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SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, PewterReport.com publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place and around the NFL.
FAB 1. Bucs Have To Be Thinking About Gruden
I am aware that there are still seven games left in the Bucs’ 2017 season and there currently isn’t a head coaching vacancy in Tampa Bay.
But after five straight losses prior to last week’s 15-10 win over the New York Jets, the Glazers have to be thinking about replacing offensive-minded head coach Dirk Koetter, especially since his offense is averaging a woeful 9.3 points per game over the last three games, and just 17.7 points per game this season (minus two defensive touchdowns) despite a plethora of weapons in this year’s arsenal.
And the Glazers have to be thinking about former Bucs head coach Jon Gruden, who has been teasing a return to coaching since meeting with me at his FFCA (Fired Football Coaches Association) office a few days before the start of training camp. I reported that Gruden was preparing for a return to coaching in a SR’s Fab 5 column in July that made national news.
I also broached the idea a month ago of Gruden potentially replacing Koetter at season’s end following the loss at Arizona in my column, With Gruden Lurking, Koetter Needs To Turn Bucs Around Quickly.
Since then, the rumors – or “Grumors” as they are known on the Internet – have intensified with former Oakland general manager Mike Lombardi making some news two weeks ago by also linking Gruden to Tampa Bay.
“I think we can officially put Dirk Koetter on the hot seat,” Lombardi said the GM Street segment of The Ringer NFL Show podcast. “Dirk Koetter has all this talent and they spent all this money and I think Dirk Koetter is going to be on the hot seat. Could he make it through the end of the year? Perhaps. But I think you are going to start hearing – a lot of people in the NFL are telling me that the name they’re hearing is Gruden back to the Bucs job,” Lombardi said. “He’s made up with the Glazers, and the Glazers could easily bring him back. They need somebody to help their franchise out. Right now they have all of this offensive talent and they can’t score any points.
“Nobody outside the NFL is talking about it, but everybody I talk to in the NFL is talking about the Bucs job and they think it’s going to end up being over with for Dirk Koetter if he doesn’t get this thing turned around fairly quickly, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to get turned around really quickly at all.”
The Gruden-Bucs talk begins at the 15:30 mark.
That’s pretty much what I said after the Arizona game.
This is not a call for Koetter to be fired, and I’m not campaigning for Gruden to take his job. Koetter will decide his own fate. But we are going to look at that scenario closely in this week’s SR’s Fab 5 from every angle.
Understand this: Koetter can make all of the Gruden rumors disappear with more wins. If he can somehow coach the Bucs to another 9-7 record with a 6-1 finish, he probably saves his job.
But with a season full of high expectations quickly turning into another losing year for the Buccaneers, the Glazers have to be thinking about Gruden – the guy that brought this franchise its only Super Bowl championships, three NFC South division titles and the most wins of any head coach in team history. (Pay no attention to the Gruden to Tennessee rumors – he’s never going to be a college head coach.)
If you think it’s too premature for me to be writing about a head coaching change in November, I’ll remind you that NFL owners don’t typically wait until the first week of January to decide to fire their coach and start the search for his replacement. They start to build contingency plans in November and December by putting together short lists of possible replacements if the losses continue to mount and they feel a change should be made at season’s end.
There are typically between five to seven head coaches that are fired or resign each year on “Black Monday,” which is the day after the regular season ends. That’s roughly one-fifth of the league. Then there is immediate competition between those clubs to interview and hire the experienced retread NFL coach, or the up-and-coming hotshot offensive or defensive coordinator – whatever one fits what the owner decides his team needs. There is no time to fire a coach at the end of the season and then start to compile a list of candidates the first week of January.
I haven’t spoken to Gruden since I saw him at his Bucs Ring of Honor induction press conference on August 2 at One Buccaneer Place, nor have I spoken with anybody at One Buccaneer Place about Gruden. I don’t have a solid inclination that the Glazers would actually consider re-hiring the man they fired nine years ago after the Bucs went 9-7 and failed to make the playoffs.
I just have my gut instinct and some information from other league sources that there is, in fact, interest on both sides for a reunion, especially from Gruden. Behind the scenes, this is the job he wants, although out of respect for Koetter he won’t publicly acknowledge it.
