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Gruden's path littered with historic hurdles

[Times photo: James Borchuck]
In the NFL, new coaches rarely have instant success, even when taking over good teams, so Jon Gruden faces a special challenge.
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By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 6, 2002

And so we rejoin the Bucs' climb up the mountain, already in progress.

This is the perception. The Bucs, a team that keeps slipping a thousand feet from the summit, merely need someone to show them the rest of the way. That's all. The new guide needs to take up where the other guy left off, make a new plan, then it's an easy stroll to Shangri-La.

Sounds simple enough.

Except for this: It's a long way down.

That's the trouble with Jon Gruden's new job. It sounds so darned easy.

All he has to do is take a good novel and write the final chapter. Or take a nearly completed painting and provide the final few touches. Or take a pretty good team and make it great. Just that.

Sounds logical enough.

Except for this: History is against him.

Hey, you. Yeah, you. The guy in mid-froth. You need to know this. In the middle of demanding the Super Bowl, and demanding you run the score up on whoever dares show up, you need to at least acknowledge his task is a tad more difficult than it sounds.

What should you expect from Gruden? Why, everything, of course. Doesn't everyone?

Of course it's fair to think about the Super Bowl. If the Bucs weren't intent on reaching the Super Bowl, then they wouldn't have fired the other guy. They didn't pay all the money and all the draft picks to settle for less.

That said, this is no small thing the Bucs are asking of Gruden. They want a new marriage without a honeymoon period. They want to go forward several steps without taking one backward.

Not much to ask, huh?

Impressive guy, Gruden. The more time you're around him, the more you think the guy has a chance to break the trend. He's young and bright and respected, passionate and hard-working and demanding. Maybe, just maybe, he can beat history.

Because the defense is still good.

Because the offense can't be worse.

Because the new players are impressive.

Because the new division isn't.

Because the defensive coaches are back.

Because the offensive coaches aren't.

Those are the reasons why Gruden can do what others could not. Oh, this plan has been used before. From time to time, different owners with similar frustrations have tried changing coaches to get them over the top. Usually, what they find is the bottom.

Once, Bud Carson stood just short of the summit, too. And Jack Pardee. And Gunther Cunningham, and Dan Henning, and Rich Kotite. All of them replaced coaches who had driven their owners and fans wacky by losing in the playoffs and not reaching the Super Bowl.

The common theme of their opponents?

None of those guys reached the Super Bowl, either.

Hey, this is a little more complicated than taking a roast out of the oven, okay? This requires more than a push. The point is, Gruden doesn't get to start where the old guy left off.

He has new players, new coaches, a new offense, a new division and all the same old expectations. It's a lot like trying to tune the engine of a moving car. Only harder.

That's the trouble with taking over a very good team. No one expects a backward step. But the better a team is, the more difficult transition can be.

Ask Carson, who once took over a Cleveland Browns' franchise from Marty Schottenheimer, who lost four straight playoff games, darn him. Carson held onto success for a year, reaching the AFC title game in '89. But the next year, the Browns fell to 3-13, and the run was done.

Ask Kotite, who took over for Buddy Ryan a year later. Ryan had made three straight playoffs, and lost in the opening round each time. In came Kotite, who made it to the playoffs once in four years with the Eagles.

Ask Henning, who took over for Leeman Bennett, who had three playoff appearances in five years in Atlanta. The Falcons missed the playoffs for the next nine seasons.

Ask Cunningham, who took over for Schottenheimer (who was stubborn about this losing in the playoffs thing) in Kansas City. Schottenheimer reached the playoffs seven times; Cunningham never did. He never made the playoffs.

And so it goes.

Tampa Bay fans can be a demanding lot. The Bucs have never been to the Super Bowl, yet it is a common expectation. A new offensive guru has been brought in, and fans can't wait to give him suggestions. Use the shotgun. Play this quarterback. And why is it taking so long.

The bottom line here is this: Gruden isn't here to finish a job. He's here to do a different one. A better one.

Look at the past few months. Gruden certainly hasn't acted as if the team just needed a tweak or two to get over the hump. In his mind, it needed wholesale changes. He'll have a new tailback. Four new starters (counting Kenyatta Walker in a new position) in the offensive line. A new second receiver, a new third receiver. A new tight end. A new backup tight end.

If anything, the Bucs' sputtering start to the preseason should remind us of this. Winning is hard. New offenses sometimes take time.

In another division, with another schedule, with another coach, it might be wise to play the role of the skeptic. The truth is this: Most teams with new coaches take a step back before they can step forward again.

This one? It's easy to see the Bucs winning 10 games, maybe 11. It's easy to see the playoffs. It's easy to see, once again, this team on a ledge, a thousand feet from the peak.

That's where the rest of the NFL left the Bucs, after all.

And it's where Gruden comes in.

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