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It's no joke; Chucky fits Tampa Bay

By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 21, 2003

SAN DIEGO -- Talk about our elections. Go ahead. Everyone else does.

Joke about our theme parks. It's okay. We've been known to poke a little fun ourselves.

Crack about our heat and our humidity. About the mosquitos and the fruit flies. About the strip malls and the strip clubs. Go ahead. Have your fun.

But, guys, now you're getting personal.

You're talking about our Gruden.

This is war. This is an outrage. This is the kind of slanderous, sour-grapes slur that causes hard feelings.

The Raiders are dissing Chucky.

The nerve of those guys.

Around here, of course, Gruden has been elevated to level of legend, and he's bearing in on mythical. Soon, there will be statues -- little, life-sized statues lining the highways of Tampa Bay. There will be songs and sonnets and sightings of the Little General everywhere.

Ah, but for every tale of the homecoming hero, there also is the story of the one he left behind. Which is why Gruden talk will be all the rage this week. Give the guy credit; he can make news coming or going.

The Raiders simply cannot stop talking about Gruden, about how he left them, about how happy they were to see him go. Listen closely, and it sounds very much like Tom Arnold crabbing about Roseanne.

"We got to the Super Bowl without him," sniffed receiver Jerry Porter. "Maybe he was in our way."

And so it goes. Tackle Lincoln Kennedy, who Gruden found on a shelf at Play It Again Sports before Kennedy's career was salvaged, has suggested Gruden had "a little man's complex."

Even Frank Middleton, the old Buc who always talked as if Canton might try to tug his helmet away at any moment, despite the fact defensive linemen spent an inordinate amount of time on the other side of him, has gotten into the act. Middleton suggests Gruden had the TV cameras on him too much, which perhaps explains why there are so few portraits of Middleton in the sunset on the airwaves.

In other words, the Raiders are coming across like the scorned, spiteful, mean-talking spouse in the movies who was dumped for a younger, prettier, nicer model. Just think of it. Tampa Bay, trophy wife.

Let's face it. It makes for an amusing beginning to Super Bowl week. By the end of the week, we will hear how Gruden hated sourdough bread and the gold rush and, gasp, the Beach Boys. Gruden might have been one of the Beach Boys. At this point, anything is possible.

The Raiders, however, might not want to toy with Chucky. If we have learned nothing else, it's that this postseason is really Gruden's Don't-You-Miss-Me Tour. All those people who used to think he was pretty smart? These days, they're convinced he's a genius.

Let's see. To earn the first-round bye, the Bucs beat out Green Bay, where Gruden used to be a grunt. More importantly, he used to offer up plays to Mike Holmgren like a gag writer to David Letterman, hoping Holmgren would use a play and pat him on the head.

In the divisional playoff, there were the 49ers, where Gruden hung around and watched like Ray Liotta in Goodfellas. Gruden dissected them so thoroughly the organization looked at him, then at Steve Mariucci and came to this conclusion: Fire Mooch. Then came the Eagles, where Gruden used to be known as Boy Wonder, where he used to hang out in the bowels of the rusty old Vet with the cats and the rats and other creatures of the night. You know, coaches.

Against the Eagles on Sunday, Gruden took Andy Reid to school. Without a running game, without great speed, without good field position, without history or odds or perception, Gruden found a way to get the matchups he wanted when he wanted. Cold? Yeah, it was cold. On a day hell freezes over, wouldn't you expect it to be cold?

Around here, people are rightly impressed with Gruden. No one complains about his face on TV. Hey, the guy can have his own sitcom if he wants. Everybody Loves Chucky. No one complains about the price, either, except to offer this: (Al) Davis got robbed.

Look, no one likes rejection, and no one wants to be dumped. It's grand the Raiders are so tickled with Bill Callahan, the first-year coach who made sure winning didn't stop when Gruden left the building.

Frankly, though, the whining is a little silly. Gruden isn't the first coach to leave a team. For that matter, he isn't the first coach who wanted Davis outside of his skull. A locker room of NFL players should know all about greener pastures.

Yes, the departure could have been handled better. Gruden could have gathered his guys together and swapped hugs and cell numbers. Blame Davis for that. If Gruden was going, Davis wanted him gone, and he didn't want a scene that resembled Rick and Ilsa at the airport.

By his nature, Gruden isn't long on sentimentality, either. Every now and then, he'll mention this Raiders player or that one, but not often. Obsessives worry more about tomorrow than yesterday. But believe this: If Gruden had lost in the first round, he would feel good his old players were succeeding. Evidently, that isn't the case with the Raiders.

Let the Raiders talk. Let them play the part of the jilted. Hey, the Bucs are a team that love a cause almost as much as they love playing the role of the underdog.

As for Tampa Bay, there is really only one proper response to the Raiders and their parting of ways with Gruden.


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