Jon Gruden: Orbiting in Reverse

Four seasons ago, he stood at the precipice of football immortality, the final engineer of the decade-long makeover that ended with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers winning Super Bowl XXXVII in a 48-21 rout over his former team, the Oakland Raiders. Four seasons ago. Jon Gruden was The Man.

He was the youngest coach ever to win the Super Bowl, he was listed among People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People, and he wrote a book with Vic Carucci - the entertaining and surprisingly humble “Do You Love Football?!”. After that miracle season, the newly-empowered Gruden set about redefining the Bucs his way with fellow Raider expatriate Bruce Allen.

In the process, the Rich McKay/Tim Ruskell/Ruston Webster braintrust that had really built the Super Bowl Bucs over a decade headed to the four winds – McKay and Ruskell to Atlanta, then Ruskell to Seattle, then Webster to Seattle as well. Tension between the two tribes – the Old Bucs and the New Bucs - had escalated to the point that something had to blow. Gruden and Allen won the war, and the real architects went off to start anew.

While the old Tampa Bay structure was built on the draft, the occasional free-agency haul, and a vicious defense, Gruden and Allen conspired to fill out the team. The 2003 Bucs set franchise season-high records for both total offense (340.8 ypg) and passing offense (237.8 ypg). The defense, still coached by Monte Kiffin and his stalwart crew, finished fifth in the league.

But Tampa Bay finished 7-9 in that follow-up season, and Gruden and Allen went back to the drawing board. The 2003 draft had provided only one player of any note, QB Chris Simms. Gruden and Allen knew they needed to hit the jackpot in 2004. However, only Michael Clayton has made a name for himself, and that’s as much for the disappointing 2005 and 2006 seasons as his great 2004 rookie year.

2005 finally provided positive results, as running back Carnell Williams and tight end Alex Smith added production right away. The 2005 Bucs team finished 11-5 after a 5-11 standing the previous season, and it seemed that Gruden had made it to the other side of the rebuild.

2006 has been a full course of disaster that Gruden could not have expected or prepared for. When Simms suffered a vicious hit in a 26-24 loss to the Carolina Panthers on September 24th, requiring the immediate removal of his spleen and ending his season, rookie Bruce Gradkowski was pressed into service. At the same time, the aging pattern of this formerly unstoppable defense started to catch up to an offense that was rendered almost completely ineffective.

Coming into the season finale, Gruden’s team is 4-11, and that particular mark has literally erased any good standing he may have held – if the Bucs win against the Seahawks, Gruden will have a 40-40 regular-season mark in his five seasons in Tampa Bay.

This is not what was expected when the organization traded first- and second-round picks in both 2003 and 2004, as well as $8 million for Gruden in early 2002 (making Tampa Bay the last team ever hoodwinked by Al Davis). While his predecessor, Tony Dungy, Is racking up winning season after winning season in Indianapolis, Gruden is looking up at .500 and wondering what went wrong.

Due to injury and attrition, Tampa Bay’s rookie class has had to play far too often for the coach’s liking. “No, you don’t want to have (them) play this much,” Gruden told the media on Thursday. “I don’t believe there’s a coach in the league that has had this many rookies play. This is just unheard of. But that’s the way it is. That’s life. That’s something at the end of the day that hopefully these guys can look back on and say, ‘Hopefully this has benefited me. I’m a better man because of it.” Simms, Clayton, defensive end Simeon Rice, cornerback Brian Kelly and four others have spent time on the 2006 injured reserve list.

There was no way to overcome an 0-4 start, and the offense put together by the ubiquitous “Chucky” and decimated by fate currently ranks last in the NFL in first downs, 31st in average yards per play and total touchdowns, 30th in rushing touchdowns and field goals, 29th in total offensive yards, total rushing yards and passing touchdowns, and has no single-digit rank in any meaningful offensive category. The formerly classic defense ranks 24th in touchdowns allowed, and has given up an average of 5.22 yards per offensive play..

For the Seahawks game at Raymond James Stadium this Sunday, Gruden knows that Seattle won’t be resting their starters very long. The Seahawks took the NFC West virtually by default, and are trying to avoid an 8-8 season. “No, they’re going to try to kick the heck out of us,” Gruden said. “I have no doubt about that. I know Mike Holmgren. They’re not coming all the way from Seattle, Washington to rest for the playoffs.

“They’re going to come in here and try to get right with a resounding victory, that’s what they’re going to try to do. That’s what championship football teams do. They go on the road; they play the games wherever they are to the best of their ability. They’re going to be at full strength, I think, and they’re going to try to get on schedule. We respect that and we’re also looking forward to that challenge.”

Gruden’s history goes back to 1990 with Holmgren, when he served as Holmgren’s quality control assistant in San Francisco, and later, his receivers coach in Green Bay. The Packers’ coach helped Gruden get his first pro coaching job of note when he referred Gruden to his old friend Ray Rhodes, then the Philadelphia Eagles head coach. Gruden became the Eagles’ offensive coordinator in 1995, and began the long road to his current status as the team-builder who has a bit of explaining to do.

According to Gruden, this first-year group of players has the team thinking very positively about the future. “Well, they’ve all, in some degree, been a part of this season,” the coach said, when asked how his youngsters were performing. (WR Maurice) Stovall’s really catching our eye. He could be a great receiver here. He’s got a real chance to be a player. I’m really impressed with the right guard and tackle. They’re new to these positions and they’ve gotten progressively better. They’ve made mistakes, you bet, but they’ve showed gradual progress.

“I think the young quarterback (Gradkowski) has had his share of good and bad and it’s been well-documented,” Gruden said. “(DE/DT) Julian Jenkins has been in games, (DE) Charles Bennett has been in games and some guys like (DE Jovan) Haye and some others that we just met have been in games, too. In some ways, it’s good to see their progress. It’s also disappointing to see some of the guys that they replaced not be able to play.”

The Bucs’ season has rounded to the near-conclusion with two solid performances, however – an overtime loss to the NFC’s top-seeded Chicago Bears, and a win over the Cleveland Browns. Both of these games came with veteran quarterback Tim Rattay at the helm, after Gradkowski hit the rookie wall and Gruden had to make lemonade with whatever he had left. Rattay has completed 45 of 74 passes for 563 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. These are hardly earth-shattering stats, but Rattay is solid enough to challenge a Seahawks pass defense that has been exploited by several opponents.

Gruden’s focus, aside from the future, was on the season’s last opponent. “They have added great players in Julian Peterson and Deion Branch,” Gruden said, when asked to evaluate the Seahawks. “The return of (Matt) Hasselbeck and (Shaun) Alexander from injury give them real firepower. You look at their receiving corps with Bobby Engram and Darrell Jackson, Nate Burleson, Jerramy Stevens…they’ve got the components to be great. I think they have the best left tackle that I’ve ever seen play.

"(Walter) Jones is a really great player,” the coach continued. “I don’t know if there’s anyone close to Walter Jones. So, offensively they have a lot going for them, and defensively, they have a tremendous middle linebacker and a very underestimated front four. I don’t think guys talk about Rocky Bernard enough, I don’t think they talk about (former Tampa Bay defensive end) Chuck Darby, some of the inside things that he does for them. (Grant) Wistrom – these guys are talented, they’re veteran players and they’ve been in big games before.

“It will be a big challenge for us. We’re looking forward to it.”

For Gruden, it’s but one small step in what he hopes will be a positive journey forward. First, he must find his way back the middle.

Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET and a staff writer for Football Outsiders. He also writes the weekly "Manic Monday" feature for Feel free to e-mail Doug here. Top Stories