore’s offense in Indianapolis. Both coaches deserve more credit than that. Dungy was and still is a great head coach. He made the playoffs in four of the six seasons he coached in Tampa Bay and only produced one losing season.

However, Gruden has produced just as many division championships as Dungy did with the Bucs, and he did something Dungy did not by winning the Super Bowl.

For whatever reason, Gruden and Allen’s critics seem to ignore the legitimate salary cap issues that have plagued the Buccaneers since 2002.

Sure, it might sound like an excuse, but it’s a real reason why with the exception of the 2005 season the Bucs have imploded since winning the Super Bowl.

If you don’t believe Gruden and Allen when they mention the salary cap challenges, just ask former New York Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum what the Bucs’ books looked like when he visited One Buccaneer Place per the request of Bill Parcells, who coincidentally backed out of the head coaching job in Tampa Bay just a few days later.

Tannenbaum, who was slated to be the team's general manager if Parcells took the head coaching job, looked at the player contracts that McKay did and advised Parcells not to take the job because the team's Super Bowl window was closing fast before the team would be thrust into salary cap hell.

With or without Gruden, Tampa Bay’s salary cap was headed for trouble, but when the Glazers traded two first-round picks and two second-round picks to the Raiders for Gruden, the cap was inevitably going to become even more of an issue for the Bucs.

The cap problems became worse when McKay signed several players, including quarterback Brad Johnson, wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, kicker Martin Gramatica, defensive tackle Anthony McFarland and defensive end Simeon Rice to long-term, lucrative contract extensions.

It’s tough to blame those deals on Gruden when he didn’t know some of them were executed until after they were actually finalized (see his reaction when asked by a group or reporters about Rice becoming the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL at the NFL Owners Meetings in Hawaii).

Being without those premium draft picks hurt the Bucs. Of course, trading two first-round picks for Keyshawn Johnson in 2000 and a first- and second-rounder for tackle Kenyatta Walker in 2001 didn’t help matters, either. Those moves were made before Gruden and Allen even arrived in Tampa Bay.

And in the first draft McKay headed up with Gruden as head coach, the Bucs were without their first two picks and wasted several of the other selections they did have on players that didn’t pan out.

In 2002, the Bucs drafted wide receiver Marquis Walker, running back Travis Stephens, safety Jermaine Phillips, defensive end John Stamper, cornerback Tim Wansley, tight end Tracey Winstrom, wide receiver Aaron Lockett and center Zach Quaccia. Of those players, only one – Phillips – is still playing in the NFL.

The loss of premium draft picks, wasted draft selections and escalating player salaries and cap values have all contributed  to Tampa Bay’s salary cap woes, which in turn have kept the team from being active in free agency over the past several seasons.

Yes, the Bucs managed to retain all but one starter from their 2005 NFC South division championship team, but do you really think they weren’t interested in signing the likes of QB Drew Brees, G Steve Hutchinson, K Ryan Longwell, WR Eric Moulds or LB Will Witherspoon? Of course they were, but they couldn’t afford them.

Although it’s been a painful three offseasons for Allen, his plan of getting the Bucs out of cap hell by 2007, which he stated upon his arrival in 2004, is about to come to fruition. Tampa Bay is scheduled to be as much as $27 million under the league-mandated cap in ’07, and that’s without even releasing or trading any players. The Bucs also are looking at the possibility of having a top 10 or maybe even a top 5 selection in the 2007 NFL Draft.

As Gruden once said, the future in Tampa Bay was so bright he had to wear shades. Well, there’s no question the future is bright from a cap and draft standpoint, but one has to wonder if Gruden and Allen will be here to reap the benefits.  

Truth is, it really doesn’t matter what the people outside of One Buccaneer Place believe should happen to Gruden and Allen, whether they should be retained or fired.

The only opinion that matters is that of the Glazers, who have a pretty good understanding of the circumstances in which Gruden and Allen have had to endure and work with since the Bucs won the Super Bowl.

How quickly people forget that the Glazers mortgaged Tampa Bay’s future when they traded four premium draft picks to Oakland in exchange for Gruden. At the time, you would have been hard pressed to find someone that didn’t agree it would all be worth it if the Bucs won a Super Bowl, and they did. Gruden did.

Like him or not, Gruden’s ability to take the Bucs to – and through – the Super Bowl was quite a feat, as was his ability to take his team from 5-11 to 11-5 and win the NFC South division championship last season.

Do Gruden and Allen deserve criticism? Absolutely. Should they be on the hot seat with improvement expected from the Bucs in 2007. Of course. They’re not perfect, but neither are the circumstances in which they’ve had to endure, which is why they deserve to stick around for at least one more season.  

It’s easy to just point the finger at one person, or in this case, two, and utter Donald Trump’s famous words, “You’re fired!” But there’s no disputing the fact that the Bucs are still making payments on the Lombardi Trophy they hoisted on Jan. 26, 2003. The good news is those payments stop, starting in 2007.

This story is intended to be read by Pewter Insider subscribers only. Sharing of the PI content with non-subscribers of this service can result in cancellation of your subscription to the service and/or further actions by the publishers.



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