The Tampa Bay Bucs and Pittsburgh Steelers meet at 4:15 this afternoon in a game matching the last two teams to miss the playoffs after winning championships the previous season.
The Steelers, while not mathematically eliminated, are wilting at 4-7 a season after winning the title. The Bucs, who won the championship in 2002, missed the playoffs in 2003 and 2004, came back to win their division in 2005, but are back near the bottom with a 3-8 record.
Gruden, the coach the Bucs acquired from the Oakland Raiders in 2002 for first and second-round picks that season, a first-round pick in 2003, and a second-round pick in 2004, was asked to explain how he guided his team back to the top of the division after missing the playoffs, and he was also asked to explain – in light of the collapse this year – whether he'd have done anything differently in that rebuilding phase.
"The program has really struggled the last three or four years with the salary cap," Gruden said. "We lost John Lynch, Warren Sapp; we lost a lot of players. We've been minus a lot of draft picks. They traded a lot of draft picks away to get a coach here. They used a lot of draft picks in previous years that aren't here. To acquire players and replace the guys that we lose, it's hard to do if you don't have draft picks or salary-cap relief to get some guys."
So, instead of buying free agents, use draft picks. And don‘t trade those draft picks for a coach, right?
"Some people say that," Gruden said, a tad irritated by the question. "We also spent two No. 1s on two receivers that didn't work out here. We traded two No. 1s for Keyshawn Johnson. If you look at who we've drafted in the last seven or eight years, you'll know what I'm talking about. Bottom line is there aren't a lot of young players on this football team to replace the key players that we lost and we didn't have draft picks to go get guys either. That's a tough situation on any football team. We're a tough-minded group and we're going to bring our best game to Pittsburgh. We're going to need to."
The Bucs come to Heinz Field with the NFL's 30th-ranked offense (29th rushing, 29th passing) and 23rd-ranked defense (21st rushing, 22nd passing). They're 31st in points scored and last in sacks. A week after allowing nine sacks to the Baltimore Ravens, the Steelers are facing a team that has only 14 sacks all season.
The demise of the once-great Tampa Bay defense began in 2003 when safety Dexter Jackson and linebacker Al Singleton left in free agency. The next year the Bucs lost tackle Warren Sapp and linebacker Nate Webster. In 2005 they lost Chartric Darby and Dwight Smith. The losses wouldn't have been too critical had the Bucs not replaced them with a 14-member free-agent class in 2004 that included less-than-stellar notables such as Darrell Russell, Jeff Gooch, Lamar King and Mario Edwards, among others.
Only two players from the last four Tampa Bay drafts are listed on the first-team depth chart: free safety Will Allen and defensive end Dewayne White. Allen is seventh on the team in tackles and has no interceptions, no forced fumbles, no fumble recoveries and only one pass defensed this season. White, who stepped in for injured Simeon Rice, leads the team with four sacks.
A better example of the typical Tampa Bay draft pick of late is 2004 third-round pick Marquise Cooper, who was just released by the Steelers after a brief stint to relieve the depleted special teams.
Offensively, the Bucs are led by rookie sixth-round pick Bruce Gradkowski, who has a passer rating of 70.1; running back Cadillac Williams, who has 697 rushing yards (3.8 avg.); and receivers Joey Galloway (41 receptions/17.0 avg.) and 2004 No. 1 pick Michael Clayton (29/10.3), who has one touchdown catch in his last 24 games.
In Tampa Bay's case, it wasn't so much a Super Bowl hangover in 2003. Except for a brief hiccup in 2005, the Bucs are bereft of talent.
"It used to be that it's hard to win a Super Bowl," Gruden said. "Now you're criticized for having this Super Bowl hangover. (The Steelers) were a wild-card team that rampaged through the playoffs and won a world title. Now all of a sudden people think they got a big head. I think they lost a guy named Bettis. They lost Randle El. They've had some key injuries. They've played a tough schedule. The quarterback had a rough off-season. I can't speak for the Steelers, but I put the tape on and they're playing hard. Our team's playing hard; we're just not playing very good at times.
"I don't know. I just try not to think about it other than these two teams meet (today). It's the last AFC team to win a Super Bowl and the last NFC team to win a Super Bowl and neither one of them is doing very well."