Head coaching changes are inevitable. But even Friday's seismic shift in Tampa Bay was surprising.
Changes such as the firing of Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen usually come shortly after the end of the regular season, not three weeks after its conclusion. The Glazer family certainly had plenty to be disappointed in, and it appears they took their time in determining if Gruden and Allen were the best leaders for this franchise. That's standard operating procedure for the Glazers, who are pragmatic in nature.
But why, after seven seasons, three division titles and one Super Bowl are Gruden and Allen unemployed?
The truth is, it's not any one thing that did the pair in. Well, maybe not for Gruden.
First, let's take Allen, since that's an easier nut to crack. While his title was general manager, in truth he was a Gruden lieutenant. Allen's best work came in massaging the salary cap (he was handed a mess in Tampa Bay in 2004) and negotiating contracts. While scouting and player evaluation may have been a collaborative effort in Tampa Bay, Gruden had the final word. Allen was just window dressing. Allen lost his job because Gruden lost his, pure and simple.
Now on to Gruden. It's never easy to break down a head coach's failings. Gruden was always a polarizing coach in Tampa Bay. Slow to shed the comparisons to the universally-liked Tony Dungy, Gruden carved out his own intense persona – "Chucky" – that won over some fans, but turned off others.
You either loved or hated Gruden. There was no in between.
While he will always be remembered for helming Tampa Bay's Super Bowl title, the collateral damage of his 45-51 record after that season helped cause his demise.
After watching this team for nearly five years, I've boiled it down to five points, the five things that spelled unemployment for Gruden.
The Glazers value it. Gruden couldn't quite deliver it. After the Super Bowl championship the records were like a roller coaster – 7-9, 5-11, 11-5, 4-12, 9-7 and 9-7. It could be argued that Gruden was beginning to deliver on that consistency this season, even though the Bucs failed to make the playoffs. Gruden and Allen were always quick to point out that the team was in salary cap purgatory for much of their tenure. But there was enough talent to keep the team consistent. Teams are more prone to roller coasters in the era of parity, but the wild swings between wins and losses proved to be too much. It nearly got Gruden fired after the 2006 season. After winning the NFC South in 2007, the Glazers expected more. So did Bucs fans.
Teams that contend for championships play winning football in December. That's not rocket science, just the way it is. The Bucs went 0-4 in December in 2008, but the trend started much earlier.
The Bucs are 9-15 in December since 2004. Their only winning December during that span was 2005, when they went 4-1 en route to a NFC South crown. They're 3-11 in December since 2006, and have just two victories in December in the last two seasons. They limped into the playoffs last year because of that 2-3 finish, and they flat missed the playoffs thanks to that 0-4 December when they led the division to start the month.
That's preparation and that's the coach's responsibility. At times the final month, the team seemed distracted, mostly by defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin's future. The defense stumbled and the offense didn't have enough firepower to compensate. There was no excuse for a team like Tampa Bay to cough up their shot at a playoff berth. Gruden's job was to motivate and to keep his team focused. They did neither. The Glazers found him accountable.
3. The Red Zone and third down
Since the day I started covering this team in 2004, the Bucs have had difficulties scoring touchdowns inside the 20-yard line, and that starts with sustaining drives. This year was no different. The Bucs were 20th in the NFL in third-down conversions at less than 40 percent. Since 2004, the Bucs have never converted better than 38 percent of their third-down attempts. Part of that is execution, but part of it is play calling, too. Gruden has, at times, been too guilty of calling too many first-down pass plays. When they failed, they left his team in too many second-and-long and third-and-long positions, which greatly limited his play-calling options. Teams that don't sustain drives don't win games.
The same holds true for the Bucs' play in the red zone. The Bucs were horrible in the red zone in 2008, scoring a touchdown less than 40 percent of the time and finishing 30th in the NFL. Even 0-16 Detroit was better in the red zone than Tampa Bay. Last year, even though they won a division title, they scored touchdowns just 45 percent of the time, worth only a No. 26 ranking in the league. The Bucs have been mired in the red zone for three years, after converting 50 percent of their red zone opportunities in 2004 and 2005. Once again, execution plays a role. But Gruden's play calling must also be taken into consideration. Did he put his offense in the right plays to score touchdowns? Not nearly enough, the numbers show.
4. Inability to develop a quarterback
When Gruden came to Tampa Bay offense was his stock and trade. He presided over the development of Randall Cunningham and Rich Gannon in previous offensive stops, and worked with Brett Favre in Green Bay. There was an expectation that Gruden would develop a quarterback in Tampa Bay that would remind some fans of Doug Williams.
That never happened. Gruden spent most of his time salivating after over-30 quarterbacks. He couldn't turn Chris Simms into a top-tier QB, Bruce Gradkowski was a failure and he won't get the change to work with Josh Johnson now. Gruden always called quarterback the game's most important position. Gruden always complained he never got his franchise quarterback. But given several young quarterbacks to work with, the success most envisioned when Gruden arrived never materialized.
5. Gruden's personality
Let's face it – Gruden was hard to play for, even for the players Gruden professed to like. Ask Jeff Garcia. He and Allen were all but ready to discard Garcia this summer when it seemed they could acquire Brett Favre. When the trade never materialized, and the Bucs back-pedaled on their interest, that left them in an almost untenable position with Garcia. But that's happened plenty of times with Gruden during his time in Tampa.
Gruden was a flavor-of-the-month coach who lost interest in players when they didn't deliver, especially quarterbacks. He exhibited a lack of patience on a regular basis. He came dangerously close to losing the locker room in 2006, and his intensity definitely rubbed some of his players the wrong way. The rookies don't know any better, but the veterans do. His lack of patience caused him to miss out on several players that could have helped the franchise and, if his behavior with Garcia is any indication, some of the veterans didn't see him as an honest broker. Hey, if Gruden can turn on a player he liked like Garcia, he could turn on anyone.
Intense coaches like Gruden have a shelf life that's shorter than coaches like Tony Dungy. They wear out their players and they wear out their welcome.
It seems that, thanks mostly to these five factors, Gruden finally has worn out his.