For Jon: A Word Of Advice
The assignment for this column seemed pretty simple. I am supposed to lay out what Jon Gruden needs to do to coach the Bucs back to the Super Bowl. But as with anything involving Gruden, it's not such a simple thing to define after all.
Gruden is brilliant and adaptable. He is also a puzzling strategist at times and really bull-headed. He is the tough guy who let his regulars lose their edge by taking the final two weeks of the regular season off last year, leading to a bad result in the playoffs.
He is the offensive mastermind of a team that relies on defense to win. He is a frequently polarizing man whose task is to unite a team toward a common goal. He is despised by many, but defended fiercely by others - including his bosses, who gave him a contract extension after last season that will keep him here potentially at least four more years.
We have seen all sides of Jon Gruden since he came here seven years ago. Gruden got them all the way to a glorious afternoon in San Diego, but he hasn't been able to sustain. Even now, the Bucs consider themselves a contender but most of the national people pick them to finish third in a mediocre division.
We're dealing with a few contradictions here, so let's start there. Michael Bennett's emergence this summer has been interesting to watch; he does have that burst of speed from the backfield Gruden has always said he wants. But that all came in exhibition games, which was what we heard for five years about Earnest Graham until the injury to Cadillac Williams led to the realization that Graham can run when it counts, too.
So it's legitimate to ask if Gruden learned from that and will give Bennett a real chance to show what he can do in regular-season games, or will he fall in love with Graham and Warrick Dunn and forget Bennett is on the roster? Same thing for Maurice Stovall. He is a big receiver who shows up well in August, but you never hear from him once the games begin to count.
Graham kind of ruined the argument, though, that players who are August stars can't be counted on in September. Quarterback Jeff Garcia suggested as much last January when he said there were playmakers already on the team who only needed a chance. Radical idea: If you've got 53 men on the roster, it might be a good idea to use them all.
This may come as surprise, given Gruden's renowned obsession with quarterbacks, but these Bucs are much closer to "Ground Chucky" than some flying circus. They ran 449 times last year while throwing 316 passes. The best NFL teams generally have solid running games and that seems like a particularly good strategy for a defensive team like the Bucs. Their quarterbacks threw only eight interceptions, so Gruden doesn't take a lot of chances.
But new receiver Antonio Bryant gives them a potential big-play guy and, of course, Bennett is a different look out of the backfield. It's a good idea to keep handing off to proven running backs, but they may have the ability to strike quickly at times on the outside. Knowing when to do that can turn a game around.
Gruden is a music lover, and if you had to pick a theme song from last year, "Take It Easy" by the Eagles wouldn't be a bad choice. The Bucs lost their final two games of the regular-season when he rested the regulars. They were 9-5 when he made that decision, but they lost both those games and then were thumped by the Giants in the playoffs. That's the same Giants who didn't rest their regulars, but managed to beat three division champions - Tampa Bay, Dallas, and Green Bay - on the road in the playoffs before shocking New England in the Super Bowl.
So, I suggest a new group for Gruden's listening pleasure: Men At Work. If the Bucs are fortunate enough to be in the same position this year as last, keep the hammer down. And I don't mean M.C. Hammer, either. These Bucs are like most NFL teams right now - somewhere in the murky middle. Gruden has shown he can lead them out of that middle to a championship. He may have to go against his nature for that to happen again, but that's what top coaches do when they have to. Given the way this team is shaping up, he may have to.
Joe Henderson, The Tampa Tribune 8 September 2008