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This column was originally posted on Friday, Dec. 1 and appears in its original form.
Here are five things that caught my attention this week:
FAB 1. This edition of SR’s Fab Five will largely be about Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden. As these final five games come and go, the talk at the water cooler, on sports radio 620 AM WDAE and the PewterReport.com message boards won’t be about who the Buccaneers will face in the playoffs or which Bucs will be going to the Pro Bowl this year. Thanks to a 3-8 record, those points are rendered moot.
Instead, the talk will be solely on the fate of Gruden. I have heard for weeks that Gruden is safe, but I still have a hard time believing that if this team winds up 3-13 that Gruden will actually get to see 2007 in red and pewter. I think he stays if the Bucs finish 5-11, but finding those two wins is proving too difficult for me.
The Bucs won’t win in Pittsburgh unless their futile pass rush can sack Ben Roethlisberger. Tampa Bay has a shot at beating Atlanta, but not much of a chance at all against the Bears in cold and windy Chicago. Do you think the Bucs – with nothing to play for but pride – actually want to spend Christmas Eve playing the Cleveland Browns in the cold (and possibly snow)? Seattle is getting its act together and will likely be playing for a playoff spot when they travel to Tampa Bay on New Year’s Eve.
Sorry, but based on what I’ve seen from the Bucs this year, I smell 3-13 or maybe 4-12.
But why? Why can’t this team win five straight games to finish out the season a surprising and respectable 8-8? Why can’t the Buccaneers win three out of their next five games to finish 6-10? I’ve spent the last week or so asking a lot of Bucs players off the record what is really happening at One Buc Place these days trying to find the answer. It isn’t pretty.
Over a week ago, I wrote that Gruden hadn’t lost the Buccaneers locker room – yet – but in a way he has. No, there will be no mutiny at One Buc Place. The players don’t hate Gruden and aren’t tanking the season on him. The players I spoke with don’t want a different head coach. But they are looking to Gruden for answers about why they aren’t playing better and winning more games, and they aren’t getting those answers.
This is a lost team, folks. The players are lost, the assistant coaches are lost, Monte Kiffin is lost, and yes, the head coach is lost, too. With the playoffs virtually out of reach barring a miracle, the Bucs coaches and players appear to know what will end the losing and are drifting aimlessly towards it – the offseason.
The offseason is when players who are on injured reserve will return (well, some of them at least). The offseason is when new, talented players will arrive via free agency and the draft. The offseason is when the coaches can really spend the time to figure out what is wrong and fix it without having to game plan for an opponent.
The only reason I can think of regarding Gruden not being able to rally the troops, circle the wagons and end a downward spiral is that he’s never been in this situation before except for the 2004 season. Think about it. Gruden is a 43-year old head coach who has only been in coaching for about 20 years of his life, which is not a lot of time compared to some of his NFL brethren.
There are guys like Bill Belichick, who has an extra decade of coaching experience on Gruden, and guys like Bill Parcells, who has an extra 20 years of “been there, done that” on the volatile blondie known as Chucky. Parcells has seen it all. Gruden hasn’t yet. He’s still learning – about how to deal with losing and how to get back to winning. Unfortunately for Gruden, he hasn’t seen a turnaround first hand like the one he’s being asked to create with five games remaining.
In 1990, when Gruden interned with San Francisco, the 49ers were 14-2. The next season, San Fran was 10-6. Gruden shipped off to Green Bay the next season with Mike Holmgren and got about the only taste of a turnaround that he would be a part of. In 1992, the Packers started off 2-2, then dropped three straight to 2-5 before rebounding to a 9-7 record in 1992 thanks to a late-season, six-game winning streak. Two more 9-7 records followed from 1993-94 before Gruden left for Philadelphia.
As the Eagles offensive coordinator under Ray Rhodes, Gruden saw the Eagles soar to a pair of 10-6 records from 1995-96 before injuries hit in 1997 and the team fell to 6-9-1.
In 1998, which was Gruden’s first season in Oakland as head coach, the Raiders started off 1-2, but were able to win six out of their next seven games to be 7-3 heading into the home stretch. But Oakland lost four straight and split the final two games of the season to finish 8-8.
In 1999, Gruden’s Raiders couldn’t sustain any rhythm and didn’t win or lose more than two in a row in finishing 8-8.
In 2000, Gruden took the Raiders to the AFC Championship Game with a 12-4 record in a season that resembled Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl season. Oakland never lost consecutive games that year. If Baltimore’s Tony Siragusa had not belly-flopped on Rich Gannon in the championship game and knocked him out of the game, Gruden may not have had to wait until 2002 to get his first Super Bowl ring.
