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'We're just getting started here'

Jon Gruden's high-energy approach has guided Tampa Bay to its best regular-season record in team history. But his first season as Bucs coach will be judged by what happens on the road to San Diego.

[Times photo: Toni L. Sandys]
In his debut season as Bucs head coach, Jon Gruden won the new NFC South, earned a first-round playoff bye and finished with 12 victories, tied for most in the NFL.

By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 12, 2003

TAMPA -- A large inheritance can overshadow personal accomplishments. Just ask anyone named Kennedy, Rockefeller or Bush.

But when Jon Gruden took over a Tampa Bay team that had been to the playoffs four times in five years, he didn't run from his leftover good fortune.

He paid homage to the coach who built the Bucs before attempting to do better with them himself.

"When he first came, the best thing Jon did was he never talked down about Tony Dungy," defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. "He mentioned him with a great deal of respect and said he was honored to be here and coach this football team."

Gruden, who kept the defensive coaching staff intact, knew he could not move Tampa Bay forward without first acknowledging the past.

"The hardest thing is succeeding a guy who did a great job and was very well-respected," Gruden said. "It was an emotional change, you know what I mean? And to be respectful of that is something you've got to work to do."

See all the 2002-03
Bucs Extra front pages

But Gruden knows there still is work to do. The Bucs won the new NFC South, earned a first-round playoff bye and finished with the most victories in the league (12), best in franchise history. Without playing a game, the Bucs have already advanced farther into the postseason than Dungy's teams did the past two years.

Gruden is only the third coach to lead different teams to the playoffs in consecutive seasons, joining Mike Holmgren and Dungy (now with the Colts).

But does Gruden have to beat the 49ers today and take the Bucs at least to the NFC Championship Game to justify the trade of four high draft picks and $8-million to the Raiders for his rights?

"His business is unfinished," receiver Keyshawn Johnson said. "Coach Dungy had a first-round bye (in 1999), so I don't know if he surpassed him. Coach Dungy came into a program and rebuilt it and got it to a level where he (Gruden) could come in and have some success. Neither one of them have made it to a Super Bowl yet. Who's to say that Dungy wouldn't go 12-4 with this team? I think it remains to be seen."

Under the offensive-minded Gruden, the Bucs won the way they always had -- with a No. 1-ranked defense that allowed the fewest points of any team in the league.

In fact, many of the Bucs' wins and losses in 2002 were identical in nature to seasons past. They lost at Philadelphia without scoring an offensive touchdown, routed Minnesota at home, struggled to beat the lowly Detroit Lions and were dominated in a loss to Pittsburgh at Raymond James Stadium.

But Gruden's contributions frequently were masked on both sides of the ball.

"The biggest thing he did for us was re-energize the defense," Kiffin said. "Number one, he was able to sell his staff and keep it intact on the defensive side, keep Rod (Marinelli) and two young coaches in Mike Tomlin and Joe Barry. He won the defensive staff over.

"He challenged our defensive players in a positive manner and, (as) I've said before, he expected the offense to be very accountable. When we went against each other, the defensive players saw what he demanded from offensive players and said we've got to make sure we don't let up."

Defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who credits Dungy with igniting his career, was won over by Gruden after spending many days during the off-season in the head coach's office.

"If I'm comfortable with this head man, I'll be your loyalest soldier," Sapp said. "I'll spread the message throughout the ranks. Because if you've got the right message for us, here we go, because I know we have the ability to get it done. That's never been a question in my mind.

"The one thing he preached was we know what we have, let's go out and show them what we can do. Let our pads do the talking. That was a different approach for me. But like he says, "Try it, you'll like it. This is good stuff.' I don't think anybody questions that."

Offensively, Gruden did not have the overwhelming impact the Bucs hoped for. His offense finished 24th in the league. But the Bucs protected the football, throwing a franchise-low 10 interceptions while averaging nearly four minutes more in time of possession than opponents.

"He really brought the team together," Kiffin said. "There's no jealousy and no pointing fingers. The offense didn't have big numbers. But we don't turn the ball over much. Just look at the plus-minus ratio (plus-13). They didn't put us in bad positions. Check out how many times we dominated time of possession. He was great at clock management."

The Bucs followed every loss with a win this season, avoiding the losing streaks and slow starts that plagued many of Dungy's teams. They also went 2-1 without starting quarterback Brad Johnson, despite scoring nine field goals and just one touchdown in his absence.

"I'm really proud of the guys with the effort they've put forth," Gruden said. "We've overcome as many injuries as anybody in the league. People don't realize, Brad breaks his rib on the first play of the Philadelphia game, can't finish that game. He goes blind against Green Bay and missed a whole three or four series in that game. And misses three games."

Gruden has been sensitive to criticism of his offense, which had six new starters who had never played for the Bucs, let alone for him. In his last six games before sustaining a lower back bruise, Johnson caught fire, throwing 15 touchdowns and one interception.

"I know I've changed jobs enough now to say every year is a new year nowadays," Gruden said. "Just because we had this or had that, you've just got to come in and do the best you can. We lost a lot of good players, too. We were concerned about that going into it. But we hung in there and the coaching staff did a great job and the players that we brought in for free agency, the veteran players, they've played their butts off.

"We're going to be judged ultimately by what happens in the end. And I realize this is a big game. We'd like to win it to continue to advance. We're just getting started here. We've got a long way to go in some areas, and we'll get there."

[AP photo: 2001]
Gruden was head coach of the Raiders from 1998-2001. Bill Callahan, left, took over when Gruden went to the Bucs.

Jon Gruden's coaching career

1986-87 -- Offensive assistant, University of Tennessee
1988 -- Passing coordinator, Southeast Missouri State University
1989 -- Wide receivers coach, University of Pacific
1990 -- Offensive assistant, San Francisco 49ers
1991 -- Wide receivers coach, University of Pittsburgh
1992-94 -- Offensive assistant/receivers coach, Green Bay Packers
1995-97 -- Offensive coordinator, Philadelphia Eagles
1998-2001 -- Head coach, Oakland Raiders

Gruden in the playoffs

2000 -- 1-1. Defeated Miami 27-0 in divisional playoff. Lost 16-3 to Baltimore in AFC Championship.
2001 -- 1-1. Defeated New York Jets 38-24 in wild card game, lost to New England 16-13 in overtime of divisional playoff.
  • Jon Gruden is the seventh head coach in Buccaneers history, officially taking over for Tony Dungy on Feb. 18, 2002. Gruden, the NFL's youngest head coach at 39, steered the Raiders to a 38-26 regular-season mark in his four seasons (1998-2001) with the club, including postseason appearances in 2000 and 2001. Under Gruden, the Raiders advanced to the AFC title game in 2000 and lost a second-round playoff game in 2001 to eventual Super Bowl champion New England. Gruden's offenses have finished among the league's top 10 in each of the last three seasons, including fifth in 1999.
  • Born Aug. 17, 1963, in Sandusky, Ohio, Gruden attended South Bend Clay High School in Indiana and was a three-year letterman at quarterback at the University of Dayton, graduating in 1985 with a degree in communications. The Flyers had a 24-7 record in Gruden's three varsity seasons. Gruden and his wife Cindy, a former University of Tennessee cheerleader, have three sons, Jon II, Michael and Jayson.
  • Gruden's father, Jim, is a regional scout for the 49ers and formerly served as running backs coach (1982-83) and director of player personnel (1984-86) for the Buccaneers. Jim and his wife Kathy still reside in Tampa.
  • Gruden's brother, Jay, played in the Arena Football League, winning four championships in six seasons with the Tampa Bay Storm. Jay currently is an assistant coach for the Bucs.

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