History will be made with the Buccaneers’ next victory, which could come on Sunday as they travel to Dallas to face a wounded 4-3 Cowboys team that is reeling from losses in three of its last four games. Jon Gruden will become the franchise’s all-time winningest head coach with 57 victories in Tampa Bay. He is currently tied with Tony Dungy, who coached the Bucs from 1996-2001, with 56 wins.
After Dungy was fired on January 15, 2002 after losing a road playoff game at Philadelphia for a second straight year, the Glazers embarked on a quest to find an offensive-minded coach with a big name and an energetic presence. Their quest ended on February 18, 2002 when Gruden was acquired in a trade with Oakland in a deal that sent him to Tampa Bay in exchange for two first-round picks (in 2002 and 2003) and two second-round picks (in 2003 and 2004) in addition to $8 million to the Raiders.
Gruden, who compiled a 40-28 record in Oakland, winning two AFC West division titles, became the team’s seventh head coach and was introduced to the media at a press conference on February 20, 2002 where he said, “I’m thrilled to be here, and all I can guarantee is a lot of hard work and effort to try to put the Buccaneers into championship form.”
After losing his first game as Tampa Bay’s head coach in overtime to visiting New Orleans, 26-20, Gruden would guide the team to a franchise-best 12-4 mark during the regular season, followed by playoff wins against San Francisco and at Philadelphia in the NFC Championship Game. After finally beating the Eagles in Philly in the postseason, a berth in Super Bowl XXXVII awaited the Buccaneers, who were set to play Gruden’s former team, the Oakland Raiders, in San Diego.
Gruden’s intimate knowledge of the Raiders’ schemes and personnel, coupled with a revamped Bucs offense that featured new starters and key contributors, such as running back Michael Pittman, wide receivers Keenan McCardell and Joe Jurevicius, tight ends Ken Dilger and Rickey Dudley, offensive linemen Kerry Jenkins and Roman Oben and quarterback Rob Johnson, allowed Tampa Bay to beat Oakland 48-21 and claim its first Super Bowl victory.
Prior to the start of the season, Gruden challenged Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl-ready defense to score nine defensive touchdowns in 2002. The first came on Derrick Brooks’ 97-yard interception return at Baltimore in Gruden’s first Buccaneers victory in Week 2. The last three defensive touchdowns that year came in the Super Bowl as 2002 NFL Offensive Player of the Year Rich Gannon was intercepted five times, with Brooks returning one of those picks for a score, while cornerback Dwight Smith returned two other interceptions for touchdowns to give Tampa Bay a franchise-record nine defensive TDs for the year.
“It’s a tribute to Jon,” Bucs defensive tackle Chris Hovan said of Gruden’s upcoming distinction as the team’s all-time winningest coach. “Ever since he got here he won the Super Bowl and has done great things. Jon is always going to be a pillar here in Tampa Bay because of what he’s done and deservedly so. He’s busted his butt and he’s put more hours in to football than anyone else I know. He’s always been consistent every year. He deserves all the accolades he receives.”
After the Super Bowl win, turmoil came in 2003 with a championship hangover and friction surfacing between Gruden and general manager Rich McKay, in addition to a well-publicized spat between Gruden and wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson that resulted in Johnson being suspended from the team for the final six games of the season. An NFC South division championship in 2005 (11-5) was sandwiched around losing seasons in 2004 (5-11) and 2006 (4-12).
Those three losing seasons, McKay’s departure, a reduced role for aging fan favorite Mike Alstott and a revolving door at quarterback that continues to this day have turned a part of the Bucs fan base and some in the media against him, but Gruden has still persevered.
“No doubt about it,” Bucs tight end Jerramy Stevens said. “It’s hard to win games in this league and he deserves recognition. He’s been a great coach all of his career and for him to get that mark here – especially with Tony Dungy, who is such a great coach and a great man – it says a lot about Coach Gruden because he is the same, but he doesn’t get the recognition for being as good of a man as he is.”
