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Gruden: Bucs have plenty of work to do

The coach knows NFL offseason will be the key in team's attempt to repeat.

By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 22, 2003


INDIANAPOLIS -- There is no more time for Jon Gruden to savor the Bucs' Super Bowl championship, and he's begun the process of finding players to defend the title.

Gruden arrived at the NFL scouting combine Friday to evaluate draft prospects. But he said the team's biggest challenge is getting under the salary cap to re-sign free agents.

"Yeah. You'd like to retire and float down the river listening to Jimmy Buffet," Gruden said. "You know, that's the great thing about football. You know what a responsibility you have now to honestly come back strong next season. You pick later in the draft, you play a first-place schedule, your head's on a chopping block. So you've got to have a great offseason and you've got to do the right things in free agency."

A year ago, the Bucs made all the right decisions. They released cornerback Donnie Abraham in a cost-cutting move and re-signed Brian Kelly, who tied for the league lead with eight interceptions.

Tampa Bay also restructured the contract of fullback Mike Alstott, who took a $2-million per year cut to remain with the team.

This season, the first salary-cap casualty likely will be center Jeff Christy, who has been informed he must take a significant cut in his $3.995-million salary to avoid being released.

In hopes of getting under the $74.8-million salary cap, the Bucs have restructured the contracts of cornerback Ronde Barber and kicker Martin Gramatica. They are attempting to do the same with several other veterans, including Brad Johnson, Derrick Brooks, Simeon Rice and Keyshawn Johnson.

"It's going to be a situation where we've got to look at our salary cap, honestly," Gruden said. "We've got to look at free agency, what we can get done with some unsigned, unrestricted players of our own."

Four starters and both backup quarterbacks will become unrestricted free agents Friday.

But the Bucs are believed to be close to re-signing left tackle Roman Oben. And on Friday night, general manager Rich McKay was scheduled to meet with Jim Steiner, the agent for Pro Bowl middle linebacker Shelton Quarles.

Last season, the Bucs lost six players to free agency before signing their first -- tight end Marco Battaglia, who was released after the season opener.

"We were victimized by the salary cap last year, let's be honest," Gruden said. "Warrick Dunn was a guy we desperately wanted to sign. We lost Donnie Abraham, Jamie Duncan and Steve White -- we lost some good players before we signed anybody in free agency. And Randall McDaniel retired. We had a lot of issues going into free agency, and a lot of guys that we did sign weren't right out of the gate. We had to get Joe Jurevicius late, Keenan McCardell was a late pickup for us.

"It's a challenging time. And this year, we've got three starters on our defense that are unrestricted. Our punter, our left tackle on offense, two quarterbacks and we've got some players you'd like to sign in the future that are important parts of our puzzle."

Gruden said the most pressing needs are to retool the offensive line, solidify the backup quarterback positions and add depth on defense.

"We don't feel like we're complete," Gruden said. "We feel we still have a ways to go to reload and get ready to hopefully make a run again next season."

Quarterbacks Rob Johnson and Shaun King are expected to test the market. And Gruden said the Bucs would consider drafting a quarterback in the later rounds.

"I've talked to Rob a little bit. I've not talked to Shaun here the last couple days. But we're looking carefully into that situation," Gruden said. "We're evaluating the available arms and the prospects in this draft and what's good for our team.

"We'll look at the free agents that are available. At the same time, we respect what Rob and Shaun did for us. Both guys contributed to a good football team. All I can say is, honestly, we're going to evaluate the position and see who's available in this draft, who's available in free agency, how much money we have within the salary cap and get the guy we think best fits the role that we have available."

Winning the Super Bowl limited the amount of time Gruden and his staff had to evaluate rookies and free agents. But despite financial constraints, McKay said the Bucs will be active in free agency.

"Clearly there are issues we have with respect to salary cap that involve a number of players that we're talking to as we speak," McKay said. "And we'll continue to talk to them all the way through next Thursday.

"It's very similar to last year and probably not as difficult as '98. It's difficult only because your objective is always the same. Let's start by saying our objective is to keep all free agents. Let's keep everybody. How do we do this? Then you have to deal with the realities of there's going to be some choices here. We had good coaches meetings. Now we've got to sit down and try to finalize a plan and then talk to some agents and figure out how that plan is going to operate."

Only seven times has a team repeated as champion. And twice in the past four seasons the team that won the title missed the playoffs the next season.

But McKay said the Bucs don't expect to drop from the radar screen.

"We've been to the playoffs five of the last six years. So we're a team that has a track record of being able to stay at a pretty high level," McKay said. "So we're not going to be intimidated by the challenge. By the same token, there are issues that surround this that we probably haven't dealt with before. You probably do have that feeling somewhat that the organization -- all the way from whoever the intern is to the highest level -- is looking himself in the mirror saying, 'Boy, I won a Super Bowl.' No, no. We won a Super Bowl. So there's a little of that. But I think all you do is try to do it the same way you did it before, which is you try to sit there, assess your needs, don't panic at the start of free agency and you try to refocus the team.

"One thing I don't think Jon Gruden will be intimidated by is about motivating the team, focusing the team. I think that's a very big strength of Jon's, and I don't think he's concerned about it. But there will be definitely different challenges that we've never faced in the past going into the playoff hunt. This is a unique challenge."

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