Saturday, January 17, 2009

Anatomy of Jon Gruden's Dismissal

By JC De La Torre

Many pundits and fans around the league were shocked when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers terminated Head Coach Jon Gruden and General Manager Bruce Allen in favor of a 32 year old coach who has never been a head coach at any level and a 37 year old General Manager who has never held that position before. While news of Gruden's dismissal sent shockwaves throughout the community, it wasn't an "Oh my God, how could they do this?" type reaction. It was more of a "Why the heck did they take so long to do it?"

True enough, the seeds of this outcome were planted long ago and it had to be done if the Buccaneers were going to sniff another Super Bowl. Only time will tell if Morris and Dominik were the right choices to succeed but both are highly regarded in NFL circles and among players on the team. The latter may have doomed Gruden and as with guilt by association, Bruce Allen.

To understand the firing of Jon Gruden, you have to go back to the very beginning. It was January 2002 and the Buccaneers had just fired Tony Dungy after the team posted their second consecutive 9-7 season and for the second straight year getting blasted out of the playoffs by the Philadelphia Eagles. Dungy was let go because the Glazers had a deal with Bill Parcells, who was already putting together a staff. Bill Muir was hired as his offensive line coach, while Mike Tannanbaum (current Jets GM) was scheduled to take over as General Manager. Somewhere along the line, Tannanbaum and Parcells got a look at the Buccaneers salary cap situation and quickly came to the realization that Tampa Bay's window of opportunity for a championship was rapidly closing. Parcells reneged on the deal, sending Joel and Bryan Glazer on a wild odyssey that spanned the country. At first, they trusted sitting General Manager Rich McKay to lead the coaching search but when McKay brought the name Marvin Lewis as his choice for the job, the Glazers all but neutered McKay - eliminating him from the coaching search process. It was nothing against Lewis, but the Glazers wanted an offensive minded head coach and viewed Lewis as a Dungy clone. They inquired about Spurrier at Florida, but Spurrier had already secured a lucrative deal in place with Washington Redskins. They talked to Maryland Head Coach Ralph Friedgen and new USC coach Pete Carroll. They inquired with the Raiders about Gruden but were told he wasn't available. On Feb. 18, 2002, while on a trip to speak with 49ers coach Steve Mariucci, Joel Glazer received a late night call from Raiders owner Al Davis. Davis told him that they could have Gruden, but the price would be steep - two first round picks, two second round picks, and eight million dollars. Joel swallowed hard, accepted the terms and Jon Gruden was introduced as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the next day. During the press conference, Gruden irked some fans by mispronouncing fan favorite Mike Alstott's name, calling him "Mark Alstott".

Gruden's fiery demeanor and offensive prowess were a stark contrast to Tony Dungy's style. It was a cultural shock to the defense that had pretty much been the whole show in Tampa Bay. Monte Kiffin was retained and Raheem Morris joined the team as Defensive Quality Control Coach. Morris learned under the wing of defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin and the mad genius himself, Kiffin. Gruden meanwhile brought something that had never been seen in Tampa Bay under Dungy, accountability for the offense. Gruden added some pieces to the puzzle, like wide receivers Keenan McCardell and Joe Jurevicius, running back Michael Pittman, tight end Ken Dilger - in all several new offensive starters joined the club. Holdover Quarterback Brad Johnson wasn't Gruden's style of quarterback but he adjusted his massive playbook to accommodate Johnson's limitations. Loudmouth Wide Receiver Keyshawn Johnson was given a prime role in the offense. Gruden's 2002 Bucs rolled to the NFC South title in the division's inaugural season, boasting a franchise best 12-4 record and earning a first round bye. The Buccaneers blasted San Francisco in the divisional round and went back to Philadelphia to face their old foes, the Eagles, in the final game ever to be played in Veterans Stadium. A tremendous defensive effort in addition to just enough offense from the Johnsons, Jurevicius and fullback Mike Alstott got the Bucs over the hump and they claimed their first NFC Championship. Amazingly, Gruden's former team, the Raiders, won the AFC. The team had promoted from within, giving the reigns to Bill Callahan who essentially kept Gruden's playbook intact. Gruden was a master at preparing the Bucs defense to face the powerful Oakland offense and when the Bucs thrashed the Raiders in Super Bowl 37, he was on top of the world.