In 2001, the Raiders started off hot again with a 6-1 record and making it all the way to 10-3 before a late-season, three-game skid resulted in a 10-6 record. The Raiders beat the Jets in the playoffs, 38-24, but lost in overtime, 16-13, in the Snow Bowl in New England in the divisional round of the playoffs.
Except for the 2004 and 2006 seasons, Gruden hasn’t lost a lot in his young coaching career, and the head coaches he’s been exposed to haven’t had to deal with a lot of the trials and tribulations he has had to go through. There hasn’t been that personal well of information and experience to drink from. Gruden righted the Bucs’ ship after the 2004 season – but not during it – and he seems destined to do the same in Tampa Bay in ’06.
Coaches grow and evolve. Everyone remembers how bad Belichick was as a head coach in Cleveland before figuring out the personnel side of the NFL. That experience (plus some very valuable years under Parcells) has since helped Belichick in New England. Tony Dungy was known as a conservative coach with vanilla offenses in Tampa Bay during his maddening days of his “keep it close and win it in the fourth quarter” strategy (which proved to be a self-fulfilling prophecy). When he got to Indianapolis, he had to change his offensive strategy and mindset, and wisely kept Tom Moore on board as the Colts offensive coordinator.
Gruden needs to evolve and grow. If he doesn’t figure out how to stop the losing streaks that have doomed his teams in 2004 and 2006, ’07 will definitely be his last in Tampa Bay.
As many of you know, I went to Kansas State University in the 1990s, and was delighted that the Buccaneers drafted Wildcats kicker Martin Gramatica in the 1999 draft. I had seen Gramatica become an All-American kicker at K-State and thought the Bucs had landed a franchise kicker. The problem with Gramatica was that I don’t think he ever missed two kicks in a row in college, except for the 1998 Big 12 Championship Game in which he missed two kicks from 55 yards out, which aren’t easy field goals to make. When Gramatica’s slump hit in 2003 and he was missing kicks and getting them blocked, his confidence took a huge hit. I remember going over to see him in the locker room and saying to him, “You’ve never been here – in a slump – before, have you?” Gramatica shook his head no and said, “I’ve never been in a slump before and I don’t know how to get myself out.”
Gramatica never did. He was cut two years later after making 60 percent of his kicks during that span, and has bounced around the league ever since. I’m concerned that because Gruden really hasn’t had a whole lot of personal experience in this area that he may not know how to turn a season around while it is happening.
Winning is much easier to deal with than losing, and Gruden has a lot to learn when it comes to situations like the Bucs are in. But he is showing signs of growth in some areas. Some of the players I spoke with noted that I was correct in saying that Gruden did the right thing by letting the Bucs have off Friday, Saturday and Sunday after the Thanksgiving loss in Dallas. In 2004, Gruden might have been so mad at a bad performance that he would have made the team practice on Saturday. The players I spoke with appreciated the fact that he gave them three days off in a row to let their minds and bodies rest before the final five games of the season. Call it a mini bye week, but according to the players, it was the right call.
Gruden wasn’t that way in 2004 and players, such as defensive end Simeon Rice, rebelled against several of the coach’s tactics. With the Bucs having a 3-8 record this year, there is a reason why the Buccaneers locker room isn’t fractured and starting the finger pointing. Gruden is doing better this year in handling his players. As I stated in the last SR’s Fab Five, the veteran leaders, namely linebacker Derrick Brooks, cornerback Ronde Barber and fullback Mike Alstott, have done a great job of keeping the team from splintering. Look at New York where the Giants have a 6-5 record and are coming apart at the seams. In Atlanta, where the Falcons have two more wins than the Bucs, the turmoil is beginning.
But in Tampa, the Bucs aren’t stirring things up in the locker room. They are still behind Gruden despite the 3-8 record. There is still great chemistry in the locker room. The players just wish he could give them the right directions to get out of the dark forest. This team is lost right now and looking for a leader.
FAB 2. To my surprise, all of the players I spoke with agreed with the point I made in a previous SR’s Fab 5 regarding the team not having an emotional leader since Warren Sapp departed after the 2003 season. One veteran player said that part of my column really hit home and noted that players like linebacker Derrick Brooks, cornerback Ronde Barber and fullback Mike Alstott were great leaders and at their best when things were going right. Those three players have also helped keep the locker room from splintering, but haven’t done much to rally the team because it is not in their nature to be vocal and spirited like Sapp or Hardy Nickerson were.
