Gruden apparently will get opportunity to fix his mess
Gary Shelton, The St.Petersburg Times, published 1 January 2007

Jon Gruden's back was to the wall. Despite requests, there was not a firing squad in front of him. The season was over, mercifully and miserably. Soon, the garbage collectors will come and haul it away to a familiar dump site. The faster they come, and the farther they take this mess, the better.

Gruden sat on a metal folding chair in the back of an interview room in the bowels of Raymond James Stadium, his face still flushed from the latest embarrassment in a series of them. He and I talked about the past and the future, of things gone wrong and of things in need of repair. And, yes, he plans on being the guy with the tool kit.

Despite the 4-12 season, despite the outcry of angry fans, despite his third losing season in four years, it appears the future of the Bucs is in the hands of Gruden. Despite a shaky defense, despite a wretched offense, despite the history of coaches who dare to lose three of four games over the course of a season, it appears there will be no change of head coaches. Which leads you to this question: Do you trust the guy who drove you into this mess to be the guy to pull you out?

For the Bucs, for the ever-silent ownership group, for anyone resilient enough to watch all the way to the end, it is the only question worth asking. Should the Bucs retain Gruden? Should they retrain Gruden? And, honestly, do you believe the final game of next year will feel any different than this one?

"I've been doing this for nine years," Gruden said. "I know what I know. I helped turn things around in Philadelphia (as offensive coordinator), and I helped turn things around in Oakland. We've got to get it done. And I'm not just talking about working harder or doing more grass drills."

Even the Bucs fans who stopped agreeing with Gruden a long time ago will buy into that. The Bucs need help by the truckload. They were 4-12 this season, and if you lined the teams up and played the games over, they would probably finish about 2-14.

Scary, isn't it? This was the worst offense the Bucs have had since '77, the worst defense since '94 and the worst record since Richard Williamson was trying to spell "MRI." And the ugly truth is that at 4-12, the Bucs probably overachieved. In related news, season tickets for next year go on sale soon.

"I'm confident (the Bucs can turn it around next year)," Gruden said. "Sometimes, you have to take a step backward to take a huge step forward. I'm going to be very critical, as are you, of what occurred this season. But I'm also a realistic human being. I know the playing field, and I know what needs to be done here. I understand the rules of how you get things done. The playing field is about to get level for us as far as signing players and drafting players and developing players. We're excited about the future, and we'll prove that."

Understand this about coaches. No coach, not Williamson and not Ray Perkins and not Leeman Bennett, ever doubted they were the perfect guy to lead their team out of the darkness. Gruden, too.

On the other hand, Gruden had a wretched year, too. He threw too often in a windstorm in New Jersey, and he settled for a field goal as a consolation prize in Pittsburgh, and he stayed too long with a rookie quarterback who was in over his head. He continued to bemoan the loss of players - Chris Simms, Simeon Rice, Booger McFarland - who were having dreadful seasons before they departed. Somewhere along the way, Gruden also turned into Chef Boy-R-Dee.

"The spaghetti doesn't taste the same when there ain't no meatballs and there ain't no sauce in there," Gruden said as he ticked off the injuries. "The spaghetti sauce didn't taste the same this year. In fact, it tasted lousy."

In other words, the Bucs had too many meatballs this year. Or not enough. You figure it out. Either way, is Gruden the guy you want back in the kitchen?

It would appear the Glazers want him back. When most coaches are dumped after 4-12 seasons, everyone seems to know it's coming. There is none of that here. Given the new contract given Simms last week, it appears to be business as usual. "I plan to be back," Gruden said, this time falling into a golf metaphor. "I'm a guy who goes to the next hole, and I'm going to keep going to the next hole until someone tells me I'm out of the tournament."

Evidently, 8 over par is going to make the cut. Yet, you wonder. Is the man who stayed with Bruce Gradkowski over Tim Rattay the man to finally figure out the quarterback situation? Is the man who didn't use Cadillac Williams enough before his injury the man to get him restarted next season? Is the front office that spent more than $10-million on Derrick Deese and Todd Steussie and Charlie Garner astute enough to spend its money more wisely this time?

And so it goes. At 4-12, all questions are worth asking. For most of us, the talk about the salary cap of years past and the draft picks that were traded away are yesterday's news. Gruden, however, still believes that has had a drastic impact on this year's team. If you are fair, yeah, it has had an impact. If Gruden is fair, no, it doesn't explain all of the mistakes.

If you watched the loss to the Seahawks on Sunday, you saw a lot of the same old problems that have haunted this team. Young players don't seem to get better. The offense goes sideways. The defense goes backward. Is Gruden the guy to herd everyone in the proper direction? Is he the guy to stop the bleeding?

More important, can he get his meatballs to the grand banquet known as the playoffs. From the sound of it, we'll see.