After 18 weeks of "pounding the rock," the big, pewter sledgehammer finally cracked that rock. These Buccaneers are finally going to the Super Bowl. Somewhere in Davy Jones' locker at the bottom of the sea, there is a Creamsicle orange and red pirate who is winking. You could almost see a proud smile -- a smile he's waited 27 years to show off -- if not for that dagger in his mouth.
The difference in this game has been the big difference-maker all season -- head coach Jon Gruden. Gruden did a masterful job defusing all of the possible distractions that could have impeded his team's conquest of the big, bad Eagles and their low class fans.
Cold weather? Gruden said the Bucs were 1-0 in cold weather games under his watch. Now they're 2-0.
An 0-6 mark on the road in the playoffs? He was undefeated with the Bucs in the playoffs and Gruden's Bucs had yet to play a road playoff game. A 6-2 mark on the road this year gave his team plenty of confidence, though.
An 0-4 record against the Eagles in the last four games, including an 0-3 mark in Philadelphia? Gruden's Bucs were only 0-1 and that Week 7 contest was ancient history. His offensive line was just coming together and the offensive players were still learning his offense.
Playing in the last game at Veterans Stadium? Jiminy Christmas! Gruden told his players, the media and anyone who would listen that he would play the Eagles at Jones Junior High, the Walt Whitman Bridge -- anywhere. Hey, these Bucs were just 60 minutes away from Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego. Sixty minutes away from destiny.
The Bucs players bought into his bravado during the week and sounded defiant when the Philadelphia media and the national media kept bringing up the cold weather, the crowd, the ugly history between the Bucs and the Eagles, the playing surface and the Vet.
"I don't care if it's the Vet or a parking lot outside," Bucs receiver Keyshawn Johnson said about playing in Philadelphia. "The bottom line is getting to the Super Bowl. I don't think we're concerning ourselves with the football atmosphere in Philadelphia. Just like Coach said the other day, 'Jiminy Christmas, we're not going to Mars to play this game. We're going two hours away.' That's the biggest thing that everybody needs to understand. Whether it's the stadium, the weather, the grass, whatever the case is, we've all played football on terrible surfaces and bad atmospheres and we've all succeeded pretty well doing that. I've won games in stadiums like Buffalo, and it doesn't get any worse than in Buffalo. You've just got to go out and play."
And play they did. And coach Gruden did. Gruden thoroughly outcoached his counterpart, Andy Reid, who was recently named Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year. While it seemed Reid brought the playbook that worked against Tampa Bay in Week 7 -- rely on great defense and Brian Mitchell for field position and play it safe on offense waiting for the Bucs to make a mistake -- Gruden and his staff came with an aggressive game plan on offense and defense that proved to be the winning edge.
Gruden was brought to Tampa Bay for this game. To get the Bucs over the hump and take them where Tony Dungy couldn't. The Glazers gave up four high draft picks and $8 million to get Gruden with the dream of getting to the Super Bowl. Well, Malcolm, Joel, Bryan and Ed -- dreams do come true.
Gruden had an answer for everything on Sunday. When Brian Mitchell burned the Bucs for over 100 yards on the first two kickoff returns, including a 70-yarder to open the game, Gruden had Martin Gramatica squib kick the ball to him the rest of the day.
"We had to limit the opportunities Mitchell got," Gruden said. "He hurt us early. He changed the game in terms of field position. I'm just so proud of our team and I'm so happy for our fans. We're coming back tonight and hey, we're going to the Super Bowl."
When the Eagles wanted to blitz, he didn't always max protect with backs and tight ends. Instead, he sent them out into the formation as pass catchers to give Brad Johnson extra targets to throw to off of quick, three-step drops. Those three-step drops helped the offensive line have a banner day in keeping Johnson sack-free on Sunday after allowing six sacks in Week 7.
Unlike Week 7, Gruden was patient with the running game. While it only generated 49 yards rushing on 32 carries (1.5 average), it kept the Eagles defense honest and allowed Johnson to continue to use the play-action passing game. The running game churned out enough yards to milk the clock in the fourth quarter and keep the Bucs in manageable third-and-short situations instead of third-and-long down and distances which would have invited the blitz. The Eagles' blitz was a lot less effective on third-and-3.
Gruden also got everyone involved in the offense and tried to get as many matchups with his backs, receivers and tight ends as he could on the Eagles' slow-footed linebackers. Joe Jurevicius had a 71-yard catch-and-run. Michael Pittman had five catches for 53 yards. Ken Dilger had three catches for 41 yards. All of those yards were gained in front of linebackers on underneath routes across the middle or out on the flanks.
Gruden was brought to Tampa Bay for his offensive acumen. But the Bucs got more than a playcaller with a proven offensive system. They got a fiery head coach who gave this team a kick in the pants and challenged them to new heights. Tampa Bay got a master motivator who allowed his team to cut through all of the distractions to rewrite history.
"(The Eagles) had our number," Bucs free safety Dexter Jackson said. "We were 0-3 up here, but Coach Gruden had told us that when Barry Bonds hit the record-breaking home run, he had struck out the three times before that. The fourth time he went up to bat, he hit the home run. So, Coach Gruden compared us to Barry Bonds. This was our fourth time up to bat and we hit a home run."
This Chucky guy sure is something, huh? He's worth every pick and every penny. It's time for Gruden and the Bucs to pound the rock one more time.