Buccaneers quarterback Luke McCown has seen the scrutiny that Gruden has been under despite winning the Super Bowl and three division titles, which is the most in franchise history, and doesn’t understand why Gruden is not more revered in the Tampa Bay area for his accomplishments.
“I think he’s underappreciated,” McCown said. “I don’t think enough people outside the organization really understand what he does for this team. I get to be around him more than anyone on this team. I get to be around him in the quarterback meetings and the offensive install meetings. I don’t think everybody realizes what he puts into a game plan and what he puts into a motivational talk before a game or the study he puts into a weekly practice or the study about one particular blitz – let alone the other 13 blitzes we might see. It’s really amazing and I’ve loved every minute working for him. I could see how some on the outside would under-appreciate him, but I think on the inside, we all appreciate the work he does and he makes all of us better because of it.”
While Gruden has been lauded for his work ethic and the hours he puts in to get his team prepared to play, he has been criticized at times for how he has handled some players. One such player is wide receiver Michael Clayton, a former first-round draft pick in 2004 that had over 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns as a rookie but has failed to live up to those lofty numbers ever since. Clayton and Gruden have had a rocky relationship over playing time and opportunities, but even Clayton knows that the head coach’s actions and words have the best intentions behind them.
“It’s been an experience, man. It’s been a rollercoaster for me – up and down,” Clayton said. “Coach Gruden is a guy that expects the best at all times, and as a player, you have to give it to him. As a player, you have to respect that and you play your best for him. He and I have never been in cahoots or have been bad, he’s always wanted me to be the best player I can be and I’ve always respected a coach like that. I’ve always respected him and have given him my all whether I’m injured or not. When you have a guy like that who has sincere feelings for the players, he makes that known. It’s tough for fans to see sometimes, but here amongst his guys and his family you know exactly what you are getting and you know how to play for him.”
In 2007, the Buccaneers had to rely on Gruden’s philosophy of demanding superior play from reserve players as the team lost several key starters, such as left tackle Luke Petitgout and running back Cadillac Williams, for the season, and others, such as quarterback Jeff Garcia, for a few games.
“He’s done well with guys filling in,” Clayton said of Gruden. “We expect the next guy to come in and play better. Coach Gruden stresses that and it shows in his preparation and how he helps the next guy in line perform to a higher intensity level than the guy who went out. He’s done a great job of that. He makes his decision and sticks with it, but he prepares to make sure that his decision is the right one.”
Gruden raised eyebrows when he benched Garcia, who went to the Pro Bowl last year, after a 26-20 Week 1 loss at New Orleans that came on the heels of a very shaky preseason. Garcia had missed most of training camp with a calf injury followed by a pinkie injury and didn’t perform well against the Saints.
He was pulled in favor of Brian Griese, who guided the team to a 3-1 mark as the starting quarterback. That validated Gruden’s decision to make the switch, before getting injured at Denver and giving way to Garcia’s return. Garcia has returned to the starting lineup healthy and energized, playing his best football in red and pewter in big victories over Carolina and Seattle.
“It was a gutsy call, and it made Coach Gruden look smart because it was the right call and it turned out right,” Stevens said. “It definitely was gutsy. I have to give a lot of credit to Jeff for being man enough and professional enough to be ready to be called on once again. Everybody knew that was going to happen. You have to give credit to both of those guys for being professional about it.”
One of the areas Gruden has improved in as a young head coach is communicating with players. After much-publicized run-ins with Johnson and defensive end Simeon Rice in 2003 and 2004, respectively, Gruden has won over the locker room by building an effective and efficient offense that holds up its end of the bargain. He has also earned their trust by putting the game into the hands of his players and trusting them as he did in going for a key fourth-and-1 in Tampa Bay’s 27-23 come-from-behind victory at New Orleans last year that helped the Bucs win the NFC South.
“He’s definitely a player’s coach,” Tampa Bay free safety Tanard Jackson said. “Coach Gruden understands what the players go through. He understands the mental toughness that it takes for a player to survive in this league. It’s an honor to play for him.”
