Gruden has all answers, gets Bucs to first Super Bowl
Let's set the record straight right now. Jon Gruden is worth all $8 million the Buccaneers paid to get him, worth all four of those draft picks they traded for his services and worth all the haggling the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ownership had to do to make him their head coach. Here's proof: Tampa Bay is going to the Super Bowl.
The same Tampa Bay franchise that spent the good portion of its early years as the butt of more jokes than O.J. Simpson is now the champion of the NFC. The Bucs' dominating 27-10 victory of the Philadelphia Eagles at Veterans Stadium Sunday puts the Bucs into their first Super Bowl next Sunday in San Diego. As 4-point underdogs, against a team they had lost to in the last two playoffs, the Bucs put to rest a myriad of demons that have haunted this franchise for the past couple of years.
Yes, they can win in the cold. Yes, they can beat the Eagles at the Vet. And yes, they can overcome a bad combination on offense, which is no speed at receiver, no running game, a below-average offensive line and a quarterback who has a back that makes him move like a man much older than his years. Jon Gruden is the reason why.
You hate to say a coach is worth more than the players because no coach, no matter how good, can win without a good group of players. But on this day, against a darn good Eagles team in this tough-as-hell venue, the Bucs won for one very good reason. Their coach outdid the other guy's coach. In his first season as coach of the Bucs, coming over from Oakland, Gruden is taking them to a Super Bowl. Say that slowly: Tampa Bay is going to the Super Bowl. What's next? Saddam Hussein being voted Mr. Nice Guy?
Years and years of misery, including a 0-14 first season, bad creamsicle-colored uniforms and a general feeling around the team that Buc rhymed with yuck for a reason, is now in the past. "Our fans have been through thin, thinner and thinnest," said Bucs general manager Rich McKay.
And that's why Gruden was brought to Tampa. His tough-guy demeanor and ability to create mismatches and advantages for his team earned him the big-dollar contract and the adulation of a city known for its losing. Against the Eagles, that reputation gets another boost. He made Andy Reid, the NFL's coach of the year, look like the coach from the local grade school around the block.
Tampa Bay had an answer for everything the Eagles did on Sunday. Gruden and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin were one step ahead of their counterparts. You expect that from the defense, which finished the season as the league's top-rated scoring defense and top-rated defense overall. The defense has carried this team for years, and this has been no exception. On Sunday, the Bucs defense made Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb look like anything but the franchise passer he has been labeled. They got early pressure on McNabb and that led to his feet never setting, leading to off-balance throws and poor decisions. One of those passes was picked off by Ronde Barber and returned 92 yards for a touchdown with 3:12 left in the game to end any chance of an Eagles comeback.
It capped a wonderful day for Barber, who may be the most under-appreciated player on the Tampa Bay defense. He seemed to be everywhere, knocking away passes, getting a sack off a blitz and three tackles. Barber also had four passes defensed. "We're good,' said Barber. "I'm not scared to admit that."
The real frustration came on the other side of the ball. In the days leading up to the game, Gruden told McKay there was no way he was going to lose a game 10-7. If he was going to go down, he was going to go down throwing the football. Chucky became Chuck-it. He told his offensive players the same thing last Wednesday. "He put it on us," said wide receiver Keenan McCardell. "He told us that we would get our chances to make the plays."
After Philadelphia went up 7-0 on their opening possession, thanks to a 70-yard return on the opening kickoff by Brian Mitchell, it looked like the Bucs might be on their way to another playoff disaster at the Vet. But, unlike past games here, the pass offense made things happen. Gruden used a lot of personnel groupings to create mismatches in the passing game. He also used some no-huddle to create tempo. When receivers started getting matched up with linebackers in coverage, the Bucs had the edge they needed.
The Eagles have the best pair of cover corners in the league, so the Bucs tried to stay away from them. By scheming with their formations, they attacked in other areas. When Joe Jurevicius beat linebacker Barry Gardner in coverage, he turned it into a 71-yard gain to set up the Bucs' first touchdown. At other times, the Bucs got different receivers on different linebackers, tight ends wide open and backs out of the backfield for big gains. They made the blitzing Eagles defense, which was ranked second in the league during the season, play back on its heels. They schemed the aggression right out of it.
That blitzing style was rendered useless by the things the Bucs did at the line of scrimmage. When the Eagles showed blitz, the Bucs showed something else at the line of scrimmage, forcing the Eagles out of their blitz. And then the Bucs ran the play they wanted to run, winning the battle of the minds. "It was a little chess game out there, and we kept winning it," said McCardell.
Brad Johnson, who some thought would have a tough time making it out of the game upright, flourished. He picked apart the Eagles defense, completing 20 of 33 passes for 259 yards and a touchdown. What was even more impressive was that Johnson was not sacked. The Eagles led the NFL in sacks this season, but they rarely put a hand on him. Johnson played with a glove on his hand because of the conditions, a decision influenced by Gruden. Johnson has had trouble throwing the football in the cold and the wet, which led him to practice with the glove this week. He liked how it felt, used it Saturday during a walk-through and then played with it Sunday. The result was crisp passes that got out on time. "We tried these gloves and he spun the ball well on the practice field in Tampa," Gruden said. "He asked me if he should wear them. I said, "if you don't' wear them I'm going to strap you down and put them on. It was a factor."
"When you play in the Championship Game and the Super Bowl, the balls are slick," said Johnson. "I tried to throw before the game, and couldn't throw with my bare hands. So I played with a glove. I had a hard time sleeping all night last night (Saturday) how I'm going to play the game. But I had a great week of practice throwing with the glove and it showed tonight. Jon's a pretty smart man."
Smart enough that he didn't bunch up the offense and play conservatively, which would have played right into the Eagles hands. Smart enough to spread the ball around to six different receivers, not forcing the ball into any one of them. And smart enough to turn the Offense of Misfit Toys into a unit that moved the ball consistently -- including drives of 94 and 80 yards -- against a defense that on paper looked as if it would dominate.
So this one game makes it all worthwhile. The Bucs paid a steep price to get Gruden, some say way too steep, but on one cold and blustery day the boy-wonder coach made it all worthwhile. Any future problems because of the lost draft picks are now a moot point. The Bucs sold their soul to get to a Super Bowl, and now they are there, one game from a World Championship. So we ask again? Was Jon Gruden worth everything the Bucs gave to get him? The Bucs are in the Super Bowl. That's your answer.
Pete Prisco CBS Sportsline 18 January 2003