But what about the Glazers? I’ve covered this team for 24 years and still don’t know the Glazers very well. Few in the media do. The Glazers operate in a very private manner and go to great lengths to avoid talking to the media, especially during the season. Yet I’ve observed how they run their franchise over the years and the lessons they’ve learned since taking over the reins for their late father, Malcolm Glazer, who suffered the first of two strokes in 2006.
Here is what I’ve learned.
The Glazers typically handle head coaching searches on their own. Malcolm Glazer tried to land Jimmy Johnson and then Steve Spurrier following the 1995 season to replace Sam Wyche before settling for Tony Dungy, the third option, which proved to be a fantastic hire. When Dungy couldn’t pair a Super Bowl-ready defense with a competent offense that could beat the Philadelphia Eagles in 2000 and 2001, the Glazers secretly courted Bill Parcells and nearly landed him to replace Dungy in 2002.
Parcells told the Glazers to hire his former offensive line coach with the Jets, Bill Muir, which they did, and he even had Jets assistant general manager Mike Tannenbaum, who would likely be joining him in Tampa Bay in the front office, investigate the Bucs’ player contracts. Tannenbaum examined Tampa Bay’s salary cap situation and reported back to Parcells that the situation was bleak; that he would have maybe just one or two years to reach the Super Bowl before some of the team’s star players would have to be released due to the looming salary cap hell that general manager Rich McKay put the Bucs in with contract mismanagement. That wasn’t enough time for Parcells to get the Bucs a championship, so he backed out after Dungy had been fired, which stunned the Glazers.
Then they commissioned McKay to find a replacement for Dungy, and wanted an offensive-minded head coach to provide balance to a defensive-laden team. After finding out what it would take to lure Gruden away from Oakland in a trade and deeming it to be too much in terms of draft pick compensation, McKay served up Marvin Lewis, and even told good friend, Chip Carter, the former Fox 13 sports anchor, who broke the news that Lewis would replace Dungy. Only McKay didn’t clear it first with the Glazers, who were very upset that McKay brought them a defensive-minded head coach that had the same coaching style as the one they just fired in Dungy.
The Glazers benched McKay for the rest of the search and proceeded to interview Maryland head coach Ralph Friedgen and former San Francisco head coach Steve Mariucci before pulling the trigger on trading for Gruden, who won Super Bowl XXXVII.
When the team decided to replace Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen in January of 2009, they chose defensive backs coach Raheem Morris and director of pro personnel Mark Dominik to replace them. When Morris didn’t work out, the Glazers had Dominik do some of the legwork in investigating some of the candidates, but they played a big role in the hiring of Greg Schiano because they wanted a disciplinarian to tighten up the loose atmosphere that Morris created at One Buccaneer Place.
After firing Dominik and Schiano after the 2013 campaign, the Glazers hired Lovie Smith as the head coach, and then with Smith, hired Jason Licht for the general manager role. When Smith was fired two years later, the Glazers gave Licht the authority to conduct the search for Smith’s replacement, but they knew, Licht knew, you knew and I knew that offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter was going to be given the job. It just seemed like a good fit and the logical conclusion to draw given his success with Tampa Bay’s offense in 2015.
With his future in Tampa Bay uncertain and the fact that Licht is in a contract year, that tells me that if the Glazers wanted to replace Koetter they would begin exploring that option without Licht’s assistance for the time being. If the Glazers want Licht to return they would likely include him in the process whenever they reached that conclusion. Otherwise, the Glazers might begin doing their homework on coaching candidates on their own, as they have done plenty of times in the past.
Any shortlist of candidates should include two men who have had previous head coaching experience and are thriving right now, Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, in addition to New England defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and Houston defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel.
But the name at the top of the list – especially a list in Tampa Bay – should be Gruden.
The Glazers caught lightning in a bottle in 2002 when their risky, heavily criticized trade for Gruden worked out better than anyone could have imagined as the Bucs went 12-4 that season and defeated Gruden’s former team, the Raiders, in Super Bowl XXXVII.
Could lightning strike again in Tampa Bay with Gruden and the Buccaneers?
