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Buccaneers Use Sneer Campaign

Pro football: It won't be child's play, but pressure is squarely on Gruden to take Tampa Bay to the next level.

September 08, 2002|SAM FARMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dr. Jim Gruden traveled to Florida's Gulf Coast a few weeks ago to spend some time with his younger brother, Jon, new coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The brothers got that time. All two minutes of it.

"When he was with Oakland, Jon could find places where people didn't know who he was, or didn't care," said Jim, a radiologist at Emory University in Atlanta. "In Tampa, if he goes out anywhere, he's accosted. The people are great--they just want to wish him well or have him sign something--but it's just part of conversing with Jon; there's going to be an interruption in the middle of every sentence."

Sometimes, folks just want to see him sneer. Gruden's scowl is his trademark and in Oakland earned him the nickname "Chucky," a reference to the character in the "Child's Play" horror movies. One of the more popular Chucky T-shirts in Tampa--and they're everywhere--reads, "Got Gruden?" on the front and "We Do" on the back, with a picture of Chucky wearing earphones. At one store featuring Buccaneer gear, customers get discounts if they flash Gruden grimaces, mimicking the look he strikes on the cover of last week's Sports Illustrated.

"I went to an Orlando Predator game to see my brother play," said Gruden, whose younger brother, Jay, is the coach-turned-quarterback of that Arena Football League team. "I hear this, 'Chucky, Chucky, Chucky!' I turn around and give him one of these [raising one eyebrow, lowering the other], and they went crazy."

Gruden can make his eyebrows dance, but he has very little wiggle room when it comes to winning. His predecessor, Tony Dungy, now coaching the Indianapolis Colts, led the Buccaneers to the playoffs four times in the last five seasons and built a defense that was among the best in the league. A lot of Tampa Bay players didn't want to see him go, and the situation got particularly embarrassing and awkward when Bill Parcells turned down an offer to replace him. The Buccaneers wound up spending four high draft picks--two first-rounders and two second-rounders--and $8 million to pry Gruden loose from Oakland, where the Raiders had him under contract for a final season. His Tampa Bay contract reportedly will pay him $17.5 million over five years.

Gruden was 40-28 in four seasons with the Raiders, and led them to the playoffs the last two seasons, after a six-year drought. But his relationship with Raider owner Al Davis steadily deteriorated, and the two barely spoke for the better part of last season. Even now, Gruden sidesteps questions about the Raiders or his dealings with Davis, although a source close to Gruden said the coach "just felt he wasn't dealt with honestly."

The reluctance of Davis and Gruden to talk about their tension has left the feud open to speculation. It had to bother Davis that Gruden had become the face of the organization. TV cameras that used to turn to Davis clutching his towel in the owner's suite were turned to an even more compelling subject, the growling coach on the sideline.

This summer, those cameras were focused on Gruden again, as he put his new team through the paces at training camp. The whole operation was moved from the University of Tampa to Walt Disney World in Orlando, where thousands of fans showed up to watch every session.

Gruden kept Dungy's entire defensive staff, and 10 of 11 starters are back for a defense that finished sixth in the league last season. Naturally, the changes have been on offense, which ranked 26th in 2001. Gruden added several experienced free agents such as receivers Keenan McCardell and Joe Jurevicius, both of whom should take pressure off Keyshawn Johnson, the team's only reliable receiver last season; tight ends Ken Dilger and Marco Battaglia, tackles Lomas Brown and Roman Oben, and former Buffalo quarterback Rob Johnson.

"[Gruden] didn't just do things haphazardly," safety John Lynch said. "He came in here, analyzed things and put together a plan. It was incredible to sit back and watch how he and [General Manager] Rich McKay just started putting the pieces together, one by one, guys who would fit his offense."

That said, Lynch and others think it's absurdly unrealistic to see the new system as some kind of miracle cure for a team whose offense has struggled for years.

"The buildup is particularly hard on Jon because people have the assumption that the team is supposed to go to the Super Bowl," Jim Gruden said. "Somehow, people are making this assumption that they had some sort of moron in Tony Dungy. It's crazy; the guy was a really good coach. And Jon's system is not one that people grasp overnight."

Expectations were unbelievably high five seasons ago too, when Gruden made his head-coaching debut with the Raiders.

Two 8-8 seasons later, after Gruden had the players he needed and his system had begun to take hold, he led the Raiders to consecutive appearances in the AFC playoffs, where they lost to eventual Super Bowl winners Baltimore and New England.

That an offensive turnaround takes time is not lost on Tampa Bay's players.

"This thing was built on defense," defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "And if we don't realize that, we're the stupidest bunch of 11 guys that's ever played in this league.

"We're not going to rest on our laurels and say we've been one of the better defenses in this league for the last six or seven years. That's not our mentality."

Every season, the Buccaneers are at the center of Super Bowl talk. But this year, players clearly are making an effort to downplay expectations, probably at the behest of Gruden. After all, if this team hits a rough patch and, say, loses two consecutive games, the coach won't be the only one sneering.

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