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Jones: Tony Dungy didn't leave the Bucs on the clearance rack

Tony Dungy set up the chessboard nicely for Jon Gruden before he took over the Bucs, sports columnist Tom Jones writes. (Times file, 2003)
Tony Dungy set up the chessboard nicely for Jon Gruden before he took over the Bucs, sports columnist Tom Jones writes. (Times file, 2003)
Published Dec. 16, 2017

It is and always will be the greatest debate in Tampa Bay sports history.

Jon Gruden or Tony Dungy?

You don't even need to say anything more than that. Bucs fans already know what you're talking about.

Gruden or Dungy?

Who was most responsible for the only Super Bowl championship in franchise history?

Was it Dungy, who pulled the Bucs franchise out of the deepest depths of misery and took them to the doorstep of a title?

Or was in Gruden, who kicked in the door and picked up the Vince Lombardi Trophy?

Maybe there is no wrong answer.

But there's another part of the Dungy-Gruden debate that is never discussed and there is a clear-cut answer for this question:

Who left the Bucs in the best shape when they left?

No doubt it was Dungy.

It doesn't take a math major, but here's a little math for you.

Dungy took over the Bucs team that had 13 consecutive losing seasons and, almost immediately, turned it into a respectable franchise.

RELATED: Why the Bucs need a Dungy more than a Gruden

What's still hard to believe is that Dungy was here only six seasons. It felt like much longer than that, didn't it? But in six seasons, the Bucs had only one losing season and made the playoffs four times, including a trip to the 1999 NFC Championship Game.

He helped build one of the greatest defenses in the history of the game and taught the Bucs how to win.

When he was fired after the 2001 season — a 9-7 season in which the Bucs qualified for the postseason — the team he left behind was just about a finished product.

The defense, led by Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, John Lynch and Ronde Barber, was in place and coached by defensive guru Monte Kiffin. The offense wasn't great, but to be fair, Dungy never had a really good quarterback while coaching the Bucs.

Nevertheless, the Bucs were still a perennial playoff team on the day Dungy was cleaning out his office.

And while they might have needed Gruden to win the Super Bowl, they almost assuredly would have been a postseason team had Dungy remained the head coach.

When Dungy took over the team, the Bucs were a lump of clay on the floor. By the time he left, they had been molded into a fine piece of art.

Bottom line: Dungy left Gruden a Super Bowl-ready team.

Then came Gruden and the Super Bowl in his very first season. But what followed was five up-and-down seasons with only two playoff appearances and zero playoff victories.

By the time Gruden left after a 9-7 season in which the Bucs did not make the postseason, the Bucs were about to head back to the dark ages.

Not that it was all Gruden's fault. He couldn't stop Father Time from taking its toll on his defense. Brooks, Sapp and Lynch got old. There came a time when the Bucs had to transition into the next phase and it's never easy to keep on winning after a decade of solid football.

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But, regardless of why and how it happened, Gruden had knocked over that fine piece of art that was once the Bucs franchise and left it in pieces on the ground.

RELATED: If you were Jon Gruden, what would you do?

Part of the problem was that Gruden was coaching the Raiders before Tampa Bay and the Bucs had to give up a ton to get him: 2002 and 2003 first-round draft picks, 2002 and 2004 second-round draft picks and $8 million.

Know who was taken in the 2002 draft? Players such as Julius Peppers, Ed Reed and Dwight Freeney. In 2003, players drafted included Terrell Suggs, Charles Tillman and Anquan Boldin. Think any of those guys would have helped the Bucs?

Anyway, since Gruden left, the Bucs have gone 49-92, have never made the playoffs and are now on their fourth coach.

You can't blame Gruden for everything that has happened since he left. It has been 10 years now and guys like Lovie Smith and Greg Schiano did as much to louse up this thing as anyone.

Still, Dungy left Gruden a winner. And Gruden left Raheem Morris a mess.

Then again, Gruden won a Super Bowl so maybe it was all worth it in the end.


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