Deconstructing Gruden — Part 1

This is a key year for Jon Gruden in Tampa Bay, as most believe his job is on the line if he has another sub-.500 season. But are there reasons to believe that Gruden can turn things around for the Bucs? And are there keys to be found in his previous successes and failures? BucsBlitz.com's first "Deconstructing Gruden" article focuses on his quarterbacks — the good and the not-so-good.

Jon Gruden came to Tampa Bay with the reputation of an offensive mastermind who would take Tampa Bay's moribund offense and turn it into a juggernaut. Based on his final three years in Oakland, no one would have argued.

But now entering his sixth year in Tampa Bay, Gruden's job is on the line. And his handling of the offense — which has ranked in the lower half of the NFL each of the last three seasons — is at issue. Is he really the offensive prince the Glazers paid a king's ransom for to wrest away from Oakland in early 2002? Or is Gruden simply the product of a perfect storm during his days in Oakland.

BucsBlitz.com set out to deconstruct the breakdowns in Gruden's offense the past few years and how they might translate into this season. Part One concerns Gruden's work with his quarterbacks, considered by many to be one of his greatest assets as a coach.

Did Jon Gruden make Rich Gannon? Or did Rich Gannon make Jon Gruden?

It's an obvious question now, but in 2001 the answer was clear. Gruden had taken Gannon, a journeyman quarterback throughout his previous NFL years and turned him into a league MVP. Gannon's averages in his three years under Gruden spoke for themselves:

A 61.7 completion percentage, 3,697 yards, 26.3 touchdowns and 11.3 interceptions.

But now there's plenty of history to absorb as far as Gruden is concerned. His 10 years as a head coach — plus his three years as an offensive coordinator in Philadelphia — give Gruden a track record that can be broken down and analyzed.

Looking at sheer numbers, however, Gannon's numbers under Gruden aren't really leaps and bounds ahead of the averages of Gruden's work in other cities (based on yearly totals of all quarterbacks on the roster):

Philadelphia, 1995-97: 3,639 yards, 17.3 touchdowns, 17.6 interceptions;

Oakland, 1998 (pre-Gannon): 3,534 yards, 21 touchdowns, 25 interceptions;

Tampa Bay, 2002-present: 3,508 yards, 21 touchdowns, 16.4 interceptions.

So maybe Gannon was simply ready to shine. While Gruden brought out his best qualities, Gannon certainly made Gruden look like a genius.

So what's the issue? Is it Gruden's skills as a quarterback guru? Is it so easy to take straw and spin it into gold, and is that simply too much to expect from any coach?

I mean there's only so much you can do with Ty Detmer and Rodney Peete, right?

When Gruden began his coordinator career in Philadelphia in 1995, he was expecting to work with Randall Cunningham, at that time still one of the league's most dynamic performers. But that didn't last.

Peete actually took more snaps than the brittle Cunningham. That started a trend for Gruden in Philadelphia that is repeating itself here in Tampa Bay. Gruden seems to run through quarterbacks like a fickle prom queen runs through suitors.

Of course, it's not all his fault. Injuries are partially to blame. But it all runs counter to what Gruden wants at the position — continuity. He craves it like oxygen. That's what has driven him crazy during the past few years in Tampa Bay.

In 2004 it was ineffectiveness (Brad Johnson) and injury (Chris Simms). In 2005 it was injury (Brian Griese). In 2006 it was injury (Simms) and ineffectiveness (Bruce Gradkowski).

The shuffle was similar Philadelphia. The following season, 1996, Gruden used Peete, Ty Detmer, Mark Rypien and Bobby Hoying, though Peete and Detmer took the majority of the snaps. In 1997 he used Detmer, Hoying and Peete.

His first year in Oakland, 1998, his quarterbacks were Jeff George, Donald Hollas and Wade Wilson.

The results? Well, while collectively those quarterbacks produced similar numbers to Gannon, separately none provided the domination at the position that Gruden also wants. No one feared Peete or Detmer or George or Wilson the way they feared Gannon for those three years in Oakland.

Perhaps a better barometer is those teams' records in what we'll call the "non-continuity" years. It's a rather pedestrian 54-57-1 (that's 1995-98, and 2004-06). But, it did come with two division titles, one each in Philly and in Tampa Bay. But the win-loss records varied.

During what we'll call the "continuity years," which would be 1999-2003, the Raiders and Bucs were a combined 49-31. Every year Gruden enjoyed at least a .500 season.