Gruden has become more sensitive to the players’ needs over the years, such as reducing the amount of contact in practice, and that has enabled the Buccaneers to weather the storms of 4-12 seasons without the team unraveling and engaging in finger-pointing through the media.
“I think he was pretty darned good when he got here,” Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said of Gruden. “He is one of those exceptional guys that was born to be a young head coach and be successful. He came here at age 38 and he proved himself at Oakland and as an offensive coordinator in Philadelphia. I would say that he’s learned how to battle back from down years. I don’t think Jon had a losing season before 2003 in his four years in Oakland and his first year here. Then he had the biggest test, which was having back-to-back losing seasons. The good ones can adjust, you know? You have to take the good with the bad. Some of the guys let it get to them. But Jon listens to his players, yet he has control. He’s the same way I am. You need to listen, but you can’t change your overall basic philosophy.”
A few of the reasons for the decline of the Buccaneers’ record in 2004 and 2006 were injuries and ineffective play that hampered Gruden’s offense, which hasn’t been ranked in the top 10 since 2003. But to his credit, Gruden, Allen and offensive coordinator Bill Muir have laid the foundation with the drafting of Davin Joseph, Jeremy Trueblood and Arron Sears and signing Jeff Faine and Donald Penn. Those players have helped Tampa Bay produce at least 300 yards of total offense in each of the first seven games this season and not trail at halftime of any of their games. Entering Week 8, the Buccaneers offense is currently ranked eighth in the NFL.
“We’ve always prided ourselves in winning, and it’s always been a letdown during those seasons where that hasn’t happened and we only won five games,” Clayton said. “But we’ve weathered the storm, bounced back and made it to the playoffs. We’ve really grown as an offense. Earlier, we were trying to find ourselves and find our identity as an offense. We had some injuries and some quarterbacks going down. All of that stuff played a factor, but we have an identity now and we’re winning.”
It is rare that a coordinator will stay on when a new coach is hired, but Gruden has had a long-lasting relationship with Kiffin prior to the beginning of his tenure in Tampa Bay. Both men’s families have vacationed together at Reddington Beach, Florida for years, and when Gruden found out he would be working side-by-side with Kiffin on February 18, 2002, he was thrilled. From Kiffin’s standpoint, the feeling was mutual.
With Kiffin minding the defense while he tackled the tall order of revamping the offense, Gruden knew that there would be accountability on both sides of the ball. Over the years, Gruden has given Kiffin virtually complete autonomy over the defense and that approach has worked well for both men.
“As a defensive coordinator, a lot of head coaches will tell you stuff. Jon just makes some suggestions as an offensive-minded head coach,” Kiffin said. “It’s been fun here because he lets us do our thing on defense, but we exchange ideas all the time. This coaching profession has a lot of peaks and valleys. We’ve been up and we’ve been down and he’s never blinked. We were down in 2003 and ’04, but we turned it around and got back in ’05. After ’06, the pressure was really on, but he came back and did a great job in ’07. He’s handled the players really well in the sense that they’ve bought into him. He’s handled the media, and that’s not easy. He has a lot on his plate, but he couldn’t have done it any better.”
Part of the criticism that has dogged Gruden is the fact that he and Allen have taken chances on players with questionable pasts, such as defensive tackle Darrell Russell, wide receivers David Boston and Antonio Bryant, and Stevens. Russell and Boston obviously didn’t pan out, but Bryant and Stevens have performed well on the field and have taken positive steps in rehabilitating their image off the field in Tampa Bay.
“Personally, he gave me the chance to play here – he along with Bruce Allen and the Glazers,” Stevens said of Gruden. “He’s the one that believed in me when I first came out here. When we first talked, we hit it off and I thought he was real candid. He’s obviously got a reputation for being fiery – he definitely is that – but he’s straightforward guy, and I can appreciate that, especially with as much double talk that there is in the business. He’s straightforward and he tells you what’s up. As a man, that’s easier to take. He’ll say, ‘You know what? You are not getting it done, so you’re not going to get this chance.’ At least you can deal with that. I have a lot of respect for Coach Gruden and I’m happy for his upcoming honor.”
