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Next case: Bucs fans vs. Gruden's offense

By GARY SHELTON
Published November 5, 2006


Jon Gruden stands accused.

In a season that has become a trial, it is easy to see Gruden as a defendant, facing pointed questions from reporters who have turned into prosecutors and from fans who have turned into a hostile jury.

He offers alibis. He proclaims innocence. Still, the evidence mounts. Gruden's fingerprints are on the playbook, and the alleged game plan was his idea, and witnesses place him at the scene of the grime.

At a time such as this, after all, who are you going to indict but the mastermind?

Gruden is charged with concealment of weapons, with abandonment of strategy, with destruction of a football team. He is charged with mediocrity. He is charged with underachievement. After seven games, he is charged with five counts of defeat.

And how does Gruden plead?

Not guilty. The wind did it.

The perception of a football coach has shifted again. The outcry over a dying season has grown loud, and most of it seems to be aimed at Gruden's office.

Once, he was Tampa Bay's favorite son, a coach who had returned home and infused a football team with enough adrenaline to push it over the top. He was Chucky, and he owned this town. Last year's playoff run with a young team seemed to have replaced most of what Gruden's reputation had lost during the losing seasons of '03 and '04.

These days, Gruden is more Nero than hero. He is on his way to his third losing season in four years, and the offense is worse than ever. And Gruden seems to be driving people a little crazy.

He has been offensive about his defense, calling out players by name. He has been defensive about his offense, pointing to the weather after a game in which a rookie quarterback passed 48 times while an accomplished tailback ran it eight. It wasn't the first time that Gruden abandoned the running game in a two-score game. See: Atlanta.

Say this for Gruden: He knows all the words to An Innocent Man. He does not self-incriminate. One of the maddening things about Gruden is his insistence that a failed plan was chocked full of good ideas, as if you were silly for ever questioning it. Sure, it was windy. Sure, the Giants were ahead. Sure, the Bucs had struggled to run. Most fans realize that skews the pass-run ratio a bit.

But 48-8? On a day when the winds were gusting? On a day the receivers could not hang on? With a rookie quarterback? That was indefensible on Sunday; it was inconceivable on Monday.

So why not say it? No one is asking Gruden to cop a plea, but can't he say something such as "We were trying desperately to make a first down, but looking back, of course we should have run more. We know that. And, golly, thanks for helping."?

Ask yourself: What do the Bucs do well? What is their identity? Here's a game for the viewers at home: Script the first 20 plays along with Gruden and see if you can make it add up to the same 14 yards.

By now, weren't things supposed to be better? We're talking about breech of promise here. From his first afternoon on the job, Gruden has been trying to improve the offense. Yet it is worse than it ever has been. It ranks 30th in the NFL. Thirtieth.

Remember when John McKay thought executing his offense was a good idea? That offense never finished 30th. (To be fair, there were only 28 teams.)

Remember when Mike Shula said he hated third and 1? That offense wasn't 30th, either.

Remember when Clyde Christensen said what he wanted was "more zero and 1-yard gains" from his offense? Never 30th.

Remember when Sam Wyche used to twirl his finger on the sideline and the fans behind him would mock him by twirling their fingers? Never 30th.

Remember when Richard Williamson asked how to spell "M.R.I."? Never 30th.

Remember when Ray Perkins was tussling with his own linemen? Never 30th.

Gruden was supposed to be better, smarter, more creative than all of them. Yet the Bucs fester. They are last in the NFL in scoring. They are next-to-last in first downs.

If you have a fantasy league team, they are killing you. Cadillac Williams is 26th in rushing, and Bruce Gradkowski is 28th in passer rating (Chris Simms is 32nd). Joey Galloway is tied for 55th in receptions.

They do not score an offensive touchdown in the heat (see: Philadelphia). They do not score in the wind (see: New York). The Bucs seem to have the only huddle in the league that needs to be climate controlled.

In other words, all of the pre-snap shifting around while the defense yawns isn't doing a lot of good. Maybe it's just me, but whenever the players shift and spin and move around from one formation to another, the words to the song Mony, Mony jump into my head. "Up, down, turn around, come on Mony. Bump. Da-bump."

After all of the contortions, of course, the defense usually adjusts by having a safety take one step to his left followed by a 2-yard loss. Oh.

Most of this criticism, of course, is because of the record. Nothing new there. Legal experts will tell you there is no legal defense to 2-5. Everyone is guilty. No losing team seems to have an identity, and no losing coach seems to have an idea. Bucs fans know that better than anyone; they've put enough coaches on the stand over the years.

As Gruden loses patience with the run, and as the fans lose patience with him, the essential suspicions about Gruden remain the same. Can he yet prove to be any different than Wyche, than Perkins, than McKay?

Despite the results, a lot of NFL people will tell you the guy can still direct an offense. But can he be the CEO of a franchise? Can he not only be in charge of the plays, but the players? Can he build?

For now, court is in session. The jury is still weighing the charges.

Wouldn't it be nice for Gruden to offer some evidence in his defense? And, for that matter, his offense?

Gary Shelton can be reached at (727) 893-8805 or at gshelton@sptimes.com.