FAB 2. What If Gruden Returned To The Bucs?
I knew the answer before I even asked the question.
Covering every single day of Warren Sapp’s Hall of Fame career in Tampa Bay from 1995-2003 had well prepared for the words that would come out of Sapp’s mouth during our call on Wednesday.
My question? What if Jon Gruden were to return to coaching the Buccaneers next year?
“If ifs and buts were candies and nuts, every day would be Christmas,” Sapp said.
I used the dreaded “if” word, so I had to rephrase it for Sapp.
Should Gruden want to return to coaching, and should the Glazers decide to hire him back to replace Dirk Koetter, what would you think of that?
“You’d have to ask him,” Sapp said. “That would be his call. But I know everybody, including me would love it. Hell yeah! I know who the man is and I know what the man brings. He loves the game. Gruden’s an animal.
“After what I’ve watched this year with us being 4-9? Gerald [McCoy] is hurt? The quarterback is hurt? Come on man. It’s been a horrible year in Tampa – a horrible year. Man, somebody just scored 30 against us again! Damn! I’ve never seen so many damn 30-point games in my life since I was a kid watching Bucs games.”
So Sapp would be in favor of Gruden returning, but has the game passed Gruden by after being in the broadcast booth for the last nine years?
“The game hasn’t passed him by, there’s no way,” Sapp said. “I’ve sat in that damn lab (Gruden’s Fired Football Coaches Association) with him this year. Trust me. He hasn’t lost the love of it, the flavor for it or the drive. I guarantee you this – wherever he went he would be successful. He hasn’t lost it. The game hasn’t passed him. No way.
“The man came from that Andy Reid West Coast Offense tree. The man can coach. Do not get it twisted and act like Jon Gruden has fallen off just because he’s been in a booth. You go in that cave (FFCA office) with him and feel that fire and that intensity and see how he prepares. There is nothing like him. As much as I like Dungy, Dungy never had a fire and a fever like that. Dungy had a fire and a fever for ball security and things like that. Jon wears his fire on his sleeve.”
Gruden returns to Raymond James Stadium on Monday to call the Bucs vs. Falcons game for ESPN and to be inducted into the Bucs Ring of Honor at halftime. Will he return in a few weeks as Koetter’s replacement if the Glazers want to make a regime change and the coach they fired after the 2008 season? Gruden, who sources tell PewterReport.com “wants to come back to coach next year,” has talked down the “Grumors,” always stating that he’s flattered by the interest, but just “trying to hang on to the job I have” at ESPN.
Gruden waxed poetic about his time at One Buccaneer Place on August 2 during his press conference for his Bucs Ring of Honor induction.
“For seven years it was full metal jacket when I was coaching,” Gruden said. “It wasn’t like I was here on weekends. I spent my life here for seven years. There were some great times and there were some tough times, but there were a lot of memories that will never go away. Then I see a lot of you guys (in the media) still grinding and I feel like I’m still coaching. I feel like I could run out there with a script. Then I saw Jameis Winston and I was like, ‘Damn! I wish I had that guy! He’s a good player.’”
This franchise has the 2015 first overall draft pick and over $25 million invested in Winston, who is entering his fourth year in the NFL in ‘18. The Glazers will need to determine whether to extend his contract or pick up his fifth-year option for the ‘19 season. Winston’s development seems to have plateaued this season, although an early season shoulder injury hasn’t helped.
I’ve maintained that Winston needs a new voice in his ear on the field and a new quarterback guru in the classroom. There’s no one better than getting the most out of a quarterback than Gruden. There may be no one better to help Winston, a player that Gruden has gushed over all year.
“Oh my God – those two together?” Sapp said. “You’re talking about a combination that is made in heaven. I have seen this kid and what he wants to do. He wants to chase history. He has no question in his mind what he wants to do. He wants to chase history. He just needs somebody to give him a car to drive. There’s no better guy I know than Jonny. Come on, man! Bruce Gradkowski, Rob Johnson, Shaun King, and Luke McCown? My dog gets blood out of ducks.”
Sapp is one of Gruden’s biggest supporters and even though he was a defensive tackle, he would spend some time in the quarterbacks meetings to gain some insight – and some laughs.
“I love that man,” Sapp said. “He’s everything you want in a head coach. I don’t know anybody that gets it done like he does. I’m a little biased. I will admit that. I won a championship with the man. They spotted $8 million dollars and four draft picks for him. I wanted to know who he was. So I sat with him every morning from 7:00 – 8:00 a.m. before we went to the quarterbacks meeting – I say ‘we’ because I was there, too.
