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Gruden's doing his best work ever and deserves an extension.
By GARY SHELTON
Published December 5, 2007
Sometimes, you have to trust the play in your gut. Simple as that.
Sometimes, you have to be bold enough to believe in what you have. Sometimes, you have to ignore the noise as it swirls around you. Sometimes, you have to stare down the goal and make the right decision.
All of that was true of Jon Gruden on Sunday.
Shouldn't the same be true of the Glazers today?
A dozen games into a hot-seat season, and it is time that Gruden got what was coming to him. This week, perhaps next, the Glazers should pull him in, sit him down and shove a pen in his direction. After that, they should invite him to sign a contract extension.
Gruden has saved his job. He has done enough, and his team has won enough, to silence even the harshest of his critics. If this season has served as testimony that Gruden is still the coach for the Bucs, then Sunday's victory over the Saints seems like the closing argument.
In the finest season of coaching in Gruden's career, this was his finest moment. He was aggressive. He was creative. He called plays as if he were a step, maybe two, ahead of the Saints.
Then, of course, there was the fourth and 1, when he called his kicking team off the field and went for the first down instead. It was absolutely the right call, because even if the Bucs' Matt Bryant had made the field goal, the Saints would have had two minutes to drive for a winning field goal and, even if unsuccessful, would have had an even chance of getting the ball again in overtime. It would have been a lot to ask of a defense.
That said, think about what Gruden decided to do. He had a backup center (Matt Lehr) snap the ball to a backup quarterback (Luke McCown), who handed it to a backup running back (Earnest Graham), who followed an injured fullback (B.J. Askew) behind two second-year lineman (Davin Joseph and Jeremy Trueblood) for a first down. In other words, Gruden placed a tremendous amount of trust in his team, and it worked.
"A call like that shows us that he trusts us," cornerback Ronde Barber said. "If we're a good enough team to get 1 yard and put a game away in the fourth quarter, then we're good enough to be in the playoffs. Instantly, everyone believed in that team. Sometimes, play calls like that are enough to define you for the rest of the season."
No wonder, then, that as soon as they entered the locker room, players gathered and began to chant "Gru-den, Gru-den" over and over in the euphoria of the moment.
After a scene like that, why should a team consider changing coaches?
Answer: It shouldn't.
At this point, Gruden seems a long way from those days when the world viewed him as a coach with a detachable head. Coming into the season, the odds seemed to be against Gruden keeping his job. His team lost 12 times last year, some of them in remarkably ugly fashion. Critics - yes, I was among them - pointed out it was Gruden's third losing season in four, and the common perception was that Gruden, 44, was down to his last chance.
The thing about coaching is this: The good ones adjust. And this year, Gruden has. He has softened his approach with his players. He has stayed patient with the running game despite injuries. He does not talk nearly as often about the injured players on his team. In other words, he seems like an older, wiser coach.
"Absolutely, there is a difference in his coaching," Barber said. "He is more in tune to his players and what they need and this team and what it needs. He's a different coach than what I've seen in the past."
Of course, it is easier for a coach to be liked when he is winning. The Bucs are on the verge of Gruden's third division title in six seasons here. Before Gruden, the Bucs had only three division titles in their other 26 seasons.
This year, the Bucs offense has improved by 10 slots (from 29th to 19th). The defense has improved by 13 slots (from 17th to fourth). The team has won five more games than this time last year, the second-best improvement in the NFL. (Green Bay has six more victories than this time last year). All in all, it sounds like a good reason for re-election.
Perhaps the suggestion that this season is Gruden's finest coaching job sounds odd to you. After all, he won the Super Bowl in his first season here. But much of Gruden's strength that year was that he was a new voice with new energy, and he pushed a very good team over the top.
This year, he has faced a more difficult task. He has stopped a slide. He has reversed a fortune. He has helped to shape the Bucs into a resilient team that seems to be improving by the week.
More than anything, he has changed what everyone thought about a team.
About a coach, too.
Most improved from 2006 to 2007 (after 12 games).
Team 2006 2007 Margin
Green Bay 4-8 10-2 +6
Tampa Bay 3-9 8-4 +5
Pittsburgh 5-7 9-3 +4
Detroit 2-10 6-6 +4
[Last modified December 4, 2007, 23:58:27]