The bloom would fall off the rose quickly. During the March 2003 owners meetings, a drunken Gruden trashed General Manager Rich McKay with reporters in earshot, complaining about his draft choices and work ethic. Gruden never acknowledged the incident but there was underlying friction that began to develop. The Bucs opened up 2003 in similar fashion to the way the ended 2002, blasting the Eagles on Monday Night football during the opening of Philly's new stadium Lincoln Financial Field. The Bucs had slayed the Eagle dragon, ruining both their closing and opening of their stadiums and taking a Super Bowl Championship that many believed would belong to Philadelphia but things would not stay hunky dory for the Bucs. In their home opener Week 2, Martin Gramatica missed the game winning extra point against the Carolina Panthers, forcing the game to go to overtime where the Bucs eventually lost. During the game, Tampa Bay lost both Jurevicius (knee) and Alstott (neck) for the season. Tampa Bay would bounce back the next week, crushing Atlanta on the road and came home to face their former coach, Tony Dungy and his Colts on Monday Night football. The Bucs built a 35-14 lead late into the fourth quarter when the Bucs defense suddenly collapsed. Peyton Manning led one of the greatest comebacks in NFL history as the Colts scored 28 points in the final 5 minutes of the game to tie the Bucs at 35 and eventually won the game in overtime. Instead of a strong 3-1, the Bucs had crashing to 2-2. The Bucs would lose four of the next six games, during the slump Gruden had a falling out with Wide Receiver Keyshawn Johnson that ended in his suspension from the team. After Johnson was exorcised, the Bucs rallied with two straight wins to get to 7-7. On December 15, 2003, General Manager Rich McKay resigned due to irreconcilable differences with Gruden and promptly became the Atlanta Falcons President and General Manager. McKay was in the opposing Owner's box at Raymond James Stadium as the Falcons ended the Bucs slim playoff hopes with a 30-28 upset, causing many Buc fans to give him the moniker "Benedict McKay". The Bucs would finish 2003 at 7-9.

The 2004 off-season brought in Bruce Allen, who quickly signed Charlie Garner from the Raiders to a lucrative deal. Garner would play three plays for the Bucs before blowing out his knee and retiring. Wide Receiver Keenan McCardell held out in a contract dispute and was eventually traded to the Chargers. As the Bucs descended into cap hell, Warren Sapp and John Lynch were let go from the defense, much to the dismay of the fanbase. McCardell joined Keyshawn Johnson in claims that "Gruden would tell you one thing but do the opposite, he's fake." Keyshawn was traded to Dallas for oft-injured wide receiver Joey Galloway. Fans grew angry with Gruden for not playing Mike Alstott. Alstott had only 67 carries for 267 yds and 2 touchdowns in 14 games. The Bucs started the season poorly, 0-4, before the benching of Super Bowl winning quarterback Brad Johnson. Johnson would eventually be released. Chris Simms would take over but be injured in his first game, forcing the Bucs to go with Brian Griese at quarterback. Griese went 4-6 as a starter and the Bucs fell to 5-11, their worst record since 1993. Gruden continuously lamented about injuries during the season and it became a broken record throughout the remainder of his tenure. Gruden constantly used injuries as an excuse when his teams lost.

The 2005 season was a renaissance of sorts for Tampa Bay. The Bucs 1st round draft pick, Carnell "Cadillac" Williams burst onto the scene, rushing for more yards in his first three games than any rookie running back in NFL history. Joey Galloway was a force in the offense, terrorizing secondaries with his speed and big play ability. Tampa Bay ripped off four straight wins to begin the year and started off the season 5-1 before starter Brian Griese went down with an injury. Chris Simms stepped in, went 6-5 as the starter, leading the Bucs to the NFC South Division championship. The Bucs lost at home to the Washington Redskins in the first round of the playoffs. Alstott was relegated to 3rd down back status but continued to earn the fans love, converting a game winning two point conversion earlier in the year against Washington. Fans continued to complain that Gruden was ruining Alstott's career.

In 2006, Raheem Morris left the Buccaneers to become Defensive Coordinator at Kansas State. Days later, defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin left to join the Vikings as defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Rod Marinelli took over as head coach of the Detroit Lions. Chris Simms began the season as the starter but started poorly, throwing 7 interceptions and only 1 touchdown in his first three games. In the third game, Simms severely damaged his spleen in a loss to Carolina and had to have an emergency spleenectomy. The Bucs fell apart under rookie 6th round draft pick Bruce Gradkowski who was abysmal, going 3-8 as a starter before finally being relieved by third string QB Tim Rattay and the Bucs fell to 4-12, the franchise's worst record since going 3-13 in 1991. More inner turmoil developed as defensive end Simeon Rice called out Gruden to the press and wide receiver Michael Clayton complained about being told one thing by the coach and something else happens. With the defections of Morris, Marinelli and Tomlin, the Bucs defense fell out of the top 10 for the first time in ten years, finishing 17th in total defense and 21st in points allowed.

