In his Monday press conference Bucs head coach Jon Gruden made it crystal clear that interceptions cannot and will not be tolerated on his team.

To this point, the coach has been a staunch supporter of quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, and while some had criticized the rookie for being too cautious with his passes earlier this season, Gruden praised his ability to protect the ball. In fact, Gradkowski went an NFL-record 202 passes with just one interception to start his career. But he has thrown eight picks over his last four games, including three against Pittsburgh on Sunday.

That seems to have put a different spin on Gruden’s approval rating.

“We looked at film all morning,” Gruden said Monday. “I don’t foresee a quarterback change, although if we continue to throw interceptions that will be an obvious change that we will obviously need to make.”

Like he has done following each of the team’s losses this season, Gradkowski bravely faced the media Monday responding to Gruden’s comments with a clear sense of accountability, saying at 3-9, considering a switch at quarterback would be understandable.

“Throwing interceptions is uncalled for,” Gradkowski said. “Especially two of the ones I threw last night. I’d put myself on the bench if I keep doing that.

“I talked to Coach after the game last night. That’s a good defense we faced. He knows I made a couple stupid mistakes and he said you have to learn from it and have to get better. It’s only going to get easier, he said, and he is right, the more mistakes I make I have to learn from.”

The common bond between the head coach and pupil is that they share the same inner passion for winning and competitive spirit. And as quick as Gruden was to point out that mistakes such as those Gradkowski made cannot be tolerated, he also was forced to deflect some of the blame off of his young quarterback by pointing out obvious miscues by receivers, which he labeled “game changing drops.”

That’s a term that has become very common in Gruden’s Monday morning press conferences this season.

While it’s not proper protocol for any quarterback, especially a rookie, to call out or place blame on a teammate, Gruden took up for his cause pointing out the Cadillac Williams drop in the first half on a crucial third down play as well as wide receiver Michael Clayton’s mishandling of what would’ve been a game-changing touchdown.

In all, Gruden says he counted five dropped passes in Sunday’s game.

With the team in the fragile state it is right now, keeping the locker room together is important. Having an ability to shake off games that Gruden labeled as “gut wrenching and humiliating” experiences takes “mental toughness,” according to the coach. And Gradkowski appears to have that.

When asked what Gruden said when he slapped him on the chest following one of his interceptions on Sunday, the rookie responded with the self-criticism you’d likely hear from Gruden had their roles been reversed.

“He hits me in the chest a lot,” Gradkowski said. “He was probably just asking, ‘Come on man, what are you thinking?’ Hey, a couple of those decisions last night, he should have punched me in the face for.”

Another word that has been popping up on a regular basis in Monday morning speeches by Gruden is “obvious.” Sure, it may just be a verbal pause or a hitch word in his speech pattern, but it does hold some merit when it is thrown into certain repetitive topics.

When speaking of Gradkowski and the offense’s inability to form any rhythm or make plays, Gruden said, “Obviously, there is a lot of work which needs to be done.”

When he speaks about reviewing game film, Gruden mentions finding players who can help the team win a championship. Those who can’t, he says, “Obviously won’t be part of this program.”

And according to Gruden, there are “obviously” some plays that the Bucs need to step up and make in order to compete in the National Football League. While he left that statement open for interpretation, any coach, player or fan would have to assume first down receptions and open touchdown passes are the case in point.

“That ain’t going to change,” Gruden said. “And if were not going to make [plays], we’re not going to win. And if we have to coach confidence, we’ll coach confidence.

“We’ve got to coach that [confidence] this week maybe harder. But some of these guys, dammit, are better than I think they’ve shown at times. “

Losses wear on a coach. And it’s apparent Gruden’s trademark scowl has sprouted a few more wrinkles with each new loss this season. If there is a Chucky doll out there with a string in its back and a recorded message that repeats each time you pull it, it may make perfect sense to plug in the tape from any of Gruden’s Monday briefings. The sound bites haven’t changed much, if at all, this year.

Some might label the coach’s logic as simply excuses, others may find merit in them. But vary rarely do coaches or players give us a true glimpse into what they are really thinking. It’s NFL code to speak in cliché. But if and when it does happen, it’s typically the sign of a true meltdown.

And although 3-9 is excruciatingly rough, especially for a competitive person such as Gruden, a meltdown seems far off.

On Monday he continued to paint the best and most optimistic picture of a 3-9 team possible. He praised ownership and reiterated that if the team keeps working hard, if they hang in there long enough, the ship will indeed get righted.

But there were little signs, hidden in the rhetoric, of a coach beginning to get more frustrated and therefore one more willing to admit these last few games will determine who stays and who goes in rebuilding for next season.

“In this league sometimes the only way to take a huge step forward is to go through some tough times,” Gruden said. “Not only for obvious reasons, but for your whole mental make up.

“This football team will get hardened. A lot of these guys are getting hardened right now. They’re getting a rude awakening as to what this league is all about.

“We have to keep working and finish this season with as much effort as we can and continue to develop the kind of players who can really help us get back on the map next year. That’s what we’re looking for playoff caliber players.”

Gruden tried to find a silver lining among all of the negative. He said tight end Alex Smith was showing some toughness playing through injury. He said although Cadillac Williams fumbled, it was while he was fighting for extra yards. He pointed out that Clayton had some really nice catches and effort plays prior to and after his dropped touchdown pass.

But he also said the fumbles and dropped passes can’t happen at this level because the margin of error is simply too small.

“It would certainly help if we could make some of the plays that I consider routine that allow us to get some momentum,” Gruden said Monday with a tone of frustration in his voice. “That is a big part of winning football games, momentum. Unfortunately for us, we’ve had a hard time getting it.”

Rookies such as Jeremy Trueblood and Davin Joseph as well as sophomore players such as Williams and Smith must be ready to deliver and live up to their potential. To remind them of how tough things can be at the start of a career, Gruden shows the players clips of former Bucs safety John Lynch and current linebacker Derrick Brooks when they were rookies. He says they weren’t exactly Hall of Famers in their first couple of years and that it took them some time to develop into the athletes they are now.

Gruden encouraged fans to remember that as well.

“We’re going to deserve a lot of criticism at this point,” he said. “But I’m not going to lose confidence in my assistant coaches or myself.

“I’m not going to lose my ambition for this game. I’m not going to lose my enthusiasm for being with the Buccaneers and where we are headed. By God, if we have to take a step back this year, so what, we’re going to come back strong and we’re going to get some of these young players to become great players.”

Make no mistake about it, this is a low for Gruden, he admitted so. The drives home each night from One Buc Place are long. However, he continues to profess his excitement over the challenge of working this team out of its hole.

He never anticipated playing a rookie quarterback this year, but is definitely encouraged by some of the things Gradkowski has done.

Like his quarterback, the thick coat of armor Gruden displays in public is hard to dismiss. Times like these are about mental toughness, according to the head coach because “mentally weak people fall by the wayside.”

As for Gradkowski, he comes off like the loyal soldier ready to follow his general into any battle. And mental toughness is one thing they both apparently have in abundance.

“I definitely think this is going to make us better in the long run,” Gradkowski said Monday. “It’s making us tougher now. Were facing tough times, but we can’t get down.

“I know I can do it, I just have to be more consistent. I have a 24-hour rule following a game. After 24 hours I let it go, even if it’s a good win.”
Wide receiver Michael Clayton was to undergo an MRI Monday to determine if there was any damage done to his knee in Sunday’s game.

The third-year receiver bent his knee awkwardly while making an attempt to get into the end zone in the third quarter of the game.  

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