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NFC TAMPA BAY REPORT

Gruden Bridged the Gap

January 23, 2003|Steve Springer and Bill Dwyre | Times Staff Writers

SAN DIEGO — When Tony Dungy was fired at the end of last season by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, his players were shocked and apprehensive. That's an understandable reaction to the termination of a popular coach who has taken a team to the playoffs three consecutive seasons.

So when Jon Gruden arrived, it would have been understandable if he had been met with skepticism and bitterness, a selling job to be done with his players.

Gruden sold himself all right, from the moment the Buccaneers met him.

"It was the way he stood in front of us and talked," said Tampa Bay defensive lineman Warren Sapp. "He told us, 'You guys have played excellent defense around here. What you did with Tony was great, but we've got to take it a step further.' If he told me to jump off the Walt Whitman Bridge, I'd have to check it out.

"You have got to understand that [Gruden and Dungy] are night and day when it comes to how they approach the game and how they approach players. Their philosophy toward winning is pretty much the same, but [Gruden] is a lot more lively. He's like a little battery. We just tap him and away we go."

Gruden tries to downplay the idea he had instant impact.

"I'm still working on earning the players' respect," he said. "You don't just show up, throw a playbook at them and say, 'Let's go.' I'm still trying to fill the big shoes left behind and I will probably never fill them."

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Tampa Bay safety John Lynch, who comes from a wealthy family, was asked for the biggest hardship he suffered as a youth.

"My father," he said, "took my surfboard away from me for two summers."

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Sadly, for sportswriters, there is only one Keyshawn Johnson. He is to talking what a fish is to swimming.

Wednesday, while holding court for some grateful reporters, he went on the following illogical, wandering and completely entertaining discourse:

"I'm always getting criticized about talking too much about myself. Well, what you guys don't understand is that when I say 'me' I mean 'we.'

"I never said I want the ball more. You guys just wrote that, but I never said it. But let's say I did. Let's say I told Jon Gruden I want the ball. I would be saying that because I want to help the team. It would be about team, not me.

"If it is third and eight, you can ask my teammates if they want me to get the ball. Of course they will. What am I supposed to say? Hey, it's OK. I really don't want it. Let somebody else have it. How do you think my teammates would feel about that. See, it's not about me, it's about we.

"Besides, you've got to believe in yourself. 'Me' has got to be important. I feel, in my heart, that if I went to the Cincinnati Bengals tomorrow, that we'd get to the playoffs.

"You guys ask me why this team talks so much, is so loose with our lips. Well, it's because we don't know any better. We haven't been here before. We're excited, arrogant, cocky. Whatever words you want to use. And I'm fine with that. That's you guys' job. I'm very educated in journalism. I like you guys. It's fun when you're around, and I understand the job you have to do.

"The stuff I don't like is those ESPN guys who sit there behind the desk. They're a bunch of guys who almost made it as jocks but never quite did, so they talk like they know. And they don't.

"When I was in high school [in L.A.], I only thought about the Raiders. I never thought about the Rams, until J.R. [John Robinson] took over. Before that, who were the guys, [Ray] Malavasi and Chuck Knox? I wanted none of those guys. Boring stuff."

So there.

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