Bucs Head Coach Jon Gruden took the podium at Tuesday morning’s press conference noticeably hoarse from all the yelling he did the night before.
His voice, or lack thereof, was a product of some communication malfunctions early in the game. A lack of correspondence between his players was one of the alibis he shared for the team’s poor performance in dropping its seventh game of the season.
As was the case against New Orleans last week, blown coverages in the Bucs’ secondary did considerable damage to any chance the team had of beating the Carolina Panthers on Monday night.
“We were victimized late in game. There was an audible on defense and not everybody got it,” Gruden said in response to Panthers receiver Steve Smith’s 36-yard touchdown reception late in the fourth quarter.
Like a mother eagle protecting a delicate nest on the verge of collapse, Gruden, on several occasions, stuck his neck out for the team Tueday. He refused to do any finger-pointing, deflecting all, or at least most of the blame and responsibility on his shoulders in what appeared to be a concerted effort to keep the locker room together.
“What can I say, we’ve had a tough schedule, we haven’t coached well enough. It starts here,” Gruden said. “And we haven’t made the plays to help us win those earlier games. We’ve got a long way to go, and that’s a fact.”
For the first time all year, Gruden gave a hint of acknowledgement to the notion that this season is no longer about making the playoffs, but rather developing some momentum toward the future. Although the Bucs aren’t mathematically eliminated from the post-season, it would take an unprecedented effort to turn things around at this point.
A “growing process for some” is what Gruden called it when asked if he now saw this year as a ‘development-type season.’ He even acknowledged his frustration with young players, saying it can sometimes be “maddening” when having their growing pains take place on the football field. But despite the frustration, despite having to constantly defend careless mistakes and rookie miscues, the leader of the ship would not abandon his crew and throw them to the sharks.
“I love what we’re doing. I just love the way we’re working,” Gruden said passionately. “I know nobody wants to hear it. But it is a challenge indeed. And all you can do is push yourself and be mentally tough and have confidence that in time, you’ll get the results that you seek.”
It doesn’t take a veteran head coach to see where those results are being lost. The Bucs running game was again atrocious. As a team, they managed to put up just 69 yards on the ground against the Panthers defense, well below even their dismal 31st ranked average per game of 81.2 yards.
Cadillac Williams may be more frustrated than anyone. His 2.9 yards per carry and inability to generate first downs Monday night essentially made Bruce Gradkowski a one-man show. And as Gruden has said before, that’s not going to help a rookie quarterback win many games. As a team, they are simply not doing good job running the football, despite Gruden saying they’ve tried several different approaches to getting the ground attack going.
He called it “disappointing at this stage.” But it’s like the old argument, ‘What came first, the chicken or the egg?’
“It has a lot to do with a young quarterback. Teams don’t want to let a rookie quarterback turn around and hand it off,” Gruden said.
Not only did Gruden say that the Bucs are facing teams with better defenses than they did a year ago, but coordinators are bringing safeties up toward the line of scrimmage more often, daring Gradkowski to beat them with his arm or, you may even say, with his head.
When Gradkowski has audibled or pulled of an effective play-action-fake, either he or his receiver has failed to capitalize on the opportunity. Michael Clayton’s hands haven’t been great this season. He dropped the game’s opening pass Monday night. Other times, it’s been Gradkowski’s misfortunes. He overthrew Clayton on a wide-open seam route, resulting in an interception. He also misfired on two early plays to Joey Galloway, one a certain touchdown.
Gruden said the Clayton pass was telegraphed, a rookie mistake. Galloway’s was simply misjudged. There was also some question as to whether Galloway could have made the catch had he dove for the ball.
“I’d like to see him lay out and catch it if he could,” Gruden said. “But [Galloway] said there was no way he could’ve caught that ball and I believe him, he’s played a long time. But that was a disappointing play. We have to make that play.”
It’s easy to wonder, had the team been 6-2 instead of 2-6, does Galloway lay out for it?
“All I can say is, that it’s just not happening right now. We’re not in synch,” Gruden said.
“We’re struggling with long ball. We’re getting great looks, looks you don’t get often.
“Those are throws [Gradkowski] has got to make. Game changing plays.”
The trendy word tossed around now is “splash plays,” and the Bucs are not getting them much on defense either. Ronde Barber did make his 31st career interception against Carolina and Dewayne White recovered a first quarter fumble in his first start, but safety Jermaine Phillips dropped a Jake Delhomme pass right in his chest that was a potential touchdown the other way.
Gruden said some of the trouble in the secondary and the big plays that teams have earned against the unit can be blamed on a lack of pressure on the opposing quarterback.
It’s the same pressure his own pupil has had to deal with since being forced into the starting role in Week 4. Gruden admitted it’s hard to play a rookie quarterback this early in the season, but insists progress is being made week to week. He sees it on game film. And again, Gruden alluded to the notion that Gradkowski is his guy for now and the foreseeable future. He claims he has been very sharp on the practice field and has a lot of promise, although it may be hard to see at times.
Without a doubt, both coach and quarterback are under immense pressure.
“He has a lot on his plate, but that’s what quarterbacks get paid the big bucks to do,” Gruden said of his starter. “But that’s what were looking for, a guy that can come in at that position and be dominant. We have got to get a dominant player at that position to be a great football team.”
The former Toledo star is not the only rookie feeling the pressure either. In fact, the youth of the team has become its identity of late. And until this year passes and progress is achieved, there are going to be growing pains.
“We have got some guys who are very young and inexperienced players right now that are getting their eyes opened,” Gruden said. “You can play hard and you can prepare hard all you want, but when you go out there and play in the NFL against another team, the caliber of teams that were playing, you’re going to get your butt kicked if you don’t make plays when you get your chance to. We have not made enough plays, consistently, to beat the caliber of football teams were playing. Once again, I stand at the front of the line and take responsibility for it.”
Defensive end Simeon Rice, defensive tackle Ellis Wyms and linebacker Shelton Quarles did not play against the Panthers due to injury. Gruden would not speculate on their status and said an update would have to wait until Wednesday.
Quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, who appeared to be favoring his throwing hand after taking a hit on a scramble in the third quarter, will also be updated on Wednesday, although Gruden said he thinks he will be fine.