Not only will Gruden’s 57th win be the most in franchise history, but there are several other milestones that he has accomplished as well.
• Under Gruden, the Buccaneers have had the most success on the road with a record of 22-30 (.423), which includes a postseason win in the NFC Championship Game at Philadelphia in 2002. Dungy ranks second with a 20-32 mark (.385) in his six-year tenure as Buccaneers coach.
• Gruden ranks second in the NFL among active coaches for the most division titles since 2000 with five, coming from Oakland (2000-01) and Tampa Bay (2002, 2005, 2007). That ranks behind New England’s Bill Belichick (2001, 2003-07) and is tied with Dungy (Indianapolis 2003-07) and Andy Reid (Philadelphia 2001-04, 2006).
• Gruden is tops among the league’s active coaches with 12 wins from different starting quarterbacks. San Diego’s Norv Turner has compiled 10 victories with different quarterbacks.
• Gruden has been one of the NFL’s best young coaches, reaching 86 wins by the age of 45. Only three other coaches have earned more victories by 45, two of which are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame – Don Shula (128) and John Madden (103). Former Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher also ranks ahead of Gruden with 99 wins before the age of 45.
• Gruden is the only head coach that has won multiple NFC South titles, claiming the division crown in 2002, 2005 and 2007.
Aside from winning, what makes Gruden stand out is his trademarked fiery demeanor on the sidelines on game days and during practice. His legendary facial contortions have earned him the nickname “Chucky” from his Oakland days. Although he spends a lot of time working closely with the quarterbacks and the offense as the team’s chief play-caller, Gruden’s emotional coaching style reaches players on both sides of the ball.
“He’s a very aggressive coach,” Bucs wide receiver Maurice Stovall said. “He’s very hungry in that he wants to win by any means possible. His personality plays over to the way we play. He’s very aggressive and he stays up all hours of the night watching film and trying to put us in the best position to win. His career speaks for itself.”
Tampa Bay defensive tackle Ryan Sims echoed those sentiments regarding Gruden’s motivating ways.
“He’s a very fiery guy and he’s great at motivating the team,” Sims said. “All he expects is the best from his players. I didn’t even know that he was going to be the winningest coach in team history, but it’s a great accomplishment. He’s one of those guys who probably won’t even pay attention to it until after the season. He has one goal right now – and it’s not to be the winningest coach in franchise history. It’s to beat the Cowboys.”
Sims is right. Becoming the all-time winningest coach in Buccaneers history is not high on Gruden’s list of priorities as Tampa Bay looks to build on its 5-2 record in Dallas on Sunday. In fact, Gruden’s history-making moment has not even been discussed at One Buc Place. All of the players Pewter Report spoke with did not realize Gruden was on the verge of the monumental win total.
“Is that right? I didn’t realize that,” McCown said. “You can’t say enough about Coach Gruden and the time and the amount of work that he puts in. I’ve said it plenty of times. I don’t think there is a guy that prepares a team to play more than Coach Gruden does. He says it himself that maybe it’s overkill, but we go into every game prepared on Sunday. That says a lot about our coach and the way he motivates us and prepares us to play.”
When asked what he thought about the importance of win number 57 in Tampa Bay, which could come as early as Sunday, Gruden downplayed the looming achievement.
“I try not to think too much about those types of things,” Gruden said. “I feel like I have a great responsibility here. I am very fortunate to have been surrounded by a lot of talented people. I just want to win the next game, whether it’s 28 games or 33 games you’ve won in your career. It really doesn’t matter. We need to win our sixth game. We need to win our sixth game this year bad – so we can win our seventh. I can’t say much more than that.”
History shows that Tampa Bay’s 5-2 starts under Gruden translate into double-digit winning seasons and playoff appearances. At least that’s what happened in 2002 and 2005. If that happens again in 2008, Gruden will have reached another major accomplishment in Tampa Bay – reaching the postseason in back-to-back years. That feat, combined with a contract that runs through 2011 will allow Gruden to keep piling up the wins and further distancing himself from Dungy in the record book.