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Gruden gives Bucs attitude adjustment

Coach has gotten players' attention through discipline and challenges to play better.

By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 29, 2002

[Times photo: James Borchuck]
For Bucs players, there is no misreading coach Jon Gruden.
CINCINNATI -- If eyes are a window to the soul, then Jon Gruden's wild glare might make you wish you didn't do windows.

The Bucs coach and his famously agitated face greet players every day in meeting rooms, in his office and on the practice field.

But at least there is no misreading Gruden, who always lets them know where they stand. Or in the case of players who have been shown the bench, where they sit.

Gruden's approach is as subtle as someone swatting flies with an ax. But in the first three weeks of the regular season, he has his team's attention.

In Week 1, he stripped last year's first-round draft pick, Kenyatta Walker, of his uniform and attitude, making him inactive against the Saints.

After Week 2, Gruden found a replacement for soon-to-be released tight end Marco Battaglia.

In Week 3, he yanked Keyshawn Johnson, his best receiver, off the field on a critical third down against the Rams for lining up incorrectly.

After spending six seasons with placid coach Tony Dungy, adjusting to the confrontational Gruden is a work in progress.

"I don't know of any great concerts or any great rock and roll bands that don't play together," Gruden said. "They tell me the hardest job in America is to be Prince's lead guitarist. I guess he is hard on them. He wants it a certain way, and if it ain't, it's ugly.

"I try not to overwhelmingly scream and holler, but I try to sell my game plan. You have to sell this, and to sell it, you have to be excited about it. I don't want to be a Humpty Dumpty sit on a wall guy."

But this season, players already are walking on eggshells. Unlike Dungy, who rarely made a lineup change after Labor Day, Gruden has an itchy trigger finger.

He jettisoned the error-prone Walker from the starting lineup in favor of Cornell Green, who had never played in an NFL regular-season game, publicly blasting the former Florida star for mistakes in the preseason.

Battaglia, one of the first free agents signed by Gruden upon arriving in Tampa Bay, was released a week after the disenchanted coach signed former Raiders and Browns tight end Rickey Dudley.

"Come around here on Tuesday and it's like an assembly line of guys working out here," safety John Lynch said.

That's because Gruden is always trying to make his team better. Battaglia's release unintentionally put all the players on alert.

"I think he proved if you don't produce, you're going to be gone. It doesn't really matter who you are," center Jeff Christy said. "I think Marco is, unfortunately, a good example of that. I think he runs it as a business. They always say, what have you done for me lately? I think that's the way he operates."

Gruden talks more about accountability than Arthur Andersen. The Bucs always have had it on defense, where Dungy and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin held players to a higher standard.

Offensively, the Bucs now answer directly to Gruden, the de facto offensive coordinator who handles everything from play-calling to personnel groupings.

"It's shock treatment," defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "Fifty minutes a day, five days a week."

Many coaches have influenced Gruden. While growing up in Indiana and Tampa, he studied Bobby Knight, Dan Devine and John McKay. His NFL heritage is traced to the 49ers and coaches Mike Holmgren and Bill Walsh.

"Some guys need a pat on the butt, some guys need a tap on the butt and once in a while that guy might need a little kick in the rear end to get going," Gruden said. "But there's a lot of self-starters here. I'm a little bit different from the standpoint that I'm very involved with the offense. Calling plays and on the practice field, where maybe some other guys style is different.

"There's going to be a lot more interaction because you called the play, you called the formation and you're looking for answers for why it didn't work. So it's a little bit different. Hopefully, they can understand that. Hopefully, we all can understand that and move on with our lives."

But don't think Gruden's admonishments are reserved for the offense. He's always pushing buttons, and Gruden enjoys challenging the defensive players, too.

"When we break up and you get him into his little moods, oh, he'll get you," Sapp said. "He came into our room and berated us the other day. He told Simeon (Rice) he better get his a-- healthy. He said, "You. Whatever is ailing you, it's not ailing you anymore. You. Any more personal fouls out of you and we're taking a long walk.' He was talking to me now. "You. (Anthony McFarland). You get your s--- right, too. You. Greg (Spires). You get your rush going, too.' He was looking around the room for somebody else to berate. "Buck (Gurley). Are you going to play this year?' And he walked out."

Dungy delivered similar messages, but his soft-spoken approach was more minister than sinister. In some ways, players feel liberated around Gruden. They don't have to check their language because Gruden's and his staff have their own blue streak. Players once counted offensive line coach Bill Muir using a particular profanity 82 times in a meeting.

"The adjustment is taking place. And again, Tony is a tough guy to succeed," Gruden said. "He was here for a long time and did some great things. I respect that tremendously.

"I think the players expect accountability. They don't want to see that guy's getting away with murder. I'm not trying to be a militant or anything like that. I'm going to do what I've seen work, and I think our players are pretty excited about it."

Nobody is more excitable than Johnson, who was in Gruden's face like freckles during a sideline rant captured by ABC-TV cameras. Remarkably, Gruden smirked through the whole episode and kept his cool.

"There's a time and a place and that's not on game day," Gruden said. "I think the guy was mad, you know? We had a play call, we aligned incorrectly. I'll take credit for calling it wrong, we changed our mind and went to another play the next play and he wasn't involved in it. So how do I do it? I just try not to blink. I'm just trying to win a football game. Last year, I took Jerry Rice out in a two tight-end set and I'm pretty sure it was an adjustment for him."

To a man, players say while Gruden is tough, he's extremely fair in his criticisms.

"Mistakes happen. But you're going to be held accountable," quarterback Brad Johnson said. "He's going to show it on film, he's going to talk to you about it. Sometimes he has to holler a little louder. So he does that. But the yelling and screaming is not what gets it. What gets it is patience on his part, going over and over it."

For the Bucs and their hard-driving coach, the journey has just begun.

"I think I'm a pretty good guy, you know what I mean? I just try to do my best to put players in the best situation possible," Gruden said. "If sparks fly once in a while, hopefully we can resolve that."

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  • Summing up the 2002 season

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