In fact, the players told me that Dexter Jackson was the closest thing to having an emotional leader on the team, but Jackson was deemed expendable due to the presence of Will Allen. That move didn’t set well with many of the players I spoke with, who also wanted the team to trade for or sign Dwight Smith. However, the front office had a fourth-round pick invested in Allen and wanted him to start, which was definitely the wrong tactic to take. It’s no surprise or coincidence that the last two good Bucs seasons came with Jackson on the roster (2002 and 2005).
One player mentioned that what I wrote about Sapp’s peer pressure techniques of making the guilty party identify himself after giving up a big run by saying “Who’s gap was that?!” isn’t being done anymore in the huddle. When the Bucs start looking for free agents and draft prospects – and listen closely, Bruce Allen – this team needs a firestarter. This team needs an ass-kicker. The players want it and need it. They’ve told Allen and they’ve told me that’s what is missing in the locker room, on the practice field and in the huddle on Sundays. Complacency has set it.
That type of fiery leadership is just not in Brooks’ nature, nor is it in the nature of Alstott or Barber. They, like Gruden, do their best work when things are going right. They keep the train on the tracks. This team needs someone to stand up and reject losing, hold everyone accountable and be able to rally the Buccaneers.
I told the players I spoke with that I thought the only fiery, ass-kicker in the building these days was Gruden, and they all agreed. However, the players aren’t convinced that he knows how to turn it around like other coaches around the league, notably John Fox and Nick Saban have been able to do. The players didn’t like how Gruden is always using injuries as an excuse, getting ticked off and frustrated. At times, hot-headed Chucky needs to present an image of calm and collectedness to his team to inspire confidence.
Several players told me that it is only natural that players take on the identity of their coaches and there are plenty of examples of that this year. New personalities of new coaches Jethro Franklin (defensive line) and Greg Burns (defensive backs) are night and day from the high-energy, intense personalities of Rod Marinelli and Mike Tomlin. Franklin is more laid back than the militant Marinelli was, and Burns speaks so softly he is barely heard some times where Tomlin was as loud as a bullhorn. Some players said that they have seen the team become more passive in certain areas as a result of the coaching change. That appears to be the case.
And if you are among the folks who think, “These players are professionals and they shouldn’t have to be motivated to play great,” think again. This is a six-days-a-week grind for months on end that takes a mental and physical toll. NFL players need motivation and Marinelli and Tomlin were masters of it.
Gruden is also quite good at it, but the team has also taken on his personality, too. When things are going good, they’ll actually become great. Gruden has achieved the two highest records in team history a 15-4 mark in 2002 and an 11-5 record last year.
Some of the players I spoke with agreed when I called them front-runners in a previous SR’s Fab Five, which surprised me a great deal. They also said that they get that trait from Gruden, who is a front-runner and he’s the guy you want as your coach when a team starts off hot because it won’t fall off the tracks. It’s just that Gruden has failed at the “in-season turnaround” aspect of coaching and just doesn’t handle adversity very well.
Still, 2007 is a new year and there is a chance to get off to a hot start, grab some momentum and turn in a double-digit winning season. But should adversity strike, Gruden must learn how to adapt to it and present a different kind of leadership. That should be his homework assignment during the offseason. That, and finding a player who is an emotional leader who can help him get the train back on track.
The Bucs may already have that player on the roster, though. Gruden and Monte Kiffin need to sit down with Chris Hovan, a productive and respected player on the field and in the locker room, and tell him that he needs to let his personality come out more. Hovan was a fiery leader at Boston College and when he first got to Minnesota before falling out of favor. Just a thought.
FAB 3. We’ve already established the fact that Jon Gruden’s teams need to get off to a fast start to be successful, right? Well, if Gruden returns in 2007 his fate in Tampa Bay will be tied to whichever quarterback he chooses to run his offense. That means he better pick the right guy coming out of training camp if he and his team are going to have a successful 2007 campaign. Picking the wrong QB could be disastrous next year and could cost Gruden his job – if he survives 2006 to see it.
Here are your options if you are Gruden. You could start sixth-round draft pick Bruce Gradkowski in 2007, who has yet to start an entire NFL season and has won just three games, and hope that he can hit the long ball and get his completion percentage. You could start Chris Simms, who is coming off a splenectomy and seven interceptions, seven batted balls and one touchdown pass in 2006, but you better hope that his mechanics improve mightily and that he is fully healthy. That’s the familiar route – two young, promising and largely unproven prospects at quarterback.
Or Gruden can take the road less traveled and put his fortunes in the hands of Green Bay’s Brett Favre, who is throwing almost more interceptions than touchdowns these days, or Denver’s Jake Plummer, who just got benched in favor of rookie Jay Cutler. Pewter Report’s Jim Flynn profiled both of these players in his most recent Flynn’s Focus. Not exactly the most intriguing options at quarterback, and there is no guarantee that either player will be available as they are both under contract in Green Bay and Denver next year, respectively.
