P aul Gruber had some input about which team the Bucs should honor during halftime today, when he is inducted into the Ring of Honor. The offensive tackle chose the 1997 club, which broke a string of 14 losing seasons and beat the Lions in the division playoffs, the final game at Tampa Stadium.
"Of all the seasons I played, it was the one that was the most satisfying," Gruber said. "It kind of was the turning point in the organization. My contract came up in '96, and I had some choices to make. I remember sitting down with (coach Tony Dungy), and I felt we were on the right path. Everything kind of came together that year."
Like the 1997 team, Gruber is the player to bridge the eras in the Ring of Honor. The fourth overall pick out of Wisconsin in 1988 will be the only player in it who wore both the orange-and-white and red-and-pewter uniforms.
"One of the most memorable games for me was the last game in Tampa Stadium against Detroit in the playoff game," said Gruber, who joins inaugural member Lee Roy Selmon, coach John McKay and TE Jimmie Giles.
"It was just taking that out on a playoff atmosphere with a win. After playing eight or nine years in that stadium and all the things you go through — from an emotional standpoint — it was just cool."
The next season, the Bucs moved into Raymond James Stadium and shed their orange uniforms. Gruber played in 183 consecutive games and, at one time, 4,850 consecutive snaps.
His career ended when he broke his right leg at Chicago's Soldier Field during the final regular-season game of 1999, when the Bucs clinched the NFC Central title. The Bucs could have used him in the NFC title game, which they lost 11-6 to the Rams.
"I guess it was just fate. I pressed my luck too long," Gruber said. "It was at the end of the game. The game was just about out of reach."
Gruber flirted with the idea of returning the next season. But the timetable didn't fit his recovery.
"We were right on the brink of, maybe, getting into a Super Bowl," Gruber said.
"I don't think I would've been ready to play. But just the competitor in you would've liked to see if I could've gotten back into playing shape."
Bucs FS Ronde Barber, who was a rookie in 1997, said Gruber's work ethic and consistency became a template for young players to follow.
"I didn't know much about him until I got here. But on a team that was kind of a perennial loser, he was always a winner," Barber said.
"His attitude is reflective in the guys that came after him. He was one of the guys that led the way in turning the organization around by coming to work every day."
McCOY/SUH: DTs Gerald McCoy and Ndamukong Suh will forever be linked by virtue of their draft status — Suh was the second pick overall in 2010, McCoy third.
McCoy played in only 19 games over his first two seasons, tearing the biceps in each arm. Meanwhile, Suh was named to the Pro Bowl as a rookie.
But for at least this season, McCoy has measured up. Suh has eight tackles and 21/2 sacks over five games for the 1-4 Lions. Meanwhile, McCoy has 11 tackles, three sacks, one forced fumble and a pass defense over four for the 1-3 Bucs.
Rick Stroud can be reached at [email protected] and heard from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on WDAE-620. Follow him on Twitter at @NFLStroud.