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Expect Sunday to be first of many wins for Gruden

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By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 16, 2002


BALTIMORE -- At a time such as this, you can quibble if you want.

This was your souvenir? It wasn't pretty. It wasn't memorable. The earth, as they say, did not move.

Yep, for those who want it all, for those who expect greatness in a microwave, there wasn't anything particularly historic about the Bucs' 25-0 victory over the Ravens on Sunday.

Except, perhaps, this.

The little blond dude sure can run.

Jon Gruden was in the open field, and the facts be known, he was moving at a pretty good clip. This was vintage Gruden. Seconds before, he had won his first game as coach of the Bucs, a task that took two men months, and already, Chucky was running down the sideline and toward next week.

This should be your photograph from this game. Not the defense devouring the Ravens offense. Not the offense, which couldn't finish drives. Not the game itself, where both offenses stopped trying in the second half. The keeper image is Gruden, with that slight, satisfied grin of victory.

Get used to it.

You're going to see it a lot.

"He's going to win a lot of ... games around here," safety John Lynch said. "We gave up a lot of draft picks for him and a lot of money. And he's worth every penny. Besides, I saw that Forbes magazine piece. The Glazers are doing okay."

Gruden is doing fine, himself. The Bucs poured Gatorade over their coach Sunday, and they gave him a game ball. Are there any doubts this is Gruden's team now. He has their heads and, for the most part, their hearts.

If there had been any doubt, it disappeared Saturday night, when Gruden stood at the team meeting and chased all the pressure out of the room. The Bucs weren't in the best of positions at the time.

They lost their first game at home, and with the Rams coming in next Monday night, it felt very much as if they were sandwiched between trouble and turmoil.

"There was a lot of pressure on him," Lynch said. "But he said not to worry about it. He just told us to go out and play football. I had trouble sleeping. I was ready to play (Saturday) night."

Ambitious man, Gruden. He expects to maintain the Bucs' success despite wholesale change.

He has blown up the offensive line, reconstructed the receiving corps, changed the tight ends, brought in a new feature back, hired a new staff and implemented a new offense.

He has twisted his face and raised his voice. He has battered egos, blistered faces and made seats uncomfortable.

Given all that, the most admirable thing about Gruden is this: His standards are as high as yours. His tolerance for excuses is as low. His patience is as limited.

Like you, Gruden saw the blemishes in Sunday's game. Bumps and boils and warts all over the place. The Bucs didn't score an offensive touchdown, for one thing. In the first half, Tampa Bay had a 12-play drive, 17-play drive and 11-play drive. All three ended in field goals. Against a good team, that can't happen.

"We need someone to come out of the trash and make a great play," Gruden said. "We need to keep pounding the rock, pounding the rock until it splits.

"We're nowhere close to where we need to be as far as running the football. We're not going to be a good offense unless we can run the ball. It's going to be hard if we can't get ourselves into second and 4, second and 5."

The Bucs also need to be more aggressive in the red zone. On one play, Brad Johnson hit Keenan McCardell for a first down. Not a bad play unless you didn't notice Keyshawn Johnson, his hand raised like a sixth-grader who knows the answer, alone in the end zone.

It also would help if the Bucs didn't stand on the brakes with an 18-point lead in the third quarter. After the Bucs went ahead 18-0, Gruden called five third-down plays. Every one was a run. It was like watching a game lapse into a coma.

For that, Gruden doesn't apologize. It's a tough league in which to win, he'll tell you in that coach's mantra voice, especially on the road. And the Ravens, not that long removed from a world championship, still have some players on defense.

You get the feeling Lynch is right. Gruden is going to win a lot.

Oh, there are going to be more speed bumps than he would like. It's going to take some time before the offense catches up to its construction.

So far, however, there has been a lot to like. Gruden can be demanding, controlling, confrontational. He has walked into a forest, and he has shaken every tree.

For the most part, it has worked. If Sunday were an indication, he might have found Kenyatta Walker's on-off switch. Maybe you've heard about his sideline spat with Keyshawn Johnson during the Saints game. The two met privately Thursday.

"I'm an emotional guy," Gruden said. "I know how Key responds. He responds to someone challenging him. That's part of a coach's job sometimes. I'm not trying to belittle a guy. I'm trying to pull him through it and challenge him. Key responds to a little prod sometimes. Sometimes, he prods me. I hope this is the beginning of a great relationship.

"The worst thing I can do is come in here and try be someone other than who I am."

That's the way it is with Gruden. He lights a fire in you, or he lights a fire to you. He gets in a player's skull, and he pushes buttons. Sometimes, he pushes so many you would swear he's a piano player.

Two games in, one victory and, already, you wait for the next tune.

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