PRIORITY SIX: GET HEAD COACH JON GRUDEN A CONTRACT EXTENSION — BUT NOT A LONG ONE.
WHAT I SAID THEN:
Before you get drunk on reaching the playoffs again, remember that the Bucs have followed each of their winning seasons under Jon Gruden with a losing season. In 2003 they went from 12-4 and a Super Bowl title to 7-9. In 2006 they went from 11-5 and a division championship to 4-12.
In fact, the Bucs have gone 5-11, 11-5, 4-12 and 9-7 the last four seasons.
The roller coaster must stop, and the Glazer family has to send a clear message to Gruden — and, frankly, GM Bruce Allen — that it has to stop.
There's no reason to risk a Lovie Smith-esque situation where Gruden coaches out his contract without one, making him a free agent in 2009. The Glazers should offer Gruden a one-year extension through 2009, but nothing more.
After the 2005 season many thought the Buccaneers had made progress after two straight losing seasons. It turned out to be a mirage, as the defense got old fast and the offense sputtered mightily due to injuries. Gruden nearly lost his grip on the locker room.
A five-game turnaround, to me, signals progress. But how much? There are still serious questions about this team at key spots. They're incredibly young at some spots, like offensive line. They're getting older at others spots, like wide receiver.
Yes, half their roster is home-grown now, and that's a promising development as well. But will it signal a more consistent, winning football team on the field? That's what I would be asking if I was a Glazer.
The Glazers should say this to Gruden:
"We like the direction this team is going in, but we felt burned by what happened in 2006. We think you're the right guy to lead this franchise further into the future, but we need to see more consistency out of this team. So we're going to extend your contract to 2009, and if we like what we see in 2008, we'll talk about a longer deal."
Jon Gruden seems to respond to pressure. He did this year. So put the heat on him again. And if he falters in 2008, the Glazers can make a change without being on the hook for two or three more years of payments to Gruden.
WHAT I SAY NOW?
I stand by what I wrote in January. Gruden and Allen should have only received one-year extensions, not three. They obviously have pretty good agents.
The Glazers value stability, and I can see that perspective. They gave Tony Dungy six years, and Gruden is now in his seventh. Most great franchises are marked by stability at the top. Dallas had Tom Landry. San Francisco had Bill Walsh. Pittsburgh had Chuck Noll, then Bill Cowher. New England has Bill Belichick.
But I would also say that, at the moment, the Bucs are not a great franchise. They are merely good, and have the potential to be very good.
Given most of his staff back and a three-year contract extension, take a look at Tampa Bay's offseason objectively. They did upgrade center, blocking tight end, defensive line and secondary through the draft and free agency. But those upgrades may take time to come to fruit, especially on defense. Wide receiver remains a huge question mark. The quarterback is still pretty old, and his backup has a tendency to throw ill-timed interceptions. The running game will only go as far as Earnest Graham, until last year a special teams star, can take them.
Given a surplus of cash and long-term contract security for the first time, Gruden and Allen acted like spend-thrifts still struggling with the cap. Aside from the outrageous amount they threw center Jeff Faine's way, the Bucs chose to spend their money on depth rather than potential impact players.
Is that a bad strategy? Potentially. Consider what happened in 2006. Coming off a division title, the Bucs chose to keep all but one starter and focus on depth. It didn't help. They went 4-12.
This 2008 team, at least right now, appears to be in slightly better shape entering training camp than the 2006 team. The defense is now a bit younger and there's more depth at running back and quarterback (certainly not breakaway talent).
Given only a one-year extension, Gruden and Allen may have felt compelled to be more aggressive this offseason, even swing a trade for one of the high-profile players they were linked to at one time, like Chad Johnson or Jason Taylor. But with three years and the security that comes with it, the two might have felt they could survive a down season in 2008.
Chances are they will survive if the Bucs dip below .500, and that would put the Bucs in a 5-year cycle of up-and-down play that doesn't produce consistent playoff teams, only consistent makeovers.
Perhaps I am grading the two too harshly. Perhaps their master plan will come to fruition this year or next year and the Bucs will return to being the consistent winning team they were before their Super Bowl victory.
But with the heat turned up to high last year, Gruden and Allen produced. If the Bucs falter again in 2008, I'll wonder what might have happened had the Glazers left the heat on a little longer.
Did you miss our previous editions of "Buccaneers Rewind? Just click below to read more about how the Bucs did this offseason:
Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte Sun-Herald.