Give Gruden some credit for Bucs' turnaround

The bar was immediately set high. Probably too high.

One season as coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, one Super Bowl victory.

Where was Jon Gruden supposed to go after that?

Well, in the NFL, he was supposed to win a second Super Bowl. And perhaps a third. He was supposed to collect -- or at least compete for -- however many Vince Lombardi Trophies that the magical touch he had seemingly brought with him from Oakland in 2002 could produce.

It didn't work that way.

For Gruden, it was virtually all downhill for the next four seasons -- 7-9 in 2003, followed by 5-11 in 2004. He did go 11-5 in 2005, but the Buccaneers were one-and-done in the playoffs.

No one was talking about Gruden's magical touch after last year's 4-12 disaster. The discussion around the league mostly centered on whether the Super Bowl triumph was a fluke, maybe a product of simply inheriting a good team from the ever-popular Tony Dungy (who would eventually win a Super Bowl of his own with Indianapolis), and whether Gruden would keep his job beyond the 2007 season.

The verdict is in: Gruden is safe for another year.

From Super Bowl champ to survivor. That's how quickly fortunes can change in the NFL.

But Gruden, whose team faces the New York Giants in a wild-card game Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, has done much more than survive. In what might very well have been the best coaching job of his career, he has led the Bucs to a 9-7 record and third division championship in his six seasons at a helm.

Consider how much Gruden achieved with how little he had. The Bucs didn't place a single player in the Pro Bowl. They suffered injuries to key starters, leaving them dangerously thin at positions such as running back and offensive tackle. They had a new quarterback, Jeff Garcia, who is on his fifth NFL team and for whom Gruden agreed to switch to a shotgun formation. Their most explosive offensive weapon, receiver Joey Galloway, is 36 years old.

Bill Belichick was the runaway choice for Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year, thanks to New England's historic 16-0 record, but Gruden deserved greater consideration than the single vote he received from a national media panel.

With a large question mark hovering over the Bucs' quarterback position after Chris Simms' season-ending spleen injury last year, Gruden took the biggest step toward righting his ship by acquiring Garcia. Finally, he knew he had a quarterback who thoroughly understood his West Coast offense as well as he did. Gruden also gave Garcia an even better chance to excel by allowing him to work from the shotgun, something to which the coach had been philosophically opposed. Garcia responded by consistently making big plays while also taking good care of the football (which went a long way toward allowing the Buccaneers to have a plus-15 turnover ratio).

Then came the injuries.

The Bucs overcame the two-game loss of Garcia to a sore back when Gruden surprisingly chose Luke McCown, who hadn't played since the preseason, to be his starter over Bruce Gradkowski, who had been his No. 2 quarterback.

When the injury bug struck at offensive tackle, little known Donald Penn was called upon to take over. And he did remarkably well.

Even more impressive, however, was the way the Bucs overcame running back injuries, including one to Carnell "Cadillac" Williams. Earnest Graham, who had been a third-stringer and special-teams ace, stepped in and performed like a star.

Many observers of the Bucs and around the league have credited Gruden with doing a better job of adapting to change after hitting rock-bottom in Tampa Bay last season. Ronde Barber, the Buccaneers' standout cornerback, told reporters in Tampa Bay that Gruden has "grown up" as a coach and has demonstrated a greater willingness to lean on veteran players during the struggles brought on by injuries.

Gruden doesn't buy any of that, which is hardly a surprise. No one places greater pressure on himself than the man nicknamed "Chucky" for his many facial contortions that make him resemble a certain fictional doll that doesn't play so nice.

"You go into it every year the same," Gruden said. "You work hard and get what you deserve. We got a lot better football team coming into it this year than we did last year, and the players deserve the credit."

Actually, so does the coach.

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