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Front office feeling Chucky's passion

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By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published November 10, 2002


Inside the doors of One Buc Place, they are still learning how to scowl.

It takes a little time to replicate the scrunch, the glare, the fire. Nine games into the Gruden era, and the breaking-in period continues. When the new guy is called Chucky, it takes time to get accustomed to making his face.

From the looks of it, though, a lot of people in the front office are trying.

Whoo-boy, has Jon Gruden been an adjustment.

Perhaps you have heard about Gruden. He is all energy and emotion, bouncing off the walls and buzzing around the faces. He is the pot stirrer, one of those hyperactive people who is never quite comfortable and who never quite allows his co-workers to get there either. He is a right-here, right-now, what-can-we-do-today kind of guy.

He's also a guy who has taken some getting used to.

Nine weeks into the Gruden era, and we know this about him. He has shaken up the chemistry set on the field, in the locker room and, yes, in the front office.

You may read about it soon. There is a drumbeat around the NFL that trouble is brewing in the Bucs offices. Five times, general manager Rich McKay admits, he has been approached to ask if there really is a rift between Gruden and the personnel department, or Gruden and the scouts, or Gruden and McKay.

McKay swears no such rift exists. Gruden says the same.

"Crazy talk," Gruden says.

"We're no different than anyone else," McKay said. "There is a period of adjustment when you make as big a change as we made. The bottom line is winning. I'm very comfortable we can win in our arrangement."

Still, the talk continues. If you want to make Gruden's eyes roll, mention a recent Internet column that suggested that, because of the strain, McKay still might end up in Atlanta next season.

Perhaps the perceptions are based in philosophies. Everyone knows the Bucs have been a grow-your-own franchise for years. Gruden, on the other hand, loves experience.

Picture this scenario: Bucs quarterback Jeff George fakes the handoff to Ricky Watters, looks off Irving Fryar underneath, then throws deep to Andre Rison for the score.

Jeff George?

Ricky Watters?

Andre Rison and Irving Fryar?

What is this? George Allen's Over-the-Hill Gang?

It could have happened. At different times, Gruden admits he has made a pitch for all those guys before being convinced otherwise by those in charge of scouting and the salary cap.

Hey, retreads have worked for Gruden in the past in Rich Gannon and Jerry Rice and Lincoln Kennedy and others. Gruden isn't above sifting through other team's refuse to find a player.

Want to hear another name that intrigues Gruden? Reggie White. Gruden told White's agent to have Reggie get in shape, just in case he could help with a few snaps here and there.

This, too, is vintage Gruden. He's the guy who will mention how he wants this player or that one, and he'll repeat it until he wears out those on the other side of the conversation. He'll admit he takes a little getting used to.

No, it is not contentious. No, it is not argumentative. Frankly, most of the workers don't even see Gruden, who spends a lot of time barricaded in his office. (Unlike Tony Dungy, he also is a coordinator.)

But the atmosphere around the place is different. It is as if someone dropped a bobcat into the workplace. You know it is there, and you can't help wonder about its mood.

This, of course, is a stark difference from the way things have worked at One Buc for years. Gruden is a different cat from the last coach. Dungy was a smooth, soft-spoken neighbor. Gruden is the kid with a new guitar and the loud amplifier.

Does that make the work environment different? You bet. One is Mr. Rogers. The other is Sgt. Fury. How could it not be different?

For instance, Gruden is emotional, and he gets upset with players who haven't performed well, and he'll wonder who drafted the player and why. He'll ask tough questions with rough edges. If someone's toes are stepped on in the process, well, the guy never claimed to be a tap dancer.

None of this is necessarily bad, by the way. This is football. Front-office discussions shouldn't be a candlelight dinner and a movie. From time to time, people are supposed to disagree. If you check across the NFL, as Gruden suggests, you'll find 32 offices where opinions clash.

For the Bucs, it only becomes bad news if it turns out that people are unable to work together. That has happened a lot in the NFL.

There have been franchises with talented coaches and talented front-office people where the building hasn't been big enough. George Young and Bill Parcells divorced each other. So did Bobby Beathard and Joe Gibbs, Jimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones, Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher, Mike Holmgren and Ron Wolfe.

The Bucs seem to have a pretty good collection of NFL minds in their building. It would be a shame if they couldn't find a common direction.

Gruden says they have already. He says that he's happy to coach, that he doesn't want to be a GM/coach or to be in charge of personnel or the salary cap.

"I need help," he said.

That said, this is who Gruden is, and this is the new chemistry inside the building. Gruden is prone to facial contortions, and he's prone to making others do the same.

There are times Gruden comes across as the least happy coach of a 7-2 team in the history of the NFL. He'll tell you he hasn't been happy most of his life. He's a pusher, a prodder, a planner. He's a guy with a long-term contract who attacks the day as if time is short.

At One Buc, they are just getting the measure of the man's obsession. He wants answers. His opinions are strong and his voice can get loud and he tends to leave a vapor trail when he walks. This is the way he is. This is the way things are.

Comfortable?

The day after the Super Bowl, people say, is extremely comfortable.

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