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Nice job, Jon

By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 29, 2002

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- His team still cannot run the ball from here to the end of the paragraph. The offense has not scored often enough to live up to its advance notices. Too much of the burden has been placed on the quarterback, which is perhaps the reason his back gave out.

And so, as the Bucs get ready to put a wrap on the first season of Jon Gruden tonight against the Bears, what is to be said about the job he has done? Perhaps this:

Good job, Chucky.

Good start anyway.

Even a community that expects everything should admit that, to this point, Gruden's first season has been something. No, it has not been everything you wished. Yes, it has been more than what you might have feared.

One season into the era, and the Bucs should be thrilled with Gruden. He has given Tampa Bay a new fire, a new focus and, yes, a new face. So what if that face is twisted and tortured half the time? Isn't yours?

It is a difficult task, changing successful coaches without changing results. History is filled with owners who tried and failed, who traded in a little bit of success for the grand prize and then spent years regretting the barter. Fire a playoff coach, the lesson goes, and you're flirting with disaster. Ask the old Browns. Ask the Eagles. Ask the Chiefs.

Gruden pulled it off, however. He rebuilt the engine of a moving car. He changed horses in the middle of the river. He took over a good team and made it better.

"Any time a coach comes in, and there is as much as is necessary, and you're able to improve, someone's done a nice job," general manager Rich McKay said. "I guarantee you if you look at other situations, that isn't always the case."

Consider this: If the Bucs win tonight against the Bears, Tampa Bay will finish 12-4, the finest record in team history. Now, consider the consistency. The Bucs will have won 75 percent of the time against NFC teams, 75 percent against the AFC. They will have won 75 percent at home, 75 percent on the road. In each four-game segment of the season, the Bucs will have won 75 percent of the time.

As guidance goes, that isn't bad. Yet, when most of the coach of the year candidates are mentioned, Gruden's name rarely comes up.

The Eagles' Andy Reid is going to win the award, and it's hard to quibble. Reid lost the one man on what many considered to be a one-man team and kept winning. His team has one loss in the NFC.

If you wished to debate, however, consider this. Last season, Reid's Eagles reached the NFC title game. This season's success wasn't exactly unforeseen.

Gruden? While Reid was fine-tuning, he was changing coasts and changing teams. He had to teach his system to a new staff, then help his assistants teach it to a new team. He had to win over a locker room that was loyal to Tony Dungy, the deposed coach.

When Gruden saw he had a stationary quarterback, he adjusted. When he saw his offensive line, he adjusted. When he saw he had limited running backs, he adjusted. Still he won.

Such is the essence of coaching. It's tinkering, fiddling, adjusting the parts of the team that don't work. It's leaving alone the parts that do. Most of all, it's knowing the difference.

He's a different cat, Gruden. The scowl is never far away, as if his new team's shortcomings buzz around his face like mosquitoes. It's as if Gruden wants to be the only unhappy camper in the park, as if he can grimace over the production but then everyone is supposed to applaud the record. Still, you get the idea this has been a long, difficult season for a man who is used to running the ball better and changing the scoreboard more often.

Despite it all, Gruden's Bucs have won. True, his job has been made easier by the excellent defense that was in place when he arrived. But defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin will be the first to tell you that Gruden helped re-energize the defense. No, Gruden doesn't diagram blitz packages; he does, however, have something to say to get the attention of his defensive players.

Perhaps another coach comes in and insists on changes. Perhaps he wants more bulk than speed. Perhaps he wants more man than zone. Gruden didn't.

Let's be honest. Most of us thought the offense would be better, because we thought the running game would be better.

It hasn't been. Michael Pittman, for instance, has shown the balance of Gerald Ford and the vision of Mr. Magoo. As a result, the Bucs offense has moved via the 15-yard crossing pattern most of the season. For the 10th straight season, the Bucs seem bound to finish 20th or lower among NFL offenses.

Yet, the Bucs have won. Numbers aside, there seems to be a more aggressive air to the offense, which attacks the 1-yard marker on third down instead of surrendering, which throws into the end zone instead of settling.

Eventually, Gruden's offense will blossom. Those who know him have no doubt. He'll retool the offensive line, and perhaps there will be another back in next season's mix.

As his first regular season comes to a close, however, perhaps you should take a minute. Perhaps you should realize how things could have gone wrong, the way they did when the Browns dumped Marty Schottenheimer, when the Eagles fired Buddy Ryan, when the Falcons released Leeman Bennett.

Most teams in the Bucs' position have slipped. Gruden kept the victories coming.

For a start, that isn't bad.

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