It will take more than consecutive losing seasons to make Jon Gruden turn in his whistle.
After tying Chicago for the second-worst record in the NFC at 5-11, the embattled Bucs coach vowed to remain on the job until somebody takes it from him.
"I am here until I'm dead," Gruden said Monday. "I've made my point perfectly clear to our players.
"I'm here for the long haul. I can't be more clear. Unless someone comes in and physically removes me."
In his final news conference of the season, Gruden reflected on what went wrong in 2004 and how the Bucs plan to right their ship.
Most of the emphasis during the offseason will again be on improving the offensive line, eliminating turnovers and jump-starting a running game that ranked 29th in the league at 93.1 yards a game.
The Bucs committed 36 turnovers, 15 more than when they won the Super Bowl in 2002. Since leading the Bucs to their only title in his first season, Gruden's team is 12-20 _ the same record as Steve Spurrier in two seasons with the Redskins.
It won't get easier. With the oldest roster in the league stocked full of Pro Bowl players on defense, the Bucs are expected to be between $10-million and $12-million above the salary cap.
To get better, they might have to get younger. Tampa Bay owns 11 picks in April's draft, including the fifth overall.
"I am going to remain very optimistic and confident. I have seen this program work," Gruden said. "I realize the obstacles, clearly, with the salary cap and the current state of our football team. I do think we have some young players here that can play better and become really good players for the Buccaneers. I think we have an opportunity this spring to add a half-dozen to a dozen more. We do have a good work ethic here and an outstanding coaching staff. We should have won more games this year than we did. I am responsible for that.
"Young players aren't available in free agency. It is a challenge. I'm not necessarily saying I want all young players, but I do want to get good, young players who can play right away and be a big part of our future and help us with the our salary cap."
Gruden admits the Bucs made some mistakes in free agency, such as paying $4-million to veteran offensive lineman Todd Steussie and shifting him from left to right tackle.
The Bucs will struggle to keep some longtime stars. Fullback Mike Alstott and receiver Joe Jurevicius are scheduled to earn $2-million in 2005. The team also likely will have to restructure the contract of linebacker Derrick Brooks, whose salary cap number will be $9.8-million.
"If we have a great player, we are going to be very adamant about keeping him here," Gruden said. "We are very proud of the high-profile defensive players that we have here, Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber. I would just as soon do something else if I can't coach Ronde Barber and Derrick Brooks. Understand (the salary cap) is a serious obstacle, and it has been and will be. But it can be overcome."
The Bucs also want to clear money to sign Brian Griese to a long-term extension. Griese, who finished as the league's most accurate starting quarterback with a 69.3 completion percentage, is scheduled to earn a $6-million roster bonus and $2-million base salary in 2005. The Bucs also would like to retain receiver Joey Galloway, an unrestricted free agent.
"We hope to get Griese's contract and all of those things worked out, first and foremost," Gruden said. "But we didn't draft Chris (Simms) to be a lifelong clipboard holder.
"We expect him to compete. I have said since I have been here that you can't have enough good quarterbacks. Hopefully, we can make it more competitive than it has ever been."
But to help his quarterbacks, Gruden has to fix the running game.
Michael Pittman led the league with six lost fumbles, including one during the fourth quarter of Sunday's 12-7 loss at Arizona. Gruden said he stuck with Pittman because he was the team's best overall running back and hoped to cure his fumbling problem.
"I have seen guys have the fumbles before and get it solved," he said. "He does not have it solved yet, and that is a problem.
"We have to run the ball here. We have to do it violently and physically. We have to break tackles and protect the ball. It has to be an area that isn't just coachspeak or playerspeak. You get in the ring and take the robe off, and you throw punches."
Gruden said the Bucs also will try to improve their kicking game. A season after finishing second-to-last in field-goal accuracy at 61.5 percent (16-of-26), Tampa Bay finished tied for last with Chicago at 62.5 percent (15-of-24). That led to the release of Martin Gramatica and contributed to 15 defeats by seven points or fewer.
"This team was in every game. They were in a position to win," Gruden said. "As I say to the players, you don't want to be a show horse and place, finish second or third and have a nice run. You want to win the race.
"We have some areas that we have let ourselves down, and I have certainly let the team down. We will return. We have that kind of coaching staff. We have that kind of thump in our heart in the locker room."