Super Bowl XXXVII
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 28, 2003
SAN DIEGO -- Because he won their hearts.
Because he won their minds.
Because he won their rings.
And that's why Jon Gruden did the best by-gum coaching job in the history of Super Bowl seasons.
Funny how a man's voice gets louder the later it gets into the evening. The Tampa Bay Bucs, of all teams, were champions of the world. Not trusting the world not to come to a sudden end because of it, a bunch of writers sat around a table and, having little better to do, began to measure genius.
Because it was his first year.
Because his team couldn't run the ball.
Because his line couldn't block.
This is the thing about the Super Bowl. Dumb guys never win it. Throughout the history of the game, there have been a lot of great coaching jobs.
Vince Lombardi once won one by squeezing one more year out of his aging Packers. Don Shula won one to complete a perfect season. Joe Gibbs won one with Doug Williams, who hadn't started most of the season. Brian Billick won one with Trent Dilfer at quarterback. There was Tom Landry and Bill Walsh and Mike Shanahan, Chuck Noll and Jimmy Johnson and Hank Stram.
So it was, late Sunday evening, that the following notion occurred to me.
What we had all seen, with Jon Gruden leading the Bucs over the hill, was the finest coaching season in Super Bowl history.
Because he made his offense better.
Because he made his team tougher.
Because he made his town believe.
It should be said that not everyone at the table agreed with me. I'm not sure anyone did.
People are rightly impressed with the job Bill Parcells did in 1990. They should be. That season, Parcells lifted the Giants past a much more talented Buffalo team in the Super Bowl. He won with backup quarterback Jeff Hostetler and 117-year-old Ottis Anderson at running back. He tinkered with his defensive line each week of the season. A grand job it was.
Then there was the job Bill Belichick did a year ago with his Patriots. Belichick squeezed every drop out of that New England team, and the Patriots also beat a more talented team in the Super Bowl. Belichick was smart enough to know to stick with Tom Brady, rather than the flashier Drew Bledsoe, and it paid off.
I'll say this. Those were excellent coaching jobs. I give them the silver medal and the bronze.
But Chucky? I give him the gold.
Here's my reasoning. This doesn't happen. It's supposed to take time for a coach and team to learn each other. Two seasons. Maybe three.
Less than a year ago, Gruden was a coast away. He didn't know Warren Sapp from Derrick Brooks, John Lynch from Jeff Christy. They didn't know him.
Imagine this. You walk into a place expected to win, and you don't know any of the players, and you can't bring any coaches with you. You have to teach your offense to the coaches, and then to the players. You have to win over a locker room that was loyal to the previous coach.
Gruden does not coach a team as much as he envelops it, however. Through his obsession and his enthusiasm, Gruden began to unlock his team. He figured out which buttons to push with Sapp, which ones to push with Brooks. He got used to Keyshawn in his ear.
Last week, before the Raiders game, Gruden even went to the field as the scout team quarterback. He ran 12-15 plays, moving people around, showing the defense how the offense was designed to work. He called audibles. He even completed two passes.
Come game time, the Bucs made sure Rich Gannon wasn't much more of a threat than Gruden.
There are those who would shrug off Gruden's success and point out, rightfully, that the strength of this team is its defense. True. But this defense has been good for years, and it hasn't gotten over the hump. Ask Monte Kiffin. He'll tell you how Gruden energized this defense, how he raised standards, how he challenged the players.
On offense, things started slowly, painfully. It was one of the ugliest things you will see for the first half of the season. You define a coach, however, with three questions. What does he do with what he has? How often does he win? Do things get better as they go along?
Give Gruden credit for recognizing some things right off. In Brad Johnson, he had a less mobile quarterback. He adjusted. He had a journeyman and a prospect at tackles. He adjusted. The running game didn't click. He adjusted.
Gruden pushed and prodded and toyed and tinkered. At times, he was like a teenager trying to find the pulse of an old car everyone else has given up on.
Amazingly, it worked. The Bucs were much better the second half of the season than the first. In the playoffs, they were better still, averaging more than 35 points.
By then, Gruden was the unquestioned leader of this team. His will spread to that of his players, and because of it, they became stronger. He went into Philadelphia, where most of the nation didn't think he had a chance. His team won. He played against the Raiders in the Super Bowl, an underdog again. His team won.
"One of the amazing coaching jobs of all time," safety John Lynch said Sunday night.
Because of his methods.
Because of his matchups.
Because of his motivation.
Look, it's one thing to win in the fourth year of a program, when you've gathered draft picks and molded players and the mice in the training room have been around long enough to know the playbook.
But to do it in Year 1, getting to know each other as you travel, adjusting on the fly, instilling your message and teaching your lessons as you win, is fairly impressive.
After this, it continues to be interesting. Winning is an expensive proposition for a team. Everyone wants contracts that start at "big" and continue to "stinking." Shelton Quarles is up, for one. Then there is an offense that still needs improving. Two linemen and another back wouldn't be a bad start.
But for today there is only appreciation of a job done better than anyone has had to do.
Because he wrote the final chapter.
Because he landed the plane.
Because he made the Bucs, of all teams, champions.