Gruden: Offseason priorities are clear

As Tampa Bay broke down the locker room after Sunday's loss to the New York Giants, Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden expressed optimism that the franchise is back on the path to consistent play in 2008 and beyond. He also talked about his contract status beyond 2008 and offseason priorities.

From 65,000 screaming fans to dead quiet. That's the best way Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden could explain the difference between Sunday's NFC Wild Card playoff game and Monday at One Buc Place.

There was little noise around the Bucs' training facility one day after losing 24-14 to the New York Giants. Players quietly packed their belongings in large trash bags for the offseason. Gruden held a short team meeting before the season-ending physicals and his message seemed clear.

"We have the heart of a champion and around that heart we're going to build a world champion," Gruden said.

The Buccaneers finished 9-7 and won the NFC South for the second time in three years. The Bucs have gone from worst (5-11 in 2004) to first (11-5 in 2005) to worst (4-12 in 2006) to first in the division the past four years.

Gruden seemed amused by the recent five-year trend of the division's worst team winning the title the next year. He made it clear that he wants the team's roller coaster existence to stop and his first priority is to give his damaged team time to heal.

"Our No. 1 item is to get our players healthy," Gruden said. "We have a number of guys that need to get back to health so they can contribute."

Tampa Bay ended the season with 14 players on injured reserve. Several of them, including backup quarterback Chris Simms and rookie safety Sabby Piscitelli, said they'll be ready to go when the organized team activities begin in late March or early April.

Next there will be contract talk. Gruden is signed through next year, but an extension from the Glazer family would send a clear message to the coaching staff — many of which are without a contract — and potential free agents that Gruden is the coach who will lead the team's potential rejuvenation.

Gruden expressed no interest in talking about his contract on Monday.

"People will have an opinion," Gruden said. "I'm proud of the progress made. Whether that's enough for an extension, I don't care."

Several assistants, including defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, will be looking for a new deal. Gruden fully expects Kiffin to be back next season.

Then, it's free agency. While Gruden didn't talk specifics, he did hear Jeff Garcia's comments on Sunday that the offense needs more playmakers after the Bucs mustered little offense after the first quarter against the Giants.

Gruden said he felt this team had some playmakers already, but didn't deny that he would be looking for more with free agency and the draft approaching.

"We do want to have fire power, explosive play-making ability," Gruden said. "We did have a guy lead the National Football League in yards per catch, almost 18 yards per grab, (Joey) Galloway, and we missed him (Sunday). We lost a guy, we think, who can hit the ball out of the park in Cadillac Williams. We need these guys, but we need to continue to address speed and explosive play-making ability in all phases of our football, in our return game as well."

In regard to Galloway, Gruden talked about sitting Galloway in the final minutes of Sunday's game, saying Galloway played basically with one arm thanks to a shoulder injury.

Galloway didn't appear to be happy about the move during the game and wasn't in the locker room after the game. He left the field a few minutes before the game ended. Gruden called it a disagreement on Sunday, but backed off that on Monday.

"There was no disagreement," Gruden said. "We made a decision to pull him out of the game and obviously he was hurting. You can see it on the tape this morning. It's hard enough to play in this league, let alone with one arm and I think emotions flared. This is very important to him. He's played for a long time and he wanted a shot at a championship and he knows he's a key cog here and one of the big reasons why we had a chance every Sunday and I think the emotions got the best of him, but I can appreciate that."

This season will be remember by many for the team's turnaround, thanks in part to unexpected contributors like running back Earnest Graham, left tackle Donald Penn and defensive end Greg White. All three played key roles, but Graham may have done the most to assure himself a key job next season.

"Obviously in the situation that he was thrust into for him to excel the way he did certainly he proved that is a quality NFL back and a guy we can win with," Gruden said.

But 2007 is done, Gruden said. It's time to start thinking about next season.

The Buccaneers have anywhere from $25-30 million under the salary cap for 2008, a need for playmakers and a dearth of draft choices (they traded three during 2007). So it appears clear that the Bucs could be serious players in free agency.

The Buccaneers haven't been this well positioned entering a free agency period in years. The lure of a winning team and a glistening new training facility could draw quality free agents at key positions.

Gruden wants the right mix of veterans and newcomers he had in 2007. He wants the chemistry that team quickly forged, due in part to how they rallied around each other after key injuries to Paris Warren and Williams.

More than anything, though, he doesn't want another backslide like 2006.

"I think we have to concentrate on the reality of where we are," Gruden said. "We have to continue to add players, got to continue to develop players and we need a few of the players to explode on the scene as dominate and great players in order to move on."

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Listen to Bucsblitz.com's Matthew Postins every Tuesday with former Buccaneers linebacker Scot Brantley on WHBO 1470 ESPN Radio in Tampa and Clearwater from 3-6 p.m. If you miss the show, check out Bucsblitz.com's exclusive team media center for Postins' archived appearances.

Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte (Fla.) Sun-Herald. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and his coverage of the Buccaneers has won numerous state and national awards.


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