Deconstructing Gruden — Part 2

Jon Gruden came to Tampa Bay with the reputation of an offensive mastermind. But 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. set out to deconstruct Gruden's offfensive tendencies. Part Two concerns Gruden's use of the running back.

The West Coast offense puts the ball in the hands of the quarterback. But that doesn't mean a dominant player at that position will put the offense on the right track.

It takes a village, as they say, and the village in this offense includes the backs, receivers and offensive linemen.

The running back in the West Coast is sometimes a forgotten figure because the basic theory in the offense is to control the field with a short and intermediate passing game. In this respect, the pass actually opens up the run.

But a big requirement of any successful running back in this offense is the ability to catch passes out of the backfield. So durability is key. West Coast backs must rush and receive, plus prepare to receive more touches per season than other backs.

Jon Gruden got a heavy dose of that in his first three seasons as offensive coordinator in Philadelphia (1995-97).

Gruden installed his version of the WCO and had one of the most productive backs to be featured in the offense — Ricky Watters — at his disposal.

Watters actually followed Gruden to Philadelphia after three seasons in San Francisco. Watters had succeeded Roger Craig in San Francisco, to this day the best model of what a West Coast offense running back represents.

In San Francisco, Watters was good, but not great. He reached 1,000 yards his rookie season in 1992, but failed to do so in 1993 and 1994. Perhaps the standards of Craig made it impossible for Watters to live up to.

But in Philadelphia, with a fresh start, and with Gruden pulling the strings, Watters enjoyed his three most productive seasons (and Gruden enjoyed his most productive single running back as a play-caller):

1995: 337 carries, 1,273 yards, 11 touchdowns; 62 receptions, 434 yards, 1 touchdown.

1996: 353 carries, 1,411 yards, 13 touchdowns; 51 receptions, 444 yards, 0 touchdown.

1997: 285 carries, 1,110 yards, 7 touchdowns; 48 receptions, 440 yards, 0 touchdown.

Totals: 977 carries, 3,794 yards, 31 touchdowns; 161 receptions, 1,318 yards, 1 touchdown.

Watters put these numbers up without a Joe Montana calling the shots, too. Ty Detmer and Rodney Peete were the main quarterbacks during this period, not exactly Hall of Famers.

Ricky Watters as a Seattle Seahawk (AP photo)
Craig and Watters each succeeded in the same type of offense, and they were nearly carbon copies of each other. Craig was 6-foot, 220 pounds. He was a slightly better receiver than Watters, as he caught at least 60 passes five straight seasons. He only carried the ball 300 or more times once, 1988, when he rushed for 1,502 yards and caught 76 passes for 532 yards, a dizzying 2,034 yards in total offense.

Watters was 6-1, 217 pounds. He proved to be a slightly better rusher than Craig, managing 300 or more carries in a season four times and recording six straight 1,000-yards seasons after he left San Francisco (he achieved the feat three more times from 1998-2000 in Seattle, another West Coast offense run by one of Gruden's mentors, Mike Holmgren). But their career numbers aren't that far off:

Craig: 1,991 carries, 8,189 rushing yards, 56 touchdowns; 566 receptions, 4,911 yards, 17 touchdowns. Totals: 2,557 touches, 13,100 yards, 73 touchdowns.

Watters: 2,622 carries, 10,643 rushing yards, 78 touchdowns; 467 receptions, 4,248 yards, 13 touchdowns. Totals: 3,089 touches, 14,891 yards, 91 touchdowns.

This is all preamble, really, but it illustrates the point. The best type of back for the West Coast offense is a taller one — at least six foot — who had superior run and catch skills and can handle a tremendous amount of touches, sometimes as many as 450 during a given season. He should be a bit lankier, be elusive and be able to cut back against defenders.

That's the prototype. Gruden used Watters to produce three straight seasons in which his top two backs — Watters and backup Charlie Garner — produced at least 40 percent of the Eagles' total yards. That's rushing and receiving. The Eagles reached the playoffs two straight seasons during that period.

But is that the ratio that Gruden sought? Perhaps not, because since he left Philly he has shifted his philosophy to a backfield by committee approach out of necessity, and there's plenty of evidence to back it up.

