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Gruden vs. Spurrier: Let the comparisons begin

By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 24, 2002


If your lights flicker around 7:45 tonight, do not be alarmed.

If your lights flicker around 7:45 tonight, do not be alarmed.

That's about the time Jon and Steve really start thinking, and brains this large have to draw their power from somewhere. If the game is close in the fourth quarter, cable might be out for a week.

Coach vs. coach, genius vs. genius, new sheriff in this town vs. the new sheriff in that one. Preseason football isn't supposed to be this much fun.

They share the same geography tonight, these relocated gurus of offense. Steve Spurrier on that sideline. Jon Gruden on this one. The man who got away vs. the man who saved the day.

This is Einstein vs. da Vinci. This is Van Doren vs. Stempel. This is Dexter vs. Jimmy Neutron. If Mike Martz shows up, we could forget the fourth quarter and hold a Jeopardy Tournament of Champions instead.

Yep, this is going to be a giggle from the first snap to the last synapse. Can the scoreboard hold all the points? Can a stadium hold all the IQ points? And with Gruden and Spurrier getting their O's on, does anyone really care who the fifth safety is?

Preseason? Yeah, but there have been Bucs openers that haven't generated this kind of buzz. It couldn't be more fun if the two stood 10 paces apart and threw their playbooks at each other.

Chucky vs. Coach Superior.

Delicious.

How good is Spurrier? He's good enough to have the NFL carping about him after three preseason games. Steve Mariucci is fuming. Lee Flowers is foaming. Washington is fawning. Spurrier has provided instant offense, instant hope, instant opinions.

How good is Gruden? He's good enough that, so far, Spurrier's success isn't driving Bucs fans crazy. Can you imagine how torturous this would be for them to see if say, Les Steckel were still in charge of the Bucs offense? At least with Gruden, Bucs fans can believe they have a guru of their own. Hey, Chucky could have run it up on Vandy, too.

So far, both of these coaches are beloved. Spurrier has them so excited in Washington that politicians haven't voted themselves a pay raise all week. A couple more wins, and Washington is going to declare Spurrier a monument. Gruden's offense hasn't clicked the way it will, but there are enough flashes to excite people.

Forget the players. These two franchises, the Bucs and the Redskins, are all about the coaches these days.

And so you picture them, face to face, and you wonder:

How alike are they? And how different?

Oh, there are differences. Spurrier is taller. Gruden is younger. Spurrier is more blunt. Gruden is more polished. Gruden wants to know everything about every player in the NFL. Spurrier wants to know about every former Gator in the NFL.

Consider the time spent in the office. Gruden is obsessive about it. As much money as he's earning, it would be worse if the guy were getting paid by the hour. Spurrier? He plays to the notion that he just makes a guest appearance now and then. He loves to chide coaches who spend too much time in the office. One of these days, he's going to call timeout, walk across the field and say, "You worked till 2 in the morning for that?"

Oh, the laid-back, ball plays in the dirt image isn't true. Those who know Spurrier say he gets his work in. No, he doesn't wear out the clock the way Gruden does, but yes, he is intense, too. Watch Gruden, you'll know he's driven. Watch Steve, and he'll hide it from you.

That said, these two guys are a lot more alike than they are different. Let's face it. They could have come from the same peanut hull.

Both are former quarterbacks (okay, Spurrier was a lot more successful) who approach football from the offense, and offense from the quarterback's perspective. Both of them believe in attacking the defense. Both of them want to control as much of their environment as possible.

This just in: Neither is eaten up by self-doubt.

Then there is this. They are both ridiculously competitive. You could make up a game, say, whoever sees the most red cars in an hour, and the next thing you know, they'd both be climbing a tree with binoculars, because by golly, they're gonna win.

Also, there is this. These guys really do know offense.

Oh, everyone associates Spurrier with the Fun 'N Gun he ran at Florida, throwing it all over the yard and letting the score run away. And everyone thinks of Gruden as a Bill Walsh disciple, trying to get the ball to a wide receiver crossing the field so he can make yardage after the catch.

The truth is that both know the history, the principles of offense, and both will adjust if necessary. They both believe in running the ball more than you think they do.

Let's be honest. Neither one of these guys knows secret paths to the end zone. Every coordinator from high school on up knows the formations and the plays. On the other hand, most of us know which way the chess pieces move, too. It's just that Gruden and Spurrier are Fischer and Kasparov. They know when to move what. They know which match up to exploit. Spurrier relies a little more on instinct and feel; Gruden relies on preparation and anticipation.

For Tampa Bay, it's going to be a hoot to see them against each other. Yes, it's preseason. But when two guys compete like this, when you consider the popularity of them both around these parts, it wouldn't surprise anyone to see either of them treat this like a little bit more.

Forget the football. It would be fun just to watch the faces of these guys for three hours. You have Gruden's twisted, demonic rage. You have Spurrier's tight lipped, eye-rolling look of annoyance.

Tonight, they stand yards apart and throw their playbooks at each other.

Yeah, it's only a preseason game. But the winner gets to call himself Mr. Touchdown.

The loser? He may get another chance in the playoffs.

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