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Emmitt Smith points to trouble at One Buc

By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 30, 2003

Emmitt Smith says he wanted to play for the Bucs. But the NFL's all-time leading rusher decided to run from a power struggle rather than cause a bigger rift for the world champions.

Smith, who signed a two-year contract Thursday with the Cardinals, is referring to increasing signs of acrimony between Bucs coach Jon Gruden and general manager Rich McKay.

Speaking at the Sports Edge Retail Summit at the Four Seasons Resort in Las Colinas, Texas, on Friday, Smith said he received mixed responses from his conversations with the Bucs.

"There was a dynamic going on in Tampa Bay that was a battle between two individuals," Smith said. "One individual wanted me down there very badly. The other individual saw his position as 'I'm going to make this decision and I don't think we should do this.' There was a power struggle going on down there. When you see what was going on in Arizona and how badly they wanted me from head to toe, versus what was going on down in Tampa, I didn't want to fool with it."

It's no secret Gruden has become increasingly annoyed by McKay's offseason personnel decisions. Gruden wanted to sign the 33-year-old Smith, but McKay believed even at a minimum salary and backup role, the ex-Cowboys star would create too big of a distraction.

At the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix, Gruden made disparaging comments regarding McKay to coaches and front-office personnel, according to a report on CBSsportsline.com.

It's believed Gruden also was not pleased upon learning Saints left tackle Kyle Turley had been traded to the Rams for a second-round pick -- in 2004, no less -- while McKay was busy with the league's competition committee meetings. Instead, the Bucs are struggling to re-sign free agent Roman Oben.

Finally, few members of the Bucs organization, including Gruden, are not pleased with the botched effort to restructure the contract of quarterback Brad Johnson, which fell apart when either McKay or assistant general manager John Idzik removed a $1.5-million salary guarantee for 2004 from the proposal.

The result was nearly $4-million of salary-cap relief never materialized and Johnson still is fuming.

Aside from signing Jacksonville center John Wade and Giants guard Jason Whittle, who weren't exactly top free agents, McKay has done little to improve the offense. Meanwhile, more and more cap dollars continue to flow to defensive players like Simeon Rice and Shelton Quarles. Next up? Anthony McFarland and Warren Sapp.

"From a salary structure the last two years, we lost a center that had a big salary, we've lost a running back, Warrick Dunn, that we just couldn't keep," Gruden said. "And we replaced them with good players but not at the same salaries as the guys they replaced."

The Bucs only have two highly paid players on offense: Brad Johnson and receiver Keyshawn Johnson.

Of course, Smith got paid between $7-million and $8-million to play the next two seasons in Arizona, which will make him the lead ball carrier. Tampa Bay could only guarantee him a chance to win.

"We like to use a committee of backs, we've proven that to you," Gruden said. "There would be a role for Emmitt. There would be a role for any of our backs that make the team.

"I want to get everything done now. I can't get over it if it's not done now. If it's not done tomorrow and it wasn't done yesterday, I just start to become upset because everything is a crisis. Forget the left tackle, what about the right tackle? The backup center? The backup left guard. Who's our long snapper? What if Karl Williams pulls a hamstring, who returns punts? Who's our (strongside) linebacker, who's our third corner if Dwight (Smith) moves back (to safety)?"

Gruden never has met a player he didn't love and it's McKay's job to keep an eye on the henhouse. But when inevitable Hall of Fame players have to identify a problem at One Buc Place, it might be time to fix it.

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