Gruden determined to win 'his' way

PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Jon Gruden was looking to get away from it all, looking to get away from the sportswriters who had descended upon the NFL annual meetings at The Breakers, where, of course, there would be questions about Keyshawn, Sapp, Lynch and the tumultuous re-make of a championship franchise.

But the waves in the Atlantic Ocean, just like the football fans in Tampa, were unforgiving -- eight feet high, to be exact. So, Gruden cancelled a chartered fishing boat and instead took his wife and two young boys to a local wild animal safari -- a fitting metaphor for what Gruden has endured in the 12 months since he brought the Lombardi Trophy to his hometown of Tampa:

An ugly 7-9 season, five home losses and no Bucs playoff appearance for the first time since 1998.

A messy public annulment of the marriage of convenience with Keyshawn Johnson, the vitriolic wide receiver who was, in effect, fired for insubordination with six games left in the 2003 season, then traded to the Dallas Cowboys last month.

A quiet divorce with the uproarious Warren Sapp, who formed the core of a defense that allowed the fewest points in the NFL since 1997 (1,802), and shaped the personality of a team that went from perennial league wallflower to winner.

Sapp will play in Oakland now. And safety John Lynch, the gentleman ying to Sapp's loud mouth yang, will play for the AFC West rival Denver Broncos.
It was Lynch's abrupt and unceremonious departure that left perhaps the ugliest blemish on this offseason of disfigurement. Without the proper farewell befitting a solid citizen such as Lynch, Tampa watched as this former Pro Bowler, former NFL Man of the Year, and longtime conscience of the franchise was kicked out the door, as if the folks writing the checks at One Buc Place had no institutional memory of his contributions and counsel.

"The world forgetting," wrote the great 18th Century English poet Alexander Pope, "by the world forgot."

Or, as Jerry Glanville once put it: "N.F.L. stands for Not For Long." And so, too, in Tampa, all talk of that championship season has been forgotten. Local columnists and talk radio show hosts have skewered Gruden -- and it's clear the criticism has stung.

At a breakfast with reporters at the opulent The Breakers, Gruden was asked about the wholesale changes he has wrought, and his answer seemed to indicate that he has been listening to the critics.

"We've got to overcome the loss of some dynamic players in our franchise," said Gruden, entering his third season as the Bucs head coach. "We have to prove we have the firepower to overcome that."

When asked where that personality will come from, new general manager Bruce Allen, who worked with Gruden in Raider Nation, said quite tersely: "The coaching staff."

Translation: It's Gruden's team now.

There's a large measure of truth to the assertion that Gruden won the Super Bowl with Tony Dungy's players, especially on that maddening, suffocating defense. Now, Gruden will have to do it with a team re-made in his image.

The team is older -- Gruden and Allen have stockpiled veterans, especially offensive linemen. Brought on board to help protect the battered Brad Johnson were Matt Stinchcomb, Derrick Deese, Todd Steussie, and Matt O'Dwyer.

Two other guys will also help Johnson, fullback Greg Comella and wide receiver Joey Galloway, acquired in the Keyshawn Johnson trade from the Cowboys. Running back Charlie Garner, at 32, will take off the silver and black and put on the pewter and red.

With Stinchcomb and Garner, Gruden has been accused of re-making the Bucs into the team he left behind in Oakland, land of the recidivist bad actors such as defensive tackle Darrell Russell -- Gruden's latest free agent acquisition.

Russell, who hasn't had a decent season in four years, was suspended by the league twice for violating the substance abuse policy. He's admitted to filming two friends, who happened to be convicted felons, having sex with a woman. He's been pulled over for drunk driving. Last year, he was suspended by the Redskins for one game after being late for practice.

The announcement of Russell's signing came on the second day of the league meetings. Gruden was on safari. So, Allen took the questions about how it looks -- that, in the good-guy ledger, Lynch for Russell does not compute. Allen, whose brother is a Republican U.S. Senator, tried to spin his way around one P.R. disaster and then delivered another:

"Bