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The Glazer family, who owns the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, has yet to comment publicly on the fate of head coach Jon Gruden, whose regular season record in Tampa Bay dropped to 39-41 after a 23-7 loss to Seattle to cap off a 4-12 season. But after the season-ending loss to the Seahawks, Gruden did say that he planned on returning to coach the Buccaneers for a sixth season in 2007.
“I plan on it, yeah,” said Gruden, whose contract expires after the 2008 season. “There are a lot of speculation and rumors. There is a lot of that going around this time of year. I do plan on it. I’m very excited about the future and there’s been a lot of things happen in the last four or five years that have been good. There have been a lot of things that have happened that haven’t been so good. But I’m one of those guys that is going to the next hole, and I’m going to be going to the next hole until somebody tells me I’m out of the tournament.”
Just a year ago, the Buccaneers were coming off an NFC South championship and an 11-5 record. Faced with very limited salary cap room, the Buccaneers decided to re-sign most of its own free agents rather than adding players from other teams. For whatever reason, a team that basically returned intact battled inconsistency and injuries to finish a disappointing 4-12. That could signal lots of roster upheaval this offseason, although Gruden wouldn’t give specifics about what the team needed to do or what direction the team would head in free agency and the draft after Sunday’s loss.
“We will huddle, we will regroup and we will come up with answers to your questions, but you’re not going to find all those out tonight,” Gruden said. “You’ve got to see the availability of players, what the status is of a lot of those things before you make those determinations.”
However, Gruden was confident that he could turn the team around as he did after the 2004 season when Tampa Bay went 5-11 only to bounce back and win 11 games in 2005.
“Yeah, I’m confident,” Gruden said. “Sometimes you have to take a huge step backwards to take a huge step forward. I’m going to be very critical, as are you, of what occurred this season, but I’m also a pretty realistic human being. I know the playing field and I understand what needs to be done here, and I understand the rules in terms of how you get things done. The playing field is about to get level for us in terms of acquiring players, drafting players and developing players. It’s been a painful process for a lot of people involved, but we’re excited about the future and we’ll prove that.”
The playing field Gruden was referring to is the chance to be a real player in free agency. Since his arrival in Tampa Bay in 2002, the Buccaneers have had to release players every offseason in order to have its payroll under the NFL-mandated salary cap. In 2007, the Buccaneers are expected to be between $20-25 million under the salary cap and will be able to compete with anyone for top-flight free agents in their prime.
“When we won the championship … obviously the difficulty, you see through the windshield and you see the storm coming,” Gruden said. “Hell, I’m not going to be a novice up here and act like we didn’t have horrific problems ahead of us. We had to let go of some great players. The salary cap is a law and a regulation that you live by in this league. And you don’t have picks to recoup the players you are losing? I’m not making any excuses. Jon Gruden is a 4-12 coach and ticked off about it, and I’m sure our fans are, too. But we’re going to be back. No matter who coaches these guys, the Buccaneers will be back.”
Despite having a similar record in 2004, Gruden couldn’t draw specific parallels between the team’s performance that year and this year, which ended with just four wins and 12 defeats – the team’s worst finish since 1991 when the Buccaneers finished 3-13.
“We weren’t a 5-11 football team that year,” Gruden said. “We couldn’t make a field goal and we turned the ball over in some of the most horrific places that you could turn it over [that year]. We’re a 4-12 football team this season. I think we had six starters sit out offensively today, and a lot of our games this season we missed a lot of key ingredients that are in a recipe. Spaghetti don’t taste the same, just so you know, when there ain’t no meatballs and spaghetti sauce in there.
“We’ve got to stay healthy. Some of these young guys we’ve got – for crying out loud – have got to stay healthy. I’m mad at Alex Smith. I’m mad at Cadillac [Williams]. I’m mad at [Michael] Clayton. I’m mad at Dan Buenning. I miss [Brian] Kelly and [Simeon] Rice. And [Anthony] McFarland is in Indiana right now. So the spaghetti sauce wasn’t quite the same this year. Matter of fact, it tasted lousy. We’ve got to do something about that next year.”
Should Gruden return to coach the Buccaneers, he and his staff may have one more chance to coach before the offseason arrives. There is speculation that Detroit, owner of a 2-14 record this year, will not coach the Senior Bowl due to head coach Rod Marinelli's expected hip replacement surgery in early January. Because the NFL traditionally invites teams with the worst record from each conference to coach in the Senior Bowl, the next NFC team on the dockett would be Tampa Bay, who coached the college all-star game in 2005. The Bucs drafted five Senior Bowl participants that year. Gruden said the Bucs will coach in the game if invited.
“Oh yeah," Gruden said. "We’ll coach anywhere. If someone calls me with the opportunity to coach backyard football, I’m there. We had a great experience at the Senior Bowl there twice coaching. The NFL will decide that right and who they want to coach that game, but if we get the chance to coach that game, we’ll coach it.”
Speculation regarding the chances of Gruden being fired have died down a bit due to Tampa Bay’s improved play over the last few games, but despite repeated media requests for comment, the Glazers have yet to comment on Gruden’s future in Tampa Bay.
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