If he were to be given a second chance (and join former Raiders head coach Art Shell to become just the second head coach in modern NFL history to be re-hired by the same franchise), Gruden wouldn’t be expected to take Tampa Bay to the Super Bowl in his first year. The Bucs have a young, talented roster, but not nearly the same amount of talent he inherited in 2002 with a defense that had a host of Pro Bowlers on it.
The expectation for Gruden – or any head coach hired in Tampa Bay – would be to get this team back to the playoffs – quickly. That’s something that hasn’t happened since Gruden did it back in 2008 when his Buccaneers won the NFC South title with a 9-7 record.
Gruden has had nearly a decade to reflect on what worked and what didn’t work during his seven years as Tampa Bay’s head coach. The Glazers have had time to see what nearly a decade’s worth of hit-and-miss drafts and mediocre head coaches have produced – without a single playoff season to show for it.
The Glazers are winners. They have won in the business arena. They have won in world league soccer with Manchester United. And they have won in the NFL with the Buccaneers.
Fans fret over the fickleness of the Glazers’ hiring and firing head coaches every two or three years since Gruden last coached in 2008. They lament the fact that the franchise lacks stability due to the constant turnover and worry that the Bucs are becoming the NFC’s version of the Cleveland Browns or Jacksonville Jaguars.
I don’t. Instead, I applaud the Glazers’ refusal to settle for mediocrity.
I do not know what level of success Patricia or Vrabel would bring as first-time head coaches. I do not know what McDaniels or Schwartz would bring in their second opportunity as a head coach. Although it took Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll a second chance to find success in the NFL.
I do know that Gruden would bring excellence.
He’s had success everywhere he’s coached from Green Bay to Philadelphia to Oakland to Tampa Bay to ESPN, where Gruden currently works as the color analyst for Monday Night Football, in addition to hosting Gruden’s QB Camp in the months leading up to the NFL Draft where he also serves as a commentator for the network
The reason why I’m writing about Gruden now is because now is when he and his agent, Bob Lamonte, are fielding phone calls from NFL and college teams about making his comeback. As I pointed out in my SR’s Fab 5 column in late July, Gruden is a year away from being an empty nester. Gruden went on the Rich Eisen Show last week and hinted yet again about a possible return to coaching.
“It’s in your blood,” Gruden told Eisen. “You get some people calling maybe to see if you’re interested in coaching again and maybe if you can help recommend a couple of guys. I’m pretty much involved in every level of football every day of the week. I try to help if I can. One of these days, who knows, Rich? One of these days … you never know. I’m just trying to hang on to the job I have. As you know, I don’t have a guaranteed contract.
“I have talked to people in years past, and I plan on keeping my options open. Like I said, I’m 54 years old now and I’m really happy to be doing what I’m doing. I have great people and I think we have a really good team. I’m looking forward to traveling with a really good team of Monday Night Football and our crew. I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing and if something comes along down the road we’ll take a look at it.”
Listen to Gruden at the 6:55- and 8:45-minute marks.
Speaking of Monday Night Football, if the Bucs continue to underachieve this year and the losses pile up, how awkward will that pre-game production meeting be between Gruden and Koetter prior to Tampa Bay’s Monday Night Football game against Atlanta on December 18 if the Gruden-to-Bucs rumors continue? That’s also the night when Gruden will be recognized at halftime with the Bucs Ring of Honor ceremony.
“It’s tough, especially when you get around these players,” Gruden continued to say on Eisen’s show. “You get around them and sometimes you sit there and go, ‘I wonder if I could help this kid?’ I wish I could try to help him. I wish I could do something to make a difference. But at the same time I look at my job that way in broadcasting. I get to be a part of my QB Camp with all the young quarterbacks. I feel like I’m helping them a little bit. I do get a chance to prepare every week and hopefully do a decent of informing our viewers out there on two teams that we have for Monday Night Football. Like I said here at the FFCA, I host a lot of coaches and I host a lot of players.
“It’s the Fired Football Coaches Association. We’ve got a little laboratory down here [in Tampa] where guys come from around the country and we study different situations with plays and personnel. We also try to raise money and we give it back to high school and youth sports because a lot of people are beating up the game right now and it really bothers me. It bothers a lot of people. We’re trying to save high school and youth football so kids can play in the future.”
Gruden might be called upon to save the Buccaneers next.