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Jon Gruden's firing as Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach is shocking, sudden and understandable

Bucs co-chairman Joel Glazer talks about the firings of coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen in his Tampa office.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Bucs co-chairman Joel Glazer talks about the firings of coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen in his Tampa office.

TAMPA

The picture remains on the wall, his teeth bared, his eyes narrow. And as with everything else in the Jon Gruden era, the image remains open to interpretation.

Was he grimacing in disappointment? After all, he has had enough of those.

Was he exulting in victory? He has had a few of those to spread around, too.

On his way out the door, did Gruden stop to wonder at the photo of himself hanging outside Joel Glazer's office?

Gruden is gone now, along with Bruce Allen, his designated driver of the Bucs franchise. Both were fired, suddenly and shockingly, Friday evening. And as for Tampa Bay, an area that never has been able to agree on Gruden's merit, all that remains is the argument over whether the dismissals came too early or too late.

Never has there been such a polarizing coach in Tampa Bay, partly because no coach here has ever mixed so many pretty good seasons with so many pretty bad ones. Gruden's backers will tell you he won a Super Bowl, and his bashers will tell you he hasn't been close to another one. His backers will tell you about three division titles, and his critics will tell you about three losing seasons. And so it has gone for most of Gruden's tenure.

For all the bad and all the good, Gruden came to the end of his playbook Friday. In a move no one outside the Glazer dinner table seemed to see coming, the Glazers announced it was time for a change.

It wasn't time last year, after the Bucs had essentially the same season.

Not three weeks ago, when the season ended.

It was Friday. Just in time for Jeopardy.

The staggering part of the firing is that no one saw it coming. Over the years, it seems, the Glazers have learned to keep things quiet. If you remember, when Tony Dungy was cut loose, everyone in the world seemed aware it was about to happen but Dungy.

Back then, the Bucs' assistant coaches were getting calls from around the league. This time, nothing. It was as if the NFL assumed that last year's contract extension would keep Gruden safe for another year.

If you are looking for evidence to support firing Gruden, there is plenty. His ballyhooed offense never got better, and young players did not seem to develop, and he changed quarterbacks the way some people change shirts.

After a while, you could predict the future. The Bucs were going to reinvent themselves every year, and it would always seem that 9-7 was in reach but 11-5 was never a possibility. The most frustrating thing was that next year never seemed to have more promise than the previous year.

In other words, it wasn't this season's collapse that doomed Gruden. It was the gnawing suspicion that next season wouldn't be much different.

If anyone should have known the penalty for getting stuck on a plateau, it should have been Gruden. He replaced Dungy, a coach who had made the playoffs three out of four seasons. Gruden, 45, had missed them three out of four seasons.

And guess what? Turns out, the Glazers are still paying attention. In a strange way, that might have been the best part of the firing. Lately, there have been questions of whether the Glazers care as much as they used to care. There have been questions about how much money they were willing to spend.

For whatever reason it was made, this move did not come cheap. It will take a lot of millions — as much as 25, according to speculation — to buy out Gruden and Allen. It's doubtful this move will sell that many skyboxes.

"We were extremely frustrated (at the end of the season)," executive vice president Joel Glazer said. "The losses are as hard today as they were 14 years ago, and the way the season ended obviously was terribly disappointing. But you know, it's not just one thing. It's four losses at the end of the season. It's look at our franchise and see where we are and where we want to go.

"I know one thing. I know from our standpoint, we're as committed as we've ever been to doing what it takes to win, and we stand ready, willing and able at any time — if we think there are players who can help us win a championship — to open up the checkbook and do it."

It was Friday night, and Glazer sat in a plush chair in an elegant office, talking about the direction of a franchise, and core beliefs, and the expectations of competing for championships. Once, he said, he didn't think the community's standards were high enough. Now, he said, they are.

"Fans expect a championship, and we expect a championship," Glazer said.

Once, Gruden seemed like a good step toward it. As of Friday, he seemed a long way away from it. He was the right man at the right time; he just ran out of it.

Look, Gruden will get another job if he wants one. It's a 32-team league, and frankly, there aren't 32 deserving head coaches. If he wants, Gruden will be terrific as a television analyst.

Around here, the question is his legacy. How should Gruden be remembered?

Eventually, it will be as the guy who gave the Bucs their final push toward the Super Bowl. He's one of the statues in the lobby. As memories go, that's not bad.

There were other factors with Gruden, however. With him, the Bucs were less friendly, less open. And for some reason, Gruden always seemed to have a feud going, with Keyshawn Johnson, with Rich McKay, with Chris Simms, with Jeff Garcia.

Eventually, most of them got the hook.

Friday, the hook came for Gruden.

Jon Gruden

by the numbers

7 Seasons as

Bucs coach

57-55 Regular-season record

0 Bucs coaches who have more regular-season wins

16-22 Record in December and January, including playoff games

3 Playoff wins in 2002, his first season, including Super Bowl XXXVII

0 Playoff wins in two appearances since the Super Bowl

20 Average NFL rank of his offenses

9 Quarterbacks started

Jon Gruden's firing as Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach is shocking, sudden and understandable 01/16/09 [Last modified: Friday, January 16, 2009 11:41pm]

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