Gruden's leadership keeps banged-up Bucs on course

On Thanksgiving morning, three days before Tampa Bay defeated the Saints to bolster its grip on the NFC South lead, Buccaneers general manager Bruce Allen credited much of the team's success and consistency on the continuity of the coaching staff - in particular, Jon Gruden and his coordinators.

"To have all four of your leaders in place for that amount of time is a special thing," Allen said, referring to Gruden, offensive coordinator Bill Muir, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, and special teams coordinator Richard Bisaccia, who are in their seventh season working together. "The brand of football we preach and want to develop and their leadership is so valuable in so many ways."

No band, it seems, can stay intact forever.

Kiffin, one of the most innovative game-to-game schemers and the engineer of a unit that typically ranks near the top of the NFL, could be leaving the Bucs to join the staff of his son Lane, who Monday was named head coach at the University of Tennessee. Kiffin's departure, if it happens, would not take place until after this season.

It would be a huge loss. Huge.

Yet, if there is an organization and a head coach that have shown - maybe more than ever this season - their chameleon-like adaptability, it's the Buccaneers and Gruden.

While Allen trumpets the Super Bowl XXXVII Lombardi Trophy in the team's facility as evidence of Gruden's best coaching job - the Bucs won the Super Bowl in Gruden's first year following Tony Dungy -- what the stern-jawed, unforgiving Gruden has done in guiding Tampa Bay to the top of the NFL's most competitive division this season is nearly as impressive.

No team has repeated as NFC South champion since the division was created in 2002. Tampa Bay, at 9-3, has positioned itself to become the first, after finishing in first with a 9-7 record in 2007. It would also be the Bucs' third division title in four seasons. Gruden entered the season with a 48-48 record in six seasons with Tampa Bay. He's plus-six now and will finish the season with a positive mark regardless of how things play out over the final month.

"He works hard. It all starts with that. He always has," said Allen, who, until 2004, was with Oakland, where Gruden served as head coach from 1998-2001. "He has a very good ability to adapt on a weekly basis based on what he sees in the opponents and with our team. We've had some weeks where we didn't have a full practice because of injuries and he's been very flexible with how he manages the team."

More than anything strategic, how Gruden has dealt with veterans has set the tone for the way things have unfolded this season. Thirty-three-year-old tailback Warrick Dunn, who has played for Dungy, Dan Reeves, Jim Mora and Bobby Petrino, said Gruden has handled the physical and mental well-being of veterans better than any coach he's been around.

Gruden doesn't push older players too hard but sets expectations for players to push themselves, Dunn said. He also gives vets authority to set player agendas as long as they aren't individual-oriented. With 30-and-over leaders such as Dunn, Jeff Garcia, Derrick Brooks, Ronde Barber and Kevin Carter, all of whom have been to the Pro Bowl, Gruden's policy is carried out without much concern.

"He really takes care of the older guys," Dunn said earlier this season.

The respect that is received and reciprocated by the veterans has trickled down to the abundance of young players on the roster, who've learned that if they do things the right way they'll be granted certain liberties as their careers progress.

Aside from that, there's the football end of things, where Gruden and his staff have been as good as any in the NFL at overcoming obstacles.

The offensive line was depleted early because of injuries, yet Tampa Bay managed to average nearly 22 points in its first six games, four of which were victories, because of a solid balance in the run and pass games - and solid defense.

Gruden also boldly switched quarterbacks from Jeff Garcia to Brian Griese after a season-opening loss to New Orleans. Though it was reported that Gruden made the move because of Garcia's ineffective play, Gruden contends that Garcia wasn't healthy after an injury-plagued preseason and that Griese retained his job because the team won four straight. Winning eased any controversy.

So did Garcia's decision to publicly quell his disappointment, a sign of his professionalism but also a sign of respect toward the guy making the decisions. When Griese was injured in a loss to Denver, Garcia was reinserted and has led Tampa Bay to a 6-1 mark since.

Along the way, there have been more injuries, most notably to the entire stable of fullbacks and tailbacks Dunn and Earnest Graham. Gruden tweaked the offense, his specialty, to feature Garcia and re-born receiving targets Jerramy Stevens and Antonio Bryant during the leanest of times in the offensive backfield.

When players began to heal and defenses figured out what Tampa was trying to do, Gruden re-adjusted back to the running game. Dunn, who was limited for two games because of a pinched nerve in his neck, responded the past two weeks -- both victories -- with 201 yards rushing and receiving.

A good replacement

If Monte Kiffin does leave the Bucs after the season to join his son, Lane, at the University of Tennessee, Tampa Bay won't have to look far for a new defensive coordinator, says Vic Carucci. More ...

With Graham placed on injured reserve Nov. 19 with an ankle injury, Cadillac Williams has been eased back into the offensive flow the past two games. Though necessity forced the issue some, Gruden, along with management and the team's medical staff, took a leap of faith with Williams, who was out for 14 months after suffering a devastating knee injury. The decision, much of which was left to Williams, has looked wise so far as Williams has shown improvement already and fostered optimism that provide a needed element of toughness down the homestretch.

"It's not just player safety and player maintenance but it's coming up with a game plan based on what you have in your deck of cards," said Allen. "We've had a couple games where we could have dressed under the limit because of the injuries, but we've been able to respond and the players have responded in those situations.

"Everything we've done, our players have responded and that goes to the overall philosophy that everything everyone does is what's best for the Buccaneers."

What's best for the Bucs in the eyes of management was making sure Gruden is happy and around for awhile. Tampa Bay signed Gruden and Allen - to three-year contract extensions in January. Allen, who knows Gruden well, scoffed at talk that Gruden might be interested in the Tennessee coaching job that went to Lane Kiffin.

"He's quite happy. When you are one of America's most beautiful people, a lot of people want you," Allen said, slyly recalling that Gruden was once named by People magazine as one of the 50 most beautiful people in America. "He's happy where he's at and we're happy."

Even so, the Buccaneers aren't fully content, yet. In the next two weeks they have key games at Carolina and at Atlanta. Victories over their division foes will seal the fourth NFC South title under Gruden since they would own head-to-head tiebreakers as well as won-loss advantages over each. It would also put them in great position for a first-round bye in the postseason. However, losses to one or both could keep them out of the playoffs altogether.

It might not ruin the job Gruden has done but the bar has been set high enough as to where the end result would feel nothing short of disappointment. That's why Gruden continues his habit of arriving at work hours before most other staffers to ensure nothing is missed in preparation.

Said Allen: "I know he's been there awhile when I get there at 6 a.m., and the first thing out of his mouth is, 'Where's lunch?'"

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