Roadkill, he called them. In the best of times, I am sure, Jon Gruden meant it in the best of all possible ways.
It was Gruden's pet phrase for the recycled players of the NFL, those fallen stars who had been given up on by one team or another. They were the discarded athletes looking for another chance to erase the disappointment on their resumes.
Rich Gannon was one of them, along with Brian Griese. Antonio Bryant was one of them, along with Joey Galloway. Todd Steussie aspired to be one, along with Darrell Russell. Throughout his career, Gruden latched onto such players as if they were old trading cards. Now, Gruden is one of them.
He, too, has been left by the side of the road.
He, too, has to be wondering what is next.
Oh, Gruden will get another shot. Of course he will. Whether you thought Gruden was fired one year too early or two years too late, you understand the way things work in the NFL. Sooner or later, some owner will be impressed by the weight of his resume, the size of his playbook and an uncanny resemblance to his grandson's Chucky Doll, and he will turn his team over to Gruden.
Around here, people will notice. In Tampa Bay — and I suspect Gruden noticed this — fans tend to keep up with their old coaches. Personally, I can't wait for someone to suggest that Raheem Morris is succeeding with Gruden's old players.
For Gruden, however, the questions are different.
What happens next? What, if anything, did the Tampa Bay experience teach Gruden? (Except, perhaps, not to hang around the office on a Friday afternoon.)
This, too, is where Gruden has something in common with the reclamation projects he employed. Like them, he was once a rising star in this league. Like them, he has heard the talk change from his knowledge and his energy to that of his flaws and his underachievement. Like them, he has a little reassessing to do.
That's the hard part, isn't it? It is easy to blame owners or players or the front office or injuries or officials or the weather or the bounce of the ball. Self-evaluation is a little trickier. First thing first, Gruden needs a strong general manager.
I know, I know. By and large, Gruden hates a strong general manager. It makes two men miserable. It drove him crazy when Rich McKay was in the next room, and it drove him crazier when Al Davis — who owned the team — was over his shoulder. Still, those seasons were the best Gruden ever had.
The longer a man coaches, the more power he wants. With Gruden, it should be the opposite. He should insist on the structure. The most consistent franchises in the NFL — the Steelers, the Patriots, the Colts — have a little teamwork in their front office.
Second, Gruden needs to work harder on his relationship with his players.
Perhaps it didn't surprise anyone when Simeon Rice criticized Gruden. Or Warren Sapp. Or Michael Clayton. Or Jeff Garcia. It was strange, however, that players didn't offer any more than lukewarm defense of Gruden. Shouldn't someone be outraged? Hello? Anyone?
It's an odd thing, because when you talk to Gruden, he can be funny and insightful. For some reason, however, not many of Gruden's players warm to him, and for those who do, it doesn't last.
Oh, and stop with the feuds, Jon. Keyshawn Johnson, Keenan McCardell, Clayton, Chris Simms and Garcia had this in common: They were on your side.
Next bit of advice: Gruden told ESPN that Simms was the only young quarterback he had to work with. Nice strategy there. If I were Gruden, I would continue to deny I had even heard of Bruce Gradkowski.
What else? For one thing, you should understand the deal. Yes, you were one of seven teams that have had back-to-back winning seasons. On the other hand, the guy you replaced, Tony Dungy, had five straight seasons where he wasn't below .500. And while it is true, as your defenders have pointed out, that you were replaced by a 32-year-old who has never been a head coach, let's remember that you once replaced Joe Bugel when you were a 35-year-old who had never been a head coach.
Oh, and there is this. Never, ever start a sentence with, "Not to make any excuses, but … " From that point on, you are officially making excuses.
Final bit of advice: Choose wisely. Take one of those cushy studio analyst jobs, though you might want to hurry, because the set of most pregame shows is starting to look like da Vinci's portrait of the The Last Supper.
Pay attention to the Cowboys job. They just might be ripe enough that a burst of energy could push them over the top. Maybe the Chargers job. Whatever happens, do not accept calls from the Bengals or Lions.
And hang in there. Bill Belichick, Marv Levy and Mike Shanahan all reinvented themselves after getting fired.
Next time, maybe it will be better. Next time, maybe the success will last.