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Source of QB controversy? Gruden

If Jon Gruden wants to plug the source of the news leaks coming out of One Buc Place, he might want to start with the guy staring back at him while shaving every morning.

Last week, the coach feigned astonishment over repeated reports on ESPN that the Bucs were interested in pursuing Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell or the Raiders' Rich Gannon, both of whom could soon become free agents.

He appeared outraged that anyone would suggest Brad Johnson, who faded down the stretch of a 7-9 season, might be replaced as the starting quarterback.

While it's true even Gruden knows you would exhaust a lot of areas that need improvement in Tampa Bay before naming the quarterback, Johnson is not guaranteed to be the starter in 2004.

What's more, the one guy who has whispered that in the most ears is Gruden.

Late in the season, Gruden had a lengthy conversation with Keenan McCardell about Brunell, who played with McCardell in Jacksonville. They weren't talking about which blitz bothers him.

At the time, Brunell had been relegated to the inactive third quarterback behind rookie ByronLeftwich and David Garrard. "We were playing Jacksonville," Gruden said. "And I just asked what was Brunell's deal?"

His deal? Here's his deal: He will be released before March 1 when the Jaguars owe him a $2-million roster bonus. He is looking for a starting job _ any starting job _ and likely will find one with the Dolphins or elsewhere.

But if the bottom falls out of the starting job market for Brunell, then yes, Gruden would take a shot at him, and he has let almost everyone know it _ even Johnson.

As for Gannon, who is scheduled to earn about $7-million next season and has said he won't take a penny less, he, too, is on Gruden's lips more than ChapStick.

To a lesser degree, so are Kurt Warner, Jeff Garcia, Joe Montana and John Elway. When Gruden heard Dan Marino was thinking about returning, one can only imagine he hoped it was as a quarterback so Gruden could make a run at him.

Gruden doesn't just like to stir the pot, he takes a mixer to it. He wants players. The feeling is that when Gruden asks general manager Bruce Allen to jump, he's going for the trampoline.

Nobody engages in Fantasy Football more than Gruden. But he knows he has to live in the real world with a salary cap and an allocation system.

Hinting that the rumors might have started with Falcons general manager Rich McKay is just more bad blood being spilled.

Remember, it was Gruden's bar stool outbursts about McKay at the NFL owners meetings while surrounded by reporters and other team executives that contributed to disharmony with his general manager.

But when asked about a rift with McKay, Gruden would tilt his head, squint his eyes and ask, "What rift? I keep reading about this supposed rift? Where is all this coming from?"

The same place all the talk about Brunell and Gannon is coming from.

The same guy who chatted up Emmitt Smith, Junior Seau and Darrell Russell.

So in a way, Gruden is right. Don't believe everything you hear about the Bucs in free agency. Consider the source.

It's Gruden.