February 18, 2012

2002: Jon Gruden Becomes Head Coach of Buccaneers

For the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it had been a difficult search for a head coach following the dismissal of Tony Dungy in mid-January of 2002, and one that made them an object of derision due to its almost madcap nature. Finally, on February 18, they completed a deal with the Oakland Raiders and signed Jon Gruden to be Dungy’s successor.

Dungy had easily been the most successful head coach in franchise history, with the Bucs going to the playoffs in four of the last five seasons, but owner Malcolm Glazer and his two sons who were involved with the organization, Joel and Bryan, felt the club had underachieved in 2000 and 2001, losing in the Wild Card round to Philadelphia for an early exit from the postseason after each.

The Bucs supposedly had a deal in place with Bill Parcells prior to the firing of Dungy, but were turned down by the coach who had led the Giants to two NFL Championships and the Patriots to an AFC title. GM Rich McKay appeared to have a deal struck with Baltimore assistant Marvin Lewis, but the Glazers rejected it, alienating McKay.

Gruden was interested but still under contract to the Raiders for another year. In initial negotiations with Oakland’s managing general partner, Al Davis, they could not agree on compensation. Right up to the weekend before the deal was finally struck, the Glazer brothers were in negotiations with Steve Mariucci to become head coach and general manager (Mariucci was also still under contract to the 49ers for two more years).

Even before Mariucci called to turn down the offer, the Glazers, anticipating a refusal, had reopened negotiations with Oakland for Gruden. In the end, Tampa Bay gave up its first and second round draft picks for 2002, first round pick for 2003, and second round pick for 2004 plus $8 million spread over three years.

“We let Jon make the decision. If he wanted to go, we'd let him, provided we got our demands,” said Al Davis.

Gruden was given a five-year deal, reportedly worth $3.5 million per season. He had ties to Florida, as his father had been an assistant coach and scout with the Buccaneers and lived in Tampa. Younger brother Jay was player-coach of the Arena Football League’s Orlando Predators.

At 38, Gruden was the NFL’s youngest head coach (he turned 39 prior to the 2002 season). His record with Oakland was 40-28, including division titles following the previous two seasons. He led the Raiders to the AFC Championship game following the 2000 season, losing to the eventual-champion Ravens, and Oakland went to the AFC Divisional round in ’01, falling to the Patriots. While Davis had offered a contract extension during the season, Gruden’s agent made clear that his client would not stay beyond his current deal.

An offensive specialist who started in pro coaching under Mike Holmgren in San Francisco and Green Bay before becoming the offensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles, it was hoped that he would improve that unit. Dungy had made the defense strong, but the offense had been lacking. Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, whose signature was the Tampa-2 scheme (a slight variation on the Cover-2), and defensive line coach Rod Marinelli were kept in place by the new head coach.

Intense and animated, Gruden contrasted significantly with his predecessor in both temperament and expertise. He utilized a modified version of the West Coast offense and was known for his good results with quarterbacks, most recently Rich Gannon in Oakland, who had gone from journeyman to All-Pro under Gruden’s guidance.

In Tampa Bay, the quarterback who elevated his game was Brad Johnson, a 34-year-old veteran who had once gone to the Pro Bowl with the Redskins and was in his second season with the Bucs. He held off the challenge of newcomer Rob Johnson to earn a second trip to the Pro Bowl with 3049 yards passing and 22 TD passes to just 6 interceptions. While not possessing a strong arm, he was highly accurate – ideal for Gruden’s offense – and very savvy in his ability to read defenses and make good decisions. He missed three games due to injury but showed toughness as well.

6’4”, 212-pound WR Keyshawn Johnson was the club’s top receiver (76 catches, 1088 yards) and Keenan McCardell and Joe Jurevicius were dependable possession receivers. TE Ken Dilger caught 34 passes and was a good blocker. Pro Bowl FB Mike Alstott ran for 548 yards and caught 35 passes and was a solid power runner, especially late in games. RB Michael Pittman struggled with injuries and rushed for 718 yards but was an outstanding receiver out of the backfield, gathering in 59 passes for 477 more yards.

The defense remained highly effective and ranked at the top of the NFL. DT Warren Sapp and DE Simeon Rice (15.5 sacks) anchored the line and were consensus first-team All-Pros. So was LB Derrick Brooks, the Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year, who was selected to the Pro Bowl for the sixth time. Cornerbacks Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly, FS Dexter Jackson, and SS John Lynch were an excellent unit in the backfield.

In the end, Gruden achieved his goal as the Buccaneers won the NFC South with a 12-4 record, easily beat the 49ers in the Divisional playoff round, and defeated their playoff nemesis, the Eagles, a club they lost to for the fourth straight time during the regular season, by a 27-10 score at Philadelphia to achieve the NFC title. Ironically enough, the AFC representative in the Super Bowl was Oakland.

The Raiders elevated offensive coordinator Bill Callahan to head coach following Gruden’s departure. The veteran-laden team topped the AFC West for the third straight year at 11-5. But the league’s most productive offense proved no match for the top-ranked defense as the Bucs intercepted five passes and pounded Oakland by a score of 48-21.

The NFL title was a crowning achievement for Gruden and the Bucs, but did not lead to lasting success. Expected to contend once again in 2003, the team sputtered to a 7-9 record and followed that with a 5-11 tally in ’04. Injuries were a big factor, and so was the decline of Brad Johnson, who passed for 3811 yards and 26 touchdowns in ’03, but also was intercepted 21 times. Mike Alstott had a lesser, injury-plagued year, Keyshawn Johnson was less of a factor (particularly after clashing with Gruden), and while the defense was still solid, the offense regressed. It was more of the same in 2004, with Brad Johnson giving way to Brian Griese at quarterback, WR Joey Galloway replacing Keyshawn Johnson following a trade with the Cowboys, and the defense shedding Sapp and Lynch.

Tampa Bay returned to the postseason in 2005 by topping the NFC South with an 11-5 record thanks to an influx of young talent on offense. Rookie RB Carnell “Cadillac” Williams got off to a sensational start on the way to gaining 1178 yards on the ground and third-year QB Chris Simms grew into the starting role. But the Bucs lost in the first round of the playoffs and fell back to 4-12 in ’06.

Gruden’s last two seasons in Tampa Bay ended with 9-7 records, the first of which earned a division title but again ended with a Wild Card round loss in the postseason. The arrival of veteran QB Jeff Garcia as a free agent helped, but the talented Cadillac Williams was dogged by injuries and once more it was the defense carrying the team.

Gruden was given a contract extension, but didn’t survive when the Bucs missed the playoffs in 2008. He was let go, along with his hand-picked GM, Bruce Allen. His overall regular season record was 57-55 and Tampa Bay went 3-2 in the playoffs – with all three wins coming in 2002. Moreover, after ’02 the Buccaneers went 45-51 in the regular season (including 9-17 in December) and 0-2 in the postseason. In seven years, the team put together four winning records and qualified for the playoffs three times. Despite the coach’s reputation for developing productive offenses, that was the platoon that was plagued by inconsistency.

As a postscript, the Raiders suffered even more following Gruden’s departure. Following the 2002 AFC Championship season, the team went into steep decline with seven straight losing records before going 8-8 in 2010.