That evidence began taking shape in Philadelphia. Watters' backup was Garner, and he had two seasons (1995, 97) where he had at least 100 carries and 500 yards playing behind Watters. Garner wasn't a superior pass receiver (but he would become one later), but there wasn't much of a drop between Watters and Garner.

Gruden must have noticed, or maybe he learned from watching Craig's body break down after he left San Francisco. More likely, it was the personnel he inherited in Oakland.

Gruden did not inherit a true "West Coast" back in Oakland. In 1998 he had Napoleon Kaufman, a shifty quick sprite of a runner (just 5-9, 185 pounds) and Harvey Williams, who was closer to the mold at 6-2, 226. Kaufman wasn't durable enough, and Williams wasn't talented enough. But together Gruden made it work:

Kaufman: 217 carries, 921 yards, 2 touchdowns; 25 receptions, 191 yards, 0 touchdowns.

Williams: 128 carries, 496 yards, 2 touchdowns; 26 receptions, 173 yards, 0 touchdowns.

Totals: 345 carries, 1,417 yards, 4 touchdowns; 51 receptions, 364 yards, 0 touchdowns.

That's comparable to any of Watters' three seasons in Philly. And Gruden must have though he was on to something.

For the rest of his time in Oakland Gruden chose to pair backs together, rather than try to find that one "West Coast" mold type back. After Williams left after the 1998 season, the Raiders brought in a classic power back in Tyrone Wheatley (6-0, 235). For the next two years Gruden paired Wheatley with Kaufman and produced numbers that would be considered All-Pro if they were put up by one player:

1999: 380 carries, 1,650 yards, 10 touchdowns; 39 catches, 357 yards, 4 touchdowns.

2000: 325 carries, 1,545 yards, 9 touchdowns; 33 catches, 283 yards, 2 touchdowns.

Tyrone Wheatley (Getty Images)
Gruden further diversified the offense by utilizing fullback Jon Ritchie as his top pass-catching back and using Zach Crockett as a short-yardage and goal line running back. In this case, Gruden actually made changes to his offense to fit his personnel (something he's been accused of not doing in Tampa Bay), and it worked. The Raiders were the No. 1 rushing team in 1999, and No. 3 in 2000.

In this respect, Gruden used the two-back approach long before it became the "in" thing to do in the NFL.

That ranking dropped in 2001, but only because Gruden chose to put the ball in quarterback Rich Gannon's hands much more. He brought Garner — Watters' old backup — to Oakland and paired him with Wheatley. The rushing numbers dropped to 1,115 yards, but Garner (5-10, 190) was now a superior pass catcher and finished with 72 receptions for 578 yards and two touchdowns. The numbers shifted, but the production didn't.

This is the apex of the "continuity period" explored in Part 1. During this period (1999-2003), Gruden had two quarterbacks — Gannon in Oakland and Brad Johnson in Tampa Bay — who took the vast majority of the snaps. During this period, Gruden's offenses enjoyed their best years. Four out of five years they ended up in the NFL's Top 10 (excluding 2002). It also revealed that Gruden, with a sure hand at quarterback, skewed his offenses toward his quarterbacks — more in tune with the West Coast Offense.

Consider this dynamic — the combined rushing and receiving yards of Gruden's top 2 running backs never added up to 40 percent of the team's total yardage during this period, though his offenses generated more than 5,000 yards each of those seasons. That happened all three times in Philly, and again in 2005, but remember that the quarterback situation was in flux.

When Gruden arrived in Tampa Bay, he found himself inheriting a backfield-by-committee. Warrick Dunn was gone, but burly Mike Alstott (6-1, 248) was still there, and now Gruden had Arizona castoff Michael Pittman (6-0, 228) to pair him with. Pittman was probably as close to Watters' physical mold and talent as Gruden has gotten since. But Pittman has never shown the ability to be a primary back, and Gruden put his trust in the rotation system he'd used in Oakland:

Pittman: 204 carries, 718 yards, 1 touchdown; 59 catches, 477 yards, 0 touchdowns.

Alstott: 146 carries, 548 yards, 5 touchdowns; 35 catches, 242 yards, 2 touchdowns.

Totals: 350 carries, 1,266 yards, 6 touchdowns; 94 catches, 719 yards, 2 touchdowns.

