Today, a team is at a crossroads. Today, a coach is in the crosshairs. Again.
From here, a season can go anywhere.
Turn in the right direction and there are holidays and banquets awaiting. The Bucs can still win 11 games, maybe even 12. They can still win the NFC South. They can still earn homefield, and possibly a bye, in the playoffs.
Go the wrong way, however, and there are dark clouds and rough highways ahead. The Bucs could fall to third. They could end up as a wild card, a bad road team playing on the road during the playoffs. Once again, they could leave you talking about their shortcomings instead of their strengths.
Today, the Bucs could change the way you think about this team and about this season.
And, yes, today might fashion much of your latest opinion about their head coach.
By now, Jon Gruden ought to be used to this. The rest of us, too. For a long time, Gruden has been the most debated coach in the NFL. Pretty much, most of Boston agrees that Bill Belichick is a pretty good coach for a grump, and pretty much, most of San Diego thinks Norv Turner would lose a game of Jeopardy to a grapefruit.
When it comes to Gruden, however, Tampa Bay has never quite settled on an opinion. There are the Gruden backers, the fans who seem to think any criticism is undeserved. There are the Gruden bashers, those who think any victory is not enough. Then there is the smaller group, that bunch in the middle that has noticed Gruden has had his ups and his downs. Accordingly, there has been room for cheers and jeers. Either way, when you discuss the Bucs, Gruden's name usually comes up first.
Today, the scoreboard will provide a little more evidence.
If Monday night's game against the Panthers was the biggest game of the year for the Bucs, then today's might be the most definitive. No other game this season will tell us more whether this team will be remembered as overachievers or underachievers. No other game will be a better hint whether the Bucs are a team capable of going somewhere or a franchise that is spinning its wheels.
That's not new. In the NFL, the scoreboard always holds all the answers. And, yes, things can change quickly.
Take Gruden, for instance. A week ago, you could make a good case for Gruden as NFC coach of the year. Finally, he had his Bucs on the way to their first back-to-back winning seasons. He had survived a snit with his quarterback, and he was winning in a much improved NFC South.
One loss later — admittedly, a devastating loss — and suddenly, the frowns are back. Once again, there is talk about an offense that isn't dangerous enough. Once again, there is a sinking feeling that while the Bucs are pretty good, they might not be good enough once the playoffs arrive.
If the Bucs win today, it will silence some of that talk.
If they lose, things are liable to get noisy. Again.
Already, you can hear the questions. Was Gruden too heavy-handed when he benched Jeff Garcia? Shouldn't he be able to get some impact from receiver Joey Galloway? And while we're at it, shouldn't the Bucs be talking to Mike Alstott about a comeback? (Okay, that last one was a joke, but you get the point. When a team isn't winning, all questions are in bounds.)
For the record, no, Gruden isn't on the hot seat, and, no, he shouldn't be. With three games to go, the Bucs are virtually assured of their third trip to the playoffs in four years. On the other hand, former coach Tony Dungy (who made the playoffs three times in his last four seasons, too) and the Glazers eventually grew tired of their plateau.
Personal opinion? I think Gruden is a pretty good coach. I think he has an impressive record at career resurrection (see: Bryant, Antonio). I think he can create a mismatch.
On the other hand, it seems as reasonable to suggest it with a winning record as with a losing one, the Bucs' offensive personnel aren't as good as those of a lot of teams. Compare them to the Saints. Compare them to the Panthers. That's a problem. In Gruden's seventh season, there have been enough drafts, enough free agent opportunities, enough development, that it should be. By now, shouldn't Gruden's team run better, strike quicker and be more efficient in the red zone? Shouldn't the Bucs be higher than 17th in the NFL in points?
And that's the nagging dissatisfaction with the Bucs. As a team, they seem somehow incomplete. Ask yourself: Are they significantly better this year than last year? Is there any reason to believe they will be better next year? Is this year's version of pretty good going to blossom into very good? For that matter, does anyone even know who next year's quarterback is going to be?
Most of all, can they cause any trouble at all in the playoffs?
That's why this game against the Falcons is big. Gruden needs to convince his team that it can win on the road. He needs to find a way to get Warrick Dunn loose in the Georgia Dome one last time. He needs his team to score once it gets into the red zone.
After today, we'll have a better idea. About a franchise. About a season. About a coach.