He gets paid too much money for me to search the recesses of my soul for buried sympathy.

And in the end, his team’s atrocious 3-10 record is far too bad for me to ease off the pedal on highway of blame.

But, as this debacle of a Buccaneers season comes to an end – or at least until the ownership steers fans in another direction – the Bucs’ hopes are hitched to Jon Gruden.

His state of mind is that of the ball club.

His fears, are the Bucs’ fears.

And, even if you feel it’s misguided, his sense of hope is their sense of hope.

So, you know what, live with it! What do you want, a mutiny?

Is apathy sounding good?  Do you want a safety playing out the string, anxious to get home? Do you want a receiver content to catch a few balls and then shut it down?

That’s not a “no.” It’s a “hell no!”

The game’s heritage doesn’t allow that. There are no provisions for anything but total effort.

This, more than anything, has to be Gruden’s message as the funeral procession winds toward the cemetery.

“When you do this long enough, you learn that you’re going to survive the good and the bad,” Gruden said. “So I try to make sure that the people around me, the people behind me, see the big picture.

“We have some issues, obviously, and we have to address them and we will address them. Now, part of coaching is setting the standards of how we’re going to prepare, how we’re going to work and not lowering those standards despite of anything.”

That’s good to know, because it’s crucial to the future. The Bucs will do nothing but anger the football gods if they mail in the final days. This is an unforgiving game, with unforgiving karma and an elephant’s memory.

You mess with karma’s flow, you pay a price.

So, bash him all you want. Call for his firing, his tar and feathering, his placement in the stocks for all I care. But, if the Bucs are to bounce back in 2007, they have to finish 2006 by honoring the game and that starts with standing behind their head man.

He doesn’t have to convince his fans of squat, he has to convince his players and his coaches.

“I’ve got a lot of confidence in what we’re doing what we’re going to do and in what we will do again,” Gruden said. “I try to keep things in perspective and I’m certainly sensitive to what the players think, what the coaches think and what we put on tape.

“Now, we evaluate everything closely and just try to continue to believe in one another and be mentally tough. You have to be mentally tough. There are a lot of guys in the league, if you do the math, they’re going to have similar struggles. We have great peaks and some valleys. We have an idea of why we are where we are and what we need to do to get it right and that’s the exciting thing.”

Sure, you have to wonder how a man, so embattled in the public eye, doesn’t let the criticism get to him. Doesn’t some yahoo heckle him at the gas station? Doesn’t some youngster poke fun at his kid at school?

Given that, isn’t it hard for him not to feel the sting?

“I’m not an insensitive person,” Gruden said. “I’ve got a lot of feelings and emotions. I want to be great at this. But, I’m not going to take it home. Trust me, I spend enough time here. When I get home, I’m able to put it away in a mentally tough fashion. I can handle the consequences.

“But, I’ve also got a lot of respect and understanding to why we are where we are and what we have to do. I can take the criticism. I deserve my share.”

This is a dangerous game. A very dangerous game.

Gruden is hanging his hat on the young Bucs. He’s hoping that Cadillac Williams isn’t a fumbler. That Davin Joseph and Jeremy Trueblood are future fortresses. That Maurice Stovall can be born. That Michael Clayton can be resurrected. That the $25 million in cap space can bring a Pro Bowl quarterback, a Pro Bowl safety and some help at defensive tackle. That the personnel department doesn’t get a cubic zirconia instead of a diamond.

“You’ve got to make sure that you don’t do things to inhibit their growth,” he said. “You have to have as much consistency as you can and you have to take a few lumps along the way. That’s the way it is.

“There is a lot of light at the end of the tunnel and soon things are going to pay off for us.”

Good luck with that.

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