Favre has always had more success in a pure West Coast offense, and has a track record of working with Gruden dating back to 1992 when Gruden first picked up Favre at the airport after the Packers had acquired him via a trade with Atlanta. Gruden was the Packers wide receivers coach at the time. Aside from experience and clout, the one element that would appeal to Gruden is durability. Favre has not missed a start since 1992, while Gruden has seen Brad Johnson, Brian Griese and Chris Simms (twice) get taken out of the starting lineup due to injury since 2002.
If Gruden gets another year, whomever he picks for his quarterback in 2007 will determine whether he is the Buccaneers head coach in ’08. Choose wisely, Jon.
FAB 4. Cornerback Brian Kelly, whom Tampa Bay placed on injured reserve in October, is recovering from toe surgery and should be running in about two weeks. While there has been a great deal of speculation regarding Kelly’s future in Tampa Bay, one Bucs source told me that the team has not yet come to the conclusion that he won’t be a Buccaneer in 2007.
That’s good news because Tampa Bay’s secondary has been shredded without his presence this year, which is reminiscent of 2003 when Kelly was lost early in the season due to a torn pectoral muscle. If the Bucs wise up, they should keep Kelly as Juran Bolden has proven he’s better as a nickel back than as a starter, especially because that forces Torrie Cox into the role as the team’s full-time nickel back.
The whole key for Kelly is whether the team feels he’s back to 100 percent health by the offseason when he is due a $1 million signing bonus from the team’s perspective, and if he and his agent, Gary Uberstine, are willing to play for a base salary of $2.6 million in addition to that $1 million bonus. Kelly’s cap value is $4.436 million in 2007, and although Tampa Bay has a ton of cap room available, they really don’t want to give Kelly a raise because they have so many holes to fill on defense and offense by acquiring other players.
The biggest mystery regarding the Kelly-Bucs situation is regarding him being placed on injured reserve so early in the season despite a turf toe injury. Did Kelly shut his season down and want to be placed on injured reserve so that he could be healthy enough to pass team’s physicals in the event that he could be cut or traded? That could be the ticket to getting a new contract.
Or did the Bucs shut down Kelly’s season so he would be healthy enough to trade in the offseason? Nothing will kill a trade faster than a failed physical. If this is the reason why Kelly is on IR, the same could be true for Simeon Rice as well. If Rice has shoulder surgery and recovers over the next couple of months, he could be healed in time to be traded and pass a physical.
Here’s hoping that Kelly can stomach $3.6 million in 2007 from Tampa Bay, and that the Bucs don’t get rid of another top-notch defensive back coming off a surgery (see John Lynch) before knowing whether or not he can still play. I’m just not sure what the market is for a 31-year old cornerback who has been on IR in two out of the last four seasons and has a degenerative toe condition. But I do know one thing – it’s quite obvious that Kelly and the Bucs still need each other.
FAB 5. Here are a few more things to hold you over until next week.
• Who was the one person who was lobbying the Buccaneers scouting department to take a flyer on Hofstra wide receiver Marques Colston, who was a seventh-round pick by New Orleans and has the inside track on the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award? Former assistant defensive backs coach Raheem Morris, who is now the defensive coordinator at Kansas State. Why did Morris see the talent that others missed? Morris is a Hofstra alum, of course.
• The Buccaneers gave punter Josh Bidwell a nice $2 million signing bonus. Although Bidwell has not had as good of a year as he did in 2005, he is still one of the top 10 punters in the NFL and it was wise for the Buccaneers to lock him up for the next five years.
• While the Buccaneers have re-signed punter Josh Bidwell and running back Earnest Graham, and have started negotiating with quarterback Chris Simms, there hasn’t been any movement on the Dewayne White front. White’s agent said that nothing was imminent and didn’t give any reason why the team has yet to negotiate with his client. The feeling here is that the Bucs want to gauge his performance over the final five games of the season before deciding how many zeroes to put on his check, which is a smart move. White’s play has been good at times, but he’s not exactly been the second coming of Simeon Rice, either.
• With the injury to free safety Will Allen this week, the Buccaneers actually thought about using Michael Clayton at safety against Pittsburgh. Clayton played wide receiver and safety at LSU during his sophomore season, and there was one NFL team that was prepared to draft Clayton in the first round in 2004 and convert him to safety. However, the Bucs feel that Donte Nicholson remembers enough of the defense to step in if Allen can’t go and injuries or poor play sends either Kalvin Pearson or Blue Adams to the bench.
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