During the 2007 off-season, Rice would be dumped just before training camp and the team signed Jeff Garcia as a free agent, and then traded for Denver's Jake Plummer, despite Plummer's assertions that he was going to retire. Gruden and Allen failed to talk Plummer out of retirement. Raheem Morris returned to Tampa Bay as defensive backs coach. Mike Alstott reinjured his neck in the pre-season and was lost for the year. Garcia took over and was 8-5 as a starter. Cadillac Williams suffered a catastrophic knee injury and was lost for the year. Thanks to its #1 ranked defense, Tampa Bay had the division wrapped up on December 2nd, giving Gruden the opportunity to rest his players down the stretch. The Bucs lost three of their last four games and headed into the playoffs with no momentum. The Bucs would be beaten soundly at home in the first round of the playoffs by eventual Super Bowl Champions, the New York Giants.

In the 2008 off-season, Jeff Garcia claimed he was lied to by Gruden and Bruce Allen and was expecting a new lucrative contract. The team flirted with bringing in Brett Favre, further ticking off their quarterback. Mike Alstott retired from football, many fans still blaming Gruden for ruining his career. After failing to secure Favre, Gruden brought back Garcia, who nursed injuries during training camp. Joey Galloway also missed most of camp, creating a huge hole for the Bucs to fill. Galloway had posted three consecutive 1,000 yd receiving years under Gruden, who nicknamed Galloway "The White Tiger" because he was rarely seen during training camp, like the white tigers at Tampa's Busch Gardens. Garcia was benched in favor of Brian Griese after week 1 but Griese's shoulder injury brought the starting job back to Garcia. Tampa Bay rolled to a 9-3 record with a division title and first round bye in sight. Galloway would rarely see the field as tormented reclamation

project Antonio Bryant burst onto the scene and essentially took Galloway's job. Fans complained at Gruden's inability to get Galloway and Bryant on the field at the same time as Gruden said they both play the same position in his offense and he wasn't going to take Bryant off the field. Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin, the heart and soul of the Bucs defense, announced that he would be leaving the Buccaneers after 13 seasons to join his son Lane at the University of Tennessee. As soon as the announcement was made, the defense collapsed and the Buccaneers lost their last four games, including two at home to sub .500 west coast teams and missed the playoffs.

The scuttlebutt is that by 2008, the players - at least on the defensive side of the ball - were not playing for Gruden, but Monte. Once Monte made his intentions known, it was over as far as the Buccaneers defense was concerned. Gruden tried to save the season by naming Raheem Morris as the eventual successor to Kiffin, but it wasn't enough.

The Glazers were disgusted with the way the season ended. After an unsatisfactory exit meeting with Gruden and Allen they decided that rather than make an emotionally rash decision, they would take some time away and let the emotions of the situation subside. During the past three weeks, they talked to players about Gruden and the feedback was not positive. They didn't trust Gruden and didn't believe in him. He was billed as a two-faced ego maniac who held grudges. They again met with Gruden and Bruce Allen - a meeting that led Gruden to believe he'd have one more year to turn things around, but still left unsatisfied with the direction the franchise was headed. Meanwhile, two internal figures they liked very much, Raheem Morris and Mark Dominik, were getting consideration around the league for promotions.

Ultimately, they weren't satisfied with the direction of the franchise. Gruden and Bruce Allen weren't builders - they were patchers. They would find some mid-tier veteran to patch holes to allow the team to remain competitive - but that wasn't going to get you another Super Bowl title. Allen told a reporter that, "December did us in." There are strong indications that the decision was just to fire Jon Gruden but Bruce Allen was so entrenched with Gruden that it made for a very uncomfortable situation and spurred on his dismissal as well.

Time will tell if the Glazer family made the right decision. At the very least, the Glazers reportedly will be paying $25 million dollars over the next 3 years for two front office people not to run their front office. Morris and Dominik will at least have that long to begin the process of building a dominant championship caliber team in Tampa Bay.

Meanwhile, you have to wonder about Gruden's thought process today. He was a Super Bowl Champion coach and that may have inflated his ego a bit. His player relations ultimately brought about his termination and his philosophy of patching instead of building hurt his ability to get the team at championship level. Their inability to draft impact players also hurt the franchise as it continued to tread the water of mediocrity. Will Gruden self-evaluate? Understand what went wrong and learn from it or will he continue to blame others and circumstances?

It will be interesting to see.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very one-side, anti-Gruden.