TAMPA — Brad Johnson remembers watching him erupt on the sideline during a Monday Night Football game a few years before they met. The raised eyebrow, pursed lips and a chilling gaze gave Jon Gruden the look of his alter ego — Chucky, the homicidal doll in the movie Child's Play — as he verbally undressed Raiders fullback Jon Ritchie.
"My wife and I had the game on TV, and I yelled to her, 'Holy cow, get in here,' " Johnson said. "I said, 'I would never want to play for that guy.' "
That's why Johnson wasn't quite sure what to expect during his first meeting with Gruden at One Buc Place in February 2002, shortly after the 39-year-old coach was traded to Tampa Bay from Oakland for a ransom of four high draft picks and $8 million.
"He pulled me in there and immediately he started talking about formations," the former quarterback said. " 'Blast off to Joker right X short 22 X drive. Now, what is Monte Kiffin going to do to that? Has our defense ever seen that before? How are they going to stop Triple right F right 358 Nebraska X seam? How are they going to stop that?' He kept talking about how he was going to beat our defense in practice."
During their first 9-on-7 drill of the offseason, Gruden called for the then 33-year-old Johnson, not known for his mobility, to run a bootleg around right end.
"Brad Johnson stuck it in (running back Michael) Pittman's gut, pulled it out and went around the side," former defensive tackle Warren Sapp recalled. "Then he's doing a Deion Sanders down the sideline, high-stepping, with the pigeon toes, and it looks nasty. Gruden said, 'They've been running boots on you for years!' "
While Gruden inherited one of the NFL's best defenses, his version of the West Coast attack brought life and accountability to what had been an anemic offense, the reason for first-round playoff exits that led to the firing of Tony Dungy after six seasons.
When the Bucs won Super Bowl XXXVII in Gruden's first season in Tampa Bay, he credited Dungy for providing him with many of the pieces to a world championship team.
But players, coaches and front office members say Gruden doesn't get enough credit for leveling the playing field by adding free agents on offense that pushed the team over the top.
"Jon had a very specific vision what he thought he needed on the offensive side of the ball," said Falcons president Rich McKay, Tampa Bay's general manager at the time. "Jon was coming in as an offensive coach, not trying to meddle with the defense at all. … He challenged the offense and held them to a very high standard, and it turned out to be a really good match."
Gruden, now the color analyst on ESPN's Monday Night Football, will attend the 10th anniversary celebration of the Super Bowl XXXVII team Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. He will be reunited with some of the players he added — Pittman, and receivers Joe Jurevicius and Keenan McCardell — to an offense that already included Johnson, fullback Mike Alstott and receiver Keyshawn Johnson.
"It was a great group of guys," Gruden said Thursday. "That was a lot tougher situation than people think. You had a whole new offense, whole new offensive staff; I think we had 25 new players. We had some carryover guys that had been here with Tony, especially on defense. We had to try to recruit the defensive staff to stick around because I think they wanted to go with Tony. But we came together somehow, some way."
Not every player was sold upon Gruden's arrival.
"My first impression was, 'Who the hell is this man that we just spent $8 million and four draft picks for?' " Sapp said. "I left the club one night. … I wanted to see if this myth was true about him going to work at 3:17 in the morning. I was sleeping in his parking spot, and I wake up to the horn blasting. I put the car in reverse and rolled down my window. He said, 'What the hell?' I said, 'I just wanted to see if the legend was true,' and drove off."
It was Gruden who was driven, an insomniac coach who worked tirelessly to lead the Bucs to a 12-4 record in the regular season, earning a bye as the NFC's second seed. After hammering the 49ers 31-6 in Tampa, the Bucs upset the Eagles in the conference title game at Veterans Stadium, a theretofore house of horrors where two previous Buc seasons had died.
In fact, Gruden made two bold pronouncements within a few weeks of arriving in Tampa Bay. "He said we're going to win a Super Bowl — now," Johnson said.
Gruden also challenged his No. 1-ranked defense, led by the NFL's defensive player of the year, linebacker Derrick Brooks, to produce nine touchdowns. When safety Dwight Smith returned his second interception for a score in the 48-21 win over the Raiders in the Super Bowl, that goal was met as well.
"It seems like 100 years (ago) really," said Gruden, who at the time was the youngest coach to win a Super Bowl. "It seems like another life. Great memory for a lot of people, being Tampa Bay's first football championship. I don't think it will be their last, but it will be a great way to reunite and hopefully generate some enthusiasm for the Bucs and Tampa."
Times staff writer Joey Knight contributed to this report.