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JUDGE: Bucs hit paydirt with Gruden
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Updated Jun 2, 2014 1:46 PM ET
The Tampa Bay Bucs won in the cold. They did it in Philadelphia. And they did it in the playoffs. Now, they're going to their first Super Bowl, and suddenly the club and its owners look like geniuses for buckling under to Oakland's ransom demands for Jon Gruden. Yes, it was almost a year ago that Tampa Bay sent the
four draft picks two first-rounders and two seconds plus $8 million to pry Gruden loose as a head coach. It was the stiffest price ever paid for a head coach, and the Bucs caved in because they were desperate. They wanted someone to take them to the Super Bowl. Well, congratulation, guys. You have him. With Sunday's 27-10 victory over Philadelphia, the Bucs did the unimaginable. They not only broke a four-game slide against the
including three consecutive losses at The Vet where they failed to score an offensive touchdown but they also have ventured deeper in the playoffs than ever before. John McKay never reached a Super Bowl; neither did Tony Dungy. I guess we don't have to ask if the price was right for Gruden. "Obviously, he was worth all the picks they gave up," wide receiver
said. "He did a whole lot from an offensive standpoint. Sometimes the way a coach prepares things gets you over the top. It's not always the scheme." There are a myriad of examples, and let's start with quarterback
's decision to wear gloves for the NFC championship game. Actually, it wasn't Johnson's decision; it was Gruden's, and he was insistent because he worried that his quarterback might have trouble gripping slick footballs in the cold. "If you don't wear them," Gruden told his quarterback Saturday, "I'm going to strap you down and put them on."
I think it's fair to say that wouldn't have happened a year ago, and that's not a knock on Gruden's predecessor, Tony Dungy. Tampa wouldn't be where it is today without Dungy, who brought respectability to a floundering franchise with four playoff appearances in six years. But Tampa never got further than one NFC championship game, and it failed to score a touchdown in Dungy's last three postseason appearances including last year's 31-9 finale at Philadelphia. That's why Gruden was brought in, only he was charged to go a step further. The playoffs didn't matter; the Super Bowl did. But to get there, something had to be done with an offense that ranked 26th in yardage, including 30th in passing, and was 15th in scoring. Gruden started slowly, losing his opener to New Orleans, then sputtering in where else? Philadelphia in October when linebacker
produced the Bucs' only touchdown. Typical. But shortly after midseason the offense started to come around, with quarterback
playing the best ball of his 11-year career and a struggling line coming together in time for its biggest game of the year. Over his last eight starts, Johnson has 18 touchdown passes, three interceptions and two playoff wins including a game Sunday where he threw for 259 yards and wasn't sacked once. Contrast that to what happened three months earlier, when he had no touchdowns, threw for a season-low 124 yards and was sacked a season-high five times in a 20-10 loss to the
. "It's kind of like that movie, 'The Wizard of Oz,'" said Gruden. "Ding-dong the witch is dead. We won a cold game again; a road playoff game; and we scored a touchdown here at the Vet. So, hopefully, some of those stories will go away." The Bucs won as they haven't before, with offense. Overcoming a 7-0 deficit in the first minute, they scored on three of their first five possessions including a 96-yard drive that featured a 71-yard catch-and-run by
. That play led to a
touchdown which, in turn, broke Tampa's touchdown drought here. But it did more than that: It gave the Bucs the confidence that was missing before. And we saw it two series later when, on a third-and-goal from the
scored on a slant over the middle. It looked so easy, yet let me ask you: When did you see that before this season? "We would have
in the past have done that," said Johnson. "Nothing against coach Dungy. But that wasn't the philosophy." Of course, offense wasn't Dungy's strength, either. It was defense, and nobody played it better than Tampa which came this close to toppling mighty St. Louis in the 1999 NFC championship game. Still, that wasn't enough to save Dungy, and lucky for Tampa it didn't work out when it tried to hire Steve Mariucci a year ago.
"Coach Gruden throws the football down the field," Johnson said. "He takes chances. What you guys may see as a 'vertical-passing game' for us, we don't see it that way. You guys see vertical as deep bombs down the sideline. We don't. We see 'vertical' like one pass (a 22-yarder) I caught in the middle of the field. In the past we didn't do that. We just kind of ran the ball to Alstott, and that was about it." But times changed, and the Bucs changed with them. They scored four touchdowns in the first half against San Francisco, more than in any playoff game in their history. Then they scored 17 of the last 20 points against Philadelphia, and, yeah, I know their defense played lights out, and I know it was cornerback
who was magnificent, with a forced fumble and a game-clinching 92-yard interception return. But, remember, defense never was the problem with Tampa. It was offense. There simply wasn't enough to go beyond Philadelphia. "Coach brought an aggressive attitude to our offense," said Brooks, "and more of a personality to our offense than it had in the past. And he got players in here who believed in the ways he did things on offense, so the guys started clicking from the offensive line to the receivers. "Today was a product of those guys getting better with the offensive line not giving up any sacks after being called underachievers all week, and the receivers making big catches against a secondary which is probably the best in the league. We finished off drives with scores, and, as a defensive player, that gets your motor going." So we noticed. In the Oct. 20 loss, Johnson had only four completions over 10 yards and none longer than 18. On Sunday, he had completions of 71, 31 and 22 yards in the first half alone. That's what Tampa Bay envisioned when it went fishing for Gruden, and that's why owner Malcolm Glazer suddenly looks like William Gates. Yeah, he paid a lot for the guy. But don't bother asking anyone in the organization if it was worth it. You should know better. "This is probably the greatest day of my life," said Gruden. "I didn't really care how I got here. I really didn't have control how I got here. I realize I succeeded a man that did a great job here and a hard guy to replace in Tony Dungy. I realize it would be hard to live up to expectations I came in here under, but I credit every one of the coaches and players for giving me an opportunity to come in here and succeed a guy in a situation that was controversial and sensitive among our players. Every coach that's hired in football that I know of is brought there to win championships, and our situation in Tampa is no different." Yes, it is. The Bucs finally have a chance to do it.
Clark Judge can be reached at his e-mail address,
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