LAKE BUENA VISTA — On a brutally hot summer morning, a familiar face stood in the end zone and squinted into the distance.
From where he stood, you wondered if Jon Gruden could see the future.
And if so, could he please let the rest of us in on it?
It was all in front of Gruden Saturday, another team, another season and another chance to alter those widely varied perceptions of him. For Gruden, and for the Bucs, this is where the 2008 season starts, on the freshly mowed grass of a team's first practice.
It was a miserable morning, so hot that the birds flying past smelled like lunchtime at Ya-Ya's, but Gruden seemed happy in his tasks. For a football coach, there is no finer place to be than on a field. As Gruden bounded around the field, wading through the drills, barking at the mistakes, you could not help but notice that, even after all this time, his energy has not faded.
This was the sight of a man in his element. Outside the lines, there are rumors and questions, controversies and criticism. Inside, there is football, and the sight of a team taking the first steps of a seasonlong journey.
When it is over, who knows what you will think of Gruden.
Just a guess, but it will probably have something to do with the team's final record.
When it comes to Gruden, of course, opinions seem to fluctuate. Over his time in Tampa Bay, Gruden has been the favorite son and the disappointing guru, the conquering hero and the one to blame. He has been slapped on the shoulder, and he has had his feet held to the fire.
This is Gruden's seventh season here (his 11th as an NFL head coach), and as such, there has been a lot of time for a lot of very strong opinions about him to form. In his six previous seasons, three have ended with a division title, and three have ended with a losing record. Given that, it's fair to say that no one is going to agree on Gruden until there is a little more year-to-year consistency.
The search for that began Saturday, too.
"I like this team," said Gruden, who turns 45 on Aug. 17. "I really do. You go through our meeting rooms, and you see Warrick Dunn with our running backs, and you see Jeff Garcia working with our young quarterbacks, and you see Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard with our wide receivers. You see Kevin Carter working with the defensive linemen and Derrick Brooks with the linebackers and Ronde Barber with the secondary.
"I'm charged up over taking another run at this. Hopefully, we can have a lot of fun."
For Gruden, the feel has to be different than a year ago, when the world seemed to be measuring the size of his neck. Coming off a 4-12 season, Gruden was one of the coaches thought to be in danger of losing his job. This year? A recent poll had a dozen NFL coaches listed as being more at risk than Gruden. That's what a playoff spot, and a new contract, will do for a coach.
Gruden seems to understand. On Friday, when all the chatter was going on about Brett Favre, someone asked him how Garcia was responding to the reports.
Gruden paused. Then he grinned and said, "Bill Cowher is out there, too."
In other words, there is pressure on everyone.
"Sometimes, heat and pressure is a good thing," Gruden said.
Ah, you say. But this year, there isn't a lot of heat on Gruden.
"I put it on myself," he said. "I consider this job to be a great responsibility."
He has been at it for a while now. Only Denver's Mike Shanahan, New England's Bill Belichick, Tennessee's Jeff Fisher, Philadelphia's Andy Reid and Seattle's Mike Holmgren have been with their current team longer than Gruden. Yeah, he has changed some over the years.
"I've probably changed a lot," Gruden said. "I've learned a lot. You can't do this for a period of time and not let your experiences teach you. There have been a lot of experiences and a lot of changes. That's life. You can't stay the same and survive. You can't have a car that runs 4-5 miles to the gallon unless you've got a lot of money to spend on gas. Times change. You have to adjust."
General manager Bruce Allen describes Gruden like this:
"You ask people what you would do if you couldn't do what you are doing now. Jon would say, 'Coach.' And you would say, 'No, you're already a coach. What else?' And Jon would say, 'The coach of another sport.'
"That's Jon. He loves being a coach."
For Gruden, the heavy work began Saturday. This year, you would like to see Gruden's offense be more productive. You would like to see his young players realize the potential they have flashed. You would like to see a second good season in a row.
Eventually, you wouldn't mind seeing another playoff victory or two, either.
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