“Have you ever seen an uncut, unfiltered Gruden quarterbacks meeting? I have! It was uncut, raw, unfiltered. It was like my dessert at 8:00 a.m. in the morning. He ripped everybody – Brad Johnson got it, too. Holy Toledo! I’d get it too if I said something! I just sat there and shut up. I know how to be a good witness. Oh my God, Scott! If I could have recorded some of those meetings … it would have been unreal. That’s why I knew we were going to win a championship. I knew he was going to hold them all accountable for every snap. And that’s what he does. He holds you accountable.”
I spoke with Johnson, the Bucs’ Super Bowl-winning quarterback, about Gruden’s ability to get the best out of his quarterbacks.
“I was with him nine hours a day,” Johnson said. “That was one thing I missed with other coaches – the ability to talk about plays. Not everywhere you do you have the head coach and play-caller there like that. As a head coach you can’t be everybody’s best buddy. I do think this time away has helped him. He’s still going to burn both ends of the candle now. He’s going to get after it, but I think this time away has given him a different perspective about people’s lives outside of football. If he were going to come back he’s going to get after it, just like he does his TV show and just like he does on Monday Night Football. You’re going to get his 100 percent no matter what.
“When Jon first got the job the first call I made was to Rich Gannon. We were together in Minnesota for a year, so we had a relationship. What Rich told me was, ‘Brad, you’ll never be more prepared for a game than you are with Gruden. You’re going to spend so much time with him and he’s going to wire you and program you and you’re going to be on the same page. You’re going to agree and disagree, but when it comes game time you are only going to run the plays that you like and you agree on together.’ I was at places when I left Tampa where I had to make an appointment with the play-caller. I had to call his secretary to make an appointment. I missed that closeness working with Jon. Some guys can install it. Some guys can draw it up on paper. Some guys can call it like they have a play on speed dial. But you want to be on the same page, and with Jon you were always that way. He was open and pretty easy to talk to in terms of the plays that you wanted to run and were comfortable with. Sometimes you had to fight for it and prove it, and if you wanted it bad enough he was willing to listen and agree with you on a play. That doesn’t happen everywhere.”
From my SR’s Fab 5 interview with him back in July to what he said in his press conference and to reporters on August 2 about Tampa Bay’s young quarterback, Gruden has not minced words about his desire to work with Winston. In fact, it may be what pulls him back to the sidelines from the ESPN broadcast booth.
“I get access to all the film and I make training reels,” Gruden said on August 2. “I have young quarterbacks that come in from around the country to watch the position and see what’s happening around the league. When you study Winston you don’t realize how athletic he is and how much offense he creates – what a gunslinger he is and how exciting of a player he is. And the command he has, he’s a showman and I love that about him. He can get up there and recognize the defense and communicate what he wants done. He has the talent to execute any play you call. It’s that combination that really excites me. They have an arsenal of skill around him, so it’s going to be a real fun year for Tampa.”
Well, it should have been a fun year in Tampa Bay. Gruden is right that there is an arsenal of intriguing weapons in the passing game that some say have been underutilized or misused. Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Cameron Brate, O.J. Howard, Chris Godwin and Adam Humphries are every bit as talented as Keenan McCardell, Keyshawn Johnson, Joe Jurevicius, Ken Dilger, Rickey Dudley and Reggie Barlow. In fact, the current crop of Bucs receivers and tight ends is faster and more athletic.
“I like the pieces that the Bucs have that would give Jon a chance to win again,” Sapp said. “There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with that football team. Well, the quarterback is hurt, but there is nothing that he couldn’t fix.
“That man can coach. There are enough athletes to work with. There’s also a Gerald McCoy in Tampa. He’s got five Pro Bowls. I had seven. I don’t see much difference in that.”
Could Gruden come back to his old job and coach again in Tampa Bay where the Bucs have been 49-92 (34.75) since he was fired in 2008 after back-to-back 9-7 seasons?
“All of us can come home – even Jon,” Sapp said. “The Glazers make a nice nest for us, trust me. Tampa has always been home for all of us, and the fans and you all (in the media) make us feel welcome to come home, too.”
