TAMPA — There are no second chances when it comes to first impressions, so Jon Gruden made sure to maximize his with newly acquired tight end Ben Troupe.
As free agency began at midnight on Feb. 29, the Bucs coach seemingly had his finger poised to pull the trigger. His weapon of choice was a telephone.
"He called me at 11:01 because we're an hour behind in Tennessee," said Troupe, a one-time Gators standout from Augusta, Ga., and now former Titan. "I'm a humble guy by nature, and it really humbled me to have a guy with his clout call me. It was a no-brainer."
Gruden is labeled as a lover of quarterbacks, but rarely has he seen a tight end he couldn't use. Troupe would like to believe the Bucs felt so strongly about signing him because of his ability to do all of the things Gruden will ask of his tight ends.
"The best tight ends in the league are the guys who don't come off the field," said Troupe, 25, who on March 10 signed a two-year contract. "The tight end wants to be called upon no matter what. If it's fourth and 1 and everyone knows we're going to run, you want to have your hand down on the ground. That's just as pivotal as catching the ball.
"I want to be a guy who's called upon to do both (block and catch). & I don't want to be a one-dimensional guy."
Gruden clearly doesn't consider him to be that.
He made a couple of calls after kicking off the courtship. One came during Troupe's visit to Buffalo the week before he signed with Tampa Bay. It turned out the call was particularly well-timed.
"I got kind of fooled," Troupe said. "It was like 60 degrees the day that I got there. And then the next day, it was like 10.
"But the funny thing was when I got to the airport, Gruden had called me and left me a message. He said, 'I know you're in Buffalo. You don't want to go to Buffalo. I know I'm better competition. I'm looking out my window, and I see sunny skies.' ''
What Troupe, 6 feet 4, 270 pounds, seeks more than a change in climate is an expanded role. He longs to get back to the success of his first two seasons, when he was featured in the Tennessee offense. He caught a combined 88 passes for 859 yards in 2004 and 2005. His production dipped markedly the next two seasons to a combined 18 catches for 197 yards, he says, for good reasons.
The Titans' "quarterback carousel" played a role, Troupe said, as the team shuffled through Billy Volek, Kerry Collins and Vince Young.
"You take Billy Volek out three days before the (2006) season and Kerry Collins comes in, and he's learning the offense on the fly," Troupe said. "It was an unfair situation. Then you take him out and put a rookie quarterback (Young) in, and he's trying to find his way.
"Then going into the next year, obviously, Vince Young was more comfortable with certain players. And anything that's going to make him more comfortable is going to be (supported) by the team."
Troupe says he also lacked the support of offensive coordinator Norm Chow, who was fired after last season and now holds the same post at UCLA.
"No offense to Norm Chow, but he wasn't making the transition from one year to the next. That's why he's back in college," Troupe said.
"I appreciate him regardless. He didn't like me. It had to be bigger than football."
Troupe envisions no such issues in Tampa. Jeff Garcia is the unquestioned starter. The coach, from all appearances, is glad to have him. He feels as though his career has been reborn.
"I've gotten four years under my belt, so I know what it takes to play on this level. I'm going to have a head coach who's going to push me like I've never been pushed. I don't accept mediocrity, and I know he doesn't accept mediocrity. To me, we already share the same mind-set.
"The sky is the limit."
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected]