1. Data

Why Jon Gruden was the best mistake the Bucs ever made

They won the Super Bowl. All it cost them was relevance.
As the Bucs coach from 2002 through 2008, Jon Gruden won 60 games and lost 57. [Getty Images]
As the Bucs coach from 2002 through 2008, Jon Gruden won 60 games and lost 57. [Getty Images]
Published Dec. 17, 2017
Updated Aug. 5, 2019

Warren Sapp pointed to the sky. And then he dropped Kurt Warner to the ground.

The Bucs had just intercepted Warner for the fourth time. Sapp’s block cleared the way for Derrick Brooks to cross the goal line and clinch the win.

Before Tampa Bay pillaged Oakland in Super Bowl XXXVII, before it shut down the Vet, it vanquished one of the most vaunted offenses in NFL history. On Sept. 23, 2002 — a Monday night — the Bucs took the Greatest Show on Turf off the air.

Chris Fisher was there. He was sitting in the northwest corner of Raymond James Stadium. Section 144, right next to the pirate ship in Buccaneers Cove.

“The stadium went nuts.”

Once upon a time, fans filled seats and unrelentingly urged on the home team. For those who had endured 14 straight losing seasons, games in the late 1990s and early 2000s became their just reward.

“You would see the same people every single game,” said Fisher, 41, of Lakeland. “You got to know the people around you. You tailgated with those people.”

And now?

Scroll through social media. Tune into sports radio. There you’ll find disenchanted souls longing for the past. It was better then, they say. You gotta bring Jon Gruden back, man.

The Bucs can forever point to their Super Bowl rings as evidence that firing Tony Dungy and trading for Gruden was best move they ever made. And while that might be so, it’s also the worst move they ever made. They’re still paying the price.

“To be honest, I don’t think we’ve recovered from that trade,” said Jason De La Torre, 44, of Wesley Chapel. “I think we got what we paid for.”

• • •

Jon Gruden and Bucs owner Malcolm Glazer celebrate Tampa Bay's Super Bowl XXXVII victory over Oakland Raiders in 2003. [Getty Images]
Jon Gruden and Bucs owner Malcolm Glazer celebrate Tampa Bay's Super Bowl XXXVII victory over Oakland Raiders in 2003. [Getty Images]

Why it was the best move the Bucs ever made

If you believe that all that matters in sports are championships, there is no debate. The Bucs have a Lombardi trophy; more than a third of the NFL’s 32 teams can’t claim that.

Ask the people who most value that championship — the fans — whether they’d trade it for an extended run of relevance. The majority wouldn’t hesitate to do the deal over again.

“I don’t think you can trade that Super Bowl for anything else,” said Chris Worthen, 27, who lived in Valrico during the Bucs’ playoff runs. A member of the Army, he is now stationed in Anchorage, Alaska. “The losing seasons before that, I think (the Super Bowl) made it all worthwhile for Malcolm Glazer and Bucs fans.”

“Ask a Philadelphia Eagles fan if they would trade all of their playoff seasons for one Super Bowl,” said De La Torre, recalling Ronde Barber’s interception of Donovan McNabb in the NFC championship game.

“I was a grown man, but I was crying because I thought back to all the years we were called the Yuccaneers and the Pastel Footwipes from the Tropics. All of that was washed away by one play.”

For some fans, though, the calculation becomes more difficult the longer Tampa Bay’s drought persists.

“It’s a tough question,” said John Prowell, 44, formerly of Tampa and now a resident of Normal, Ill. “I might change my answer 10 times.”

“The Bucs on occasion make football unwatchable to all but the devoted or the disturbed. It’d be nice to have a team that isn’t the butt of jokes.”

• • •

The Bucs' signing of tight end Jerramy Stevens was one of several questionable personnel moves during the Gruden era. [Getty Images]
The Bucs' signing of tight end Jerramy Stevens was one of several questionable personnel moves during the Gruden era. [Getty Images]

Why it was the worst move the Bucs ever made

The price to acquire Gruden was excessive. Raiders owner Al Davis was able to extract two first-round picks, two second-round picks and $8 million for Gruden — a coach he no longer wanted.

“We’d give a lot more,” kicker Martin Gramatica said after Tampa Bay won the Super Bowl.

But not even Gruden himself thought he was worth it.

“It’s no fun going to the draft meetings when you can’t pick in the first two rounds the first two years you’re on the job as a new head coach,” he said. “I hated that. I’m still ticked off about that. We gave up way too much for a coach in Tampa Bay.”

The Bucs were in salary cap trouble before they acquired Gruden. By trading premium draft picks, they only further limited their financial flexibility as well as their ability to infuse youth into an aging core.

Gruden never fielded an above-average offense. Even though Gruden implemented a West Coast scheme and added a few new faces — Joe Jurevicius, Keenan McCardell and Michael Pittman among them — Tampa Bay’s offense was about as productive in 2002 as it was in 2001.

The Bucs scored 21.6 points per game in 2002; in 2001, 20.3. By points per drive, they were exactly as effective, averaging 1.6 in both seasons. The same goes for yards per drive. They gained 26.7 in 2002; in 2001, 26.6. By Football Outsiders’ ratings, they actually were less efficient in 2002 than they were in 2001.

You remember how they clinched a first-round bye, don’t you? Their kicker scored all 15 of their points. And that was the second time that season they won a game without scoring a touchdown.

The defense wasn’t just great; it was one of the two or three best in modern football history. The 2002 edition made the 2001 edition look soft. It allowed just 12.3 points per game, five fewer than the season before.

Perhaps all that matters, though, from that season is one play: 83 Zebra Jerk. Jurevicius over the middle and up the left sideline for 71 yards against the Eagles. That catch-and-run changed the course of the NFC championship game.

Here’s where the Bucs offense ranked in points scored in Gruden’s six other seasons: 18th, 23rd, 20th, 31st, 18th and 19th.

Here’s where it ranks now: 21st.

Gruden made poor personnel decisions. Gruden and general manager Rich McKay did not mesh, so in 2003, the Bucs granted McKay’s request to be released. Then they hired the man their coach wanted them to hire: Bruce Allen.

You think Allen, who had worked with Gruden in Oakland, came to Tampa to overrule a Super Bowl champion?

What followed was one bad draft after another. The Bucs drafted some serviceable players but few high-impact, long-term contributors. They’re still trying to recover from some decisions, such as their 2008 selection of cornerback Aqib Talib despite character concerns. A decade later, Tampa Bay lacks stability at the position.

Add to that the signings of defensive tackle Darrell Russell and tight end Jerramy Stevens, both of whom had been accused of sexual assault earlier in their football careers.

Under Gruden and Allen, the public’s perception of the Bucs began to shift.

“For me, as a fan, that’s a big deal for me,” Fisher said. “I do really care that these guys are not going out and getting in trouble and representing the team in a way that I’m not proud of.”

• • •

The Bucs’ present isn’t what many hoped it would be. The past offers consolation.

But the past we remember is an idealized version, a version that preserves the good and suppresses the bad. It’s beyond our reach.

It does, however, offer a lesson. The same things that are being said about Dirk Koetter now were being said about Gruden in his final years, De La Torre said.

“Being on the treadmill of changing out coaches every two years is never going to get this franchise back to relevancy.”

Contact Thomas Bassinger at Follow @tometrics.