The combined yardage — 1,985 — was enough to win a Super Bowl. It also represented about 39.6 percent of the Buccaneers' total yardage that season. It came awfully close to the 2,007 yards that Wheatley and Kaufman put up in 1999, and was the exact same percentage that Pittman and Thomas Jones — subbing for an injured Alstott — would put up in 2003, though they generated 2,155 yards. But, it was also the first losing season of Gruden's head coaching career.

Since 2004 the Buccaneers' total offensive yardage has dropped each season (4,963 in 2004, 4,716 in 2005 and 4,321 in 2006). In 2005, en route to a division title, the Bucs' primary backs — Cadillac Williams and Pittman — produced 42.3 percent of the total yardage, the first time that had happened in a Gruden-led offense since 1997 in Philadelphia.

The common denominator was the quarterback situation. Tampa Bay started the season with Brian Griese and ended it with Chris Simms. Sounds familiar if you note Gruden's early years in Philly.

Two tracks emerge upon close examination. Gruden has proved he can actually bend the offense to his personnel. In Philadelphia, when he had Watters but a shoddy quarterback situation, Gruden put the ball in Watters' hands more and the quarterbacks' hands less and produced. In Oakland and his early years in Tampa Bay, with a solid quarterback but no likely No. 1 back, Gruden put the ball in the hands of his quarterback and used a backfield by committee approach.

Need proof? Witness the ratios of the total yardage of his top two backs to the total yardage during the "continuity period" and the "non-continuity" period:

1999-2003: 35.6 percent

1995-97, 2004-06: 40.5 percent

Is this actual proof that Gruden can be flexible when necessary? Before you decide, examine last year.

Buccaneers running back Cadillac Williams (Getty Images)
Last year's quarterback carousel should have allowed Williams and Pittman to each have productive seasons, but neither did. Williams' rushing yardage dropped nearly 400 yards, while his carries dropped by 65. Pittman's rushing yardage plummeted almost 200 yards, though his passing receptions and yardage went up, as did Williams'.

Their total yardage dropped by more than 300 yards, and their percentage of the offense dropped by four percent. That percentage was more in tune with 2004 (35.2), where again the Bucs experienced a quarterback carousel with Johnson, Simms and Griese.

Is this just an aberration? Consider that both of those teams had poor line play and injuries at receiver that bogged down Gruden's game plan (those positions will be examined later). But also consider that he had rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski throw 48 passes on a windy day in The Meadowlands last season, and one has to wonder if Gruden is getting more stubborn about what he believes the offense can do.

But what does that all mean in 2007?

Williams (5-11, 217), to this writer, projects as a Garner type of back. They're practically the same height, though Williams weighs in about 20 pounds heavier. Williams is certainly more talented than Garner as a rusher, but Garner grew into the role that Gruden wants Williams to fill in Tampa Bay, that of a proficient backfield receiver.

Garner began as Watters' backup in Philadelphia and grew into that role. He didn't become a primary back until he went to San Francisco in 1999 and put up back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.

The Bucs would love to see Williams emulate Garner's progress as a receiver. His first five seasons in the NFL Garner never caught more than 24 passes. But once he got to San Francisco, he found his niche, catching 56 passes. For the next four seasons he caught 68 passes, 72 passes and 91 passes before falling off to 48 in 2003.

Williams has made progress, catching 20 passes in 2005 and 30 passes last season. Tampa Bay believes he's made more progress as a receiver this offseason, so much so that a rumor began that the Bucs might release Pittman and make Williams a three-down back.

That's not smart, at least not yet. If Williams tracks like Garner as a receiver, then his pass-catching skills will come in a rush. Garner went from 19 receptions in 1998 to 56 in 1999. It will likely come in an unexpected burst that no one can anticipate.

That's why Pittman is such great insurance. He's one of the best receivers out of the backfield in the league and is a talented enough back to take heat off Williams.

But last year their combined production added up to only 1,644 yards, the worst total yardage by a pair of tandem backs in Gruden's play-calling career.

Still, Gruden has exhibited an ability to use two backs properly and still get the offensive results he desires. But their numbers are really tied to the quarterback. If the situation under center is steady, the pair could produce up to 2,000 yards or more. If the situation is unsteady, they will likely produce less yardage, but will have a bigger part of the offensive pie.

Want to see Part One of this series? Click here:

Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for 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.

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