That's the kind of record that earns you a trade — and a raise.

Those five years in Oakland and Tampa Bay cemented Gruden's reputation, and he did it with a pair of quarterbacks who had absolutely no pedigree when they entered the NFL.

Gannon had been a career backup in three cities before he came to Oakland (ironically, Gruden also auditioned a CFL émigré that spring, Jeff Garcia, who now stands to benefit from Gruden's offensive mind in 2007). Gannon had done little of note in Minnesota, Washington and Kansas City, and gave no indication that his career was about to blossom.

Gannon's numbers under Gruden (by season):

1999: 304-of-515, 3,840 yards, 24 touchdowns, 14 interceptions.

2000: 284-of-473, 3,430 yards, 28 touchdowns, 11 interceptions.

2001: 361-of-549, 3,828 yards, 27 touchdowns, 9 interceptions.

It's important to note that before Gannon came to Oakland his best touchdown to interception ratio in any season was 2 to 1 (12 TDs to 6 INTs) in Minnesota in 1991. But he never came close to that until Oakland.

Jon Gruden (Getty Images)
It's an important note because one of the chief differences during this "continuity period" are interceptions. Gannon averaged just 11 per season in his three seasons under Gruden, and he reduced his picks each season. Quarterbacks in the other periods weren't so lucky.

His Philly quarterbacks averaged six more picks per season from 1995-97 than Gannon. His pre-Gannon quarterbacks in Oakland unloaded 14 more in just one season. His Tampa Bay quarterbacks are averaging five more picks per season than Gannon.

Interceptions mean lost opportunities to score. It's no real mystery that Oakland won two straight division titles in 2000-01 when Gannon's interception totals were at its most miniscule. It's no secret the Bucs won the NFC South in 2005 when Chris Simms and Brian Griese combined to throw just 14 interceptions, Gannon's highest total in any season under Gruden.

One could argue that the "continuity period" continued in Tampa Bay with Johnson, a former ninth-round selection in 1992 for Minnesota who briefly played with Gannon.

Johnson, however, had been a solid NFL quarterback before Gruden got hold of him. He had been a starter in Minnesota and Washington, and in 1999 he had his best season, eclipsing 4,000 yards passing for the Redskins.

Johnson looked the part of a West Coast offense quarterback. He's undeniably accurate, the fourth-most accurate quarterback in NFL history, oddly enough behind a pair of West Coast disciples in Joe Montana and Steve Young.

But Johnson's overall numbers didn't see a huge spike under Gruden. Consider his numbers his final year under Tony Dungy in 2001, and then his next two years under Gruden:

2001: 340-of-559, 3,406 yards, 13 touchdowns, 11 interceptions.

2002: 281-of-451, 3,049 yards, 22 touchdowns, 6 interceptions.

2003: 354-of-570, 3,811 yards, 26 touchdowns, 21 interceptions.

Johnson continued his solid play, and his interceptions dropped from 11 to 6 from 2001 to 2002. Yes, his interceptions shot up in 2003, but that was an anomaly in a career built on accuracy.

Now take a look at the statistical averages of Gannon and Johnson during the "continuity years," and the rest of Gruden's quarterbacks during the "non-continuity" years (we'll eliminate the Buccaneers quarterbacks that shared snaps with Johnson in 2002 and 2003):

Continuity (1999-03): 317-of-511, 3,592 yards, 25 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, 62.0 completion percentage.

Non-continuity (1995-98, 2004-06): 309-of-526, 3,478 yards, 18 touchdowns, 18 interceptions, 58.7 completion percentage.

By comparing these numbers, the clear trends emerge. Gruden can squeeze the passing yardage he needs out of just about any quarterback — he's now won games with 10 different quarterbacks, ranking him fourth in NFL history. But what matters most in his version of the West Coast offense — touchdowns, interceptions and completion percentage — are the difference between winning and losing. Granted, it doesn't take a genius to figure this out. But the differences are clear enough that we can tell why Gannon and Johnson were his most successful quarterbacks.

It should be noted that until Gannon came along, Gruden did not coach a quarterback that met the 60 percent threshold for completions. Some came close but none did. Johnson managed that same figure under Gruden.

In the non-continuity years of 2004-05, three quarterbacks did it — Griese (69.3 percent) in 2004, Griese again (64.4 percent) in 2005 and Simms (61.0 percent) after Griese was hurt. In fact, 2005 was the first time he had two quarterbacks hit that mark, no doubt a reason why the Bucs won the division title.

