Jon Gruden saved his job but the Bucs may still not be out of danger. Despite winning their second division title in three years, there are a lot of questions about the direction of the team.
For starters, Gruden has one year left on his contract and is seeking an extension. But does a 9-8 record and first-round loss at home in the playoffs warrant more than another year?
That's what the Glazer family must wrestle with. They also must extend the contracts of general manager Bruce Allen and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin.
Re-signing Kiffin, who turns 68 next month, would seem to be the top priority now that the season is over. Kiffin's defense has finished in the top 10 overall in the NFL 10 times in the past 12 years. This season, he took the Bucs from 17th overall to second.
But Kiffin earned about $1.7 million in 2007 and could be seeking $2 million, causing Allen to grouse about the enormity of salaries for assistant coaches.
Against this backdrop, there are some signs of discontent coming out of One Buc Place.
Former assistant head coach Art Valero, who took a similar position with the St. Louis Rams, threw Gruden under the bus upon accepting his new position. What was unusual is that this was a member of his staff, not a disgruntled player.
Valero credited the players -- not Gruden -- for most of the Bucs' success.
"First of all, when coach (Tony) Dungy left Tampa Bay, he left a lot of great character on that team," Valero said. "The thing I will miss the most is the players and not only the ones I got to work with. There's a lot of great people in that locker room and all they want to do is win and all they wanted was to be led."
Valero helped running back Cadillac Williams win Rookie of the Year honors in 2005 when the first-round pick from Auburn rushed for 1,178 yards. This season, following injuries to Williams and Michael Pittman, he helped seldom-used running back Earnest Graham become a featured back and rush for 898 yards and 10 touchdowns. The Bucs' rushing attack ranked 11th overall, the highest ever in Tampa Bay under Gruden.
But Valero clearly disagreed with Gruden's decision to rest players the final two games of the regular season. The Bucs lost 24-14 to the New York Giants in the NFC wild-card game, their second home playoff loss in three years.
"We have the healthiest team no longer playing in the playoffs," Valero said.
Rams coach Scott Linehan and Valero twice worked together -- at Louisville (1998-01) when Valero was offensive line coach and Linehan was the offensive coordinator. In the early '90s, they were on the same staff at the University of Idaho.
"I'll miss the players and I tried to get close to those guys in the locker room," Valero said. "Not just the superstars, but the Kalvin Pearsons, who they tried to cut, and the Earnest Grahams, who they cut several times. The team had outstanding leaders -- Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber. I'll miss them as people, not just players.
"What this team was about is what you saw in the preseason. They won because of their camaraderie. When you saw Paris Warren go down in preseason and the entire team left the bench to wish him well, I've never seen anything like that. That's what this team was about."
Valero is right about one thing. The 2007 Bucs will be remembered for how backups stepped up rather than its star power. Greg White, the Arena League's Defensive Player of the Year, led the team with 8.5 sacks. Rookie Tanard Jackson became a headhunter at safety. And Graham, the team's third running back, made the most of his chance, rushing for 898 yards and 10 touchdowns after injuries to Williams and Pittman.
Garcia will be 38, but he provided some fire to the offense and protected the football, which is what the Bucs had hoped for. He will be back for at least another season and suddenly Tampa Bay looks like it has a quarterback of the future in Luke McCown, who went 1-2 as a starter last season.
The Bucs need to add some play-makers, particularly on offense. Receiver Joey Galloway, 36, is coming off his third 1,000-yard season. But he needs help. Ike Hilliard, at 31, should not be the club's No. 2 receiver and is proof Gruden has given up on Michael Clayton, who caught 22 passes, the fewest in his career.
The Bucs have about $23 million under the salary cap, so they believe they can be big players in free agency.
That remains to be seen. Gruden has some work to do, obviously. The Bucs have been wildly inconsistent in the years following a division title. There is some obvious discord between Gruden, his coaches and players.
But the Bucs seem pointed in the right direction.
--General manager Bruce Allen and Earnest Graham's agent say they are engaged in talks about a contract extension after the fourth-year player out of Florida emerged from No. 3 on the depth chart to become the centerpiece of the Bucs running game in 2007.
"He's everything you're looking for," agent Drew Rosenhaus said. "He's tough, he's a good receiver out of the backfield and his best years are ahead of him. We're hoping to come to terms with a long-term deal."
Graham, 27, rushed for 898 yards and 10 touchdowns, tied for third in club history. He was scheduled to make $605,000 in 2008. Running backs Michael Pittman and Michael Bennett will be free agents and Cadillac Williams may not return from a torn patellar tendon next year, giving Graham some leverage.
--Michael Clayton hasn't been the same player since he caught 80 passes for 1,193 yards as a rookie. He had 22 catches this season, his fourth in the NFL. But GM Bruce Allen has defended him. "Michael Clayton did come back for us this year in a very strong way," Allen said. "He sets the tone you don't see in a lot of wide receivers in the NFL. I think in the playoff game, he made some nice grabs. I think his future is still in front of him."
--The Bucs don't expect any word on the future plans of FB Mike Alstott, who is expected to retire. "Mike is contemplating his situation," Allen said. "We'll discuss it. I don't think there's any hurry in making any decision."
QUOTE TO NOTE
"We have the healthiest team no longer playing in the playoffs." -- Former assistant head coach Art Valero, who left to take a similar position with the St. Louis Rams, when talking about a Bucs team that rested players in the final weeks of the regular season.