Bucs’ Records Since 2008
2009: 3-13 under Raheem Morris
2010: 10-6 under Raheem Morris
2011: 4-12 under Raheem Morris
2012: 7-9 under Greg Schiano
2013: 4-12 under Greg Schiano
2014: 2-14 under Lovie Smith
2015: 6-10 under Lovie Smith
2016: 9-7 under Dirk Koetter
2017: 4-9 under Dirk Koetter
After two back-to-back home run hires in Dungy (1996-2001) and Gruden (2002-08) the Glazers likely felt like they had the Midas touch and believed that Morris was the next, young Mike Tomlin. They were wrong, and have struck out on their last four hires, including Koetter, whose 4-9 record is not at all what they had envisioned for a season full of high expectations.
I asked former Bucs defensive tackle and current ESPN college football analyst Anthony “Booger” McFarland if he was surprised that the Bucs are tanking this year and that yet another coaching change may be coming in 2018.
“Not really and here’s why – there has been no stability,” McFarland said. “Everybody is looking for a quick fix and it doesn’t happen that way. You have to develop a culture and that culture has to breed the right players and the right players will win for you. Does it surprise me? No, because there has been a lot of turnover – from Raheem to Schiano to Lovie to Dirk. There’s just no consistency. When you hire people – how should I put this – that kind of fit the flavor of the month and what’s hot now, then you’re always going to get up and down things. Defense was hot and Raheem knew defense, so let’s get ‘Youngry.’ Let’s try to go back and rekindle the magic, so let’s get Lovie. Or let’s get Schiano for discipline. You’re always hiring the flavor of the month instead of hiring a guy that you know is the right guy where you say, ‘We’re going to live and die with him.’
“I’ll give you the prime example because they are a model organization – the Pittsburgh Steelers. Mike Tomlin has had some good seasons and some bad seasons, but in the end, he’s the coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. There hasn’t been any talk about anything else. The consistency is there and now you know how to build your team. You develop a foundation. Once you build the foundation it’s there. Yeah, you may remodel the house, add a new room, but the foundation is still there. Every couple of years the Buccaneers jackhammer the foundation up and start over. It doesn’t surprise me. You have to have the stability, but first you have to find the right guy. If you continue to hire and fire that means you’re doing a bad job of choosing.”
McFarland is right to a degree, but hanging on to the wrong guy year after year after year is going down the road to nowhere and the Glazers know it. Look at Jacksonville where the Jaguars gave Gus Bradley four draft classes and four rounds of free agency over four years to get the team to the playoffs. Bradley was fired after 14 games last year and the interim coach, Doug Marrone, was given the full-time position this year and has the Jaguars leading the AFC South with a 9-4 record.
Remember that the Glazers caught lightning in a bottle – twice.
The Bucs went 10-6 and to the postseason and won a playoff game in Dungy’s second season. Then after firing Dungy in 2001, they traded for Gruden and he went 12-4 and won the franchise its first and only Super Bowl in his first season in Tampa Bay.
That’s what they are used to and they aren’t going to settle for losing, even if it means a few years of instability. Yet nobody thought the instability would last nearly a decade.
“They hired the right guy in Tony Dungy and he got you to the precipice and then you hired a guy to fix the one thing that Dungy could never fix, which was the offense and the team went over the top,” McFarland said. “That’s kind of an anomaly. That doesn’t always happen. That would be like firing Mike Tomlin right now and the next guy immediately takes them to the Super Bowl. The team is mostly there, and the next guy gets credit. Just like Jon Gruden gets credit for fixing the offense. But you have to give Tony a lot of credit, too. That team was right there on that precipice already.
“I think it’s a unique situation. At the end, they have to do a lot of soul searching at One Buc Place. They have to figure out if Dirk Koetter is the right guy – not just for offense, but if he’s a team builder. Is he a guy that can manage a team? Dirk is a great offensive coordinator. Is he a great head coach? That has yet to be proven.”
The last nine years without a playoff berth have been humbling for the Glazers, who made amends with Gruden years ago, admitting that they made a mistake in firing him. When the Bucs stumbled to a disappointing 2-3 start following a 38-33 loss at Arizona and saw the upcoming losses on the horizon due to poor defense and game management, along with Winston’s shoulder injury, the Glazers were likely freaking out, and wondering “How could this be happening?” as the team’s record fell to 2-6.
It would not surprise me one bit if the Glazers have reached out to Gruden to gauge his interest in returning to be the Bucs head coach next year, which is why I wrote the SR’s Fab 5 column on November 17. It would also not surprise me one bit if Gruden has seriously been contemplating putting on a Bucs visor again and decided he’ll do it.
We’ll know the official answer in a few weeks.