Gruden's offenses also managed seven more touchdowns and six fewer interceptions from 1999-03, no doubt due to Gannon's and Johnson's experience and accuracy.

Despite the two division titles in 1995 in Philly and 2005 in Tampa Bay, the theme is clear. The shuffling of quarterbacks in Gruden's offense, for whatever reason, can be deadly. Quarterback changes lead to fluctuations in team chemistry. Running backs and receivers that were on the same page with one player — say Chris Simms last year — are not on the same page with another — say Bruce Gradkowski.

It's those fluctuations that lead to the drop in touchdowns and the rise in interceptions. Once the regular season begins, backups don't normally get repetitions with the first team, and that chemistry between quarterback and wide receiver doesn't come easily. Factor in Gruden's complicated playbook — his play calls sound like algebraic equations — and losing the starting quarterback further spoils the chemistry.

Gradkowski's struggles to get the ball downfield to wide receiver Joey Galloway last season only illustrated that point. Galloway still managed 1,000 yards receiving in spite of, and not because of, Gradkowski.

Rich Gannon (AP)
The framework for Gruden's perfect quarterback is now clear. He wants a veteran, preferably one with a track record for accuracy and minimizing interceptions. He need not be a high draft choice — Gannon was a fourth-rounder. He wants a quarterback who can move the football downfield and get it in the red zone. He had that in spades in Gannon and Johnson.

He appears to have that once again in Garcia. Remember that Gruden was interested in Garcia in 1999, when Garcia was trying to make the transition to the CFL. Garcia fits the mold in many ways. First, he's accurate. His first four years in the NFL (1999-2002) he was better than 60 percent. Last year in Philadelphia he did it again, hitting 61.7 percent of his passes. In between? Garcia fell below 60 percent, but each season he was hampered by injuries. When healthy, he gets it done. For his career, he's at 60.9 percent.

Garcia finds the end zone. He's averaged 17 touchdowns per season, but his injury-plagued seasons in 2004-05 bring that average down. In his healthy years (1999-2003, 06), Garcia averaged 20.5 touchdowns a season. His career high is 32 in 2001 with San Francisco.

Garcia avoids mistakes. His worst interception total in his NFL career is 13, with San Francisco in 2003. In 2006, in just eight games with Philadelphia, he had two interceptions. In a full season he averages about 11-12 interceptions. He ranks in the Top 6 in NFL history for lowest interception percentage (sixth, 2.55 percent, and Gannon is fifth) and in highest touchdown to interception ratio (sixth, 1.77).

He's never been highly regarded. No one drafted Garcia out of San Jose State and he had to go to the CFL to prove himself.

And, finally, he's old. Yes, that's a factor, too. Gannon was 33 when he came to Oakland. Johnson was 33 when Gruden came to Tampa Bay. Garcia is 37. A bit long in the tooth, until you consider that Gannon put up his best numbers in 2003, at age 37, in an offense Gruden had constructed but was no longer running.

It lends credence to the theory that grates Gruden — young quarterbacks don't excel in his offense. He may smirk, but that point is now crystal clear. The two quarterbacks with the most success in his system were well into their 30s. Peete was 29 when he came to Philly in 1995 and never grasped the offense. Detmer was also 29 in 1996 and faced similar struggles. Hoying was a rookie in Philly in 1996. George was 31, but his skills weren't suited to the offense. Hollas was 31. And his latter Buccaneer years have been populated with young quarterbacks, from Griese (29 in 2004) to Simms (27) and Gradkowski (24).

No, mid-thirties is just about right. That's why Garcia will be the starter in the regular-season opener. He's the quarterback on the roster that fits Gruden's system the best.

So is Gruden a genius? I suppose genius is in the eye of the beholder. But his time in Oakland and his early career in Tampa Bay made him look like one. History proves that when Gruden's system is in the right hands, it can excel. And it's clear that continuity at quarterback has, historically, been the biggest issue when Gruden's system does not succeed.

Next: How Gruden's offensive philosophy can effect his running backs and his wide receivers.


Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for BucsBlitz.com and the Charlotte Sun-Herald in Port Charlotte, Fla. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association. Included among his more than two dozen writing and editing awards are national awards from the PFWA, the National Newspaper Association and the Associated Press Sports Editors, and state awards from the Florida Press Club and the Florida Sports Writers Association, for his coverage of the Buccaneers since 2004.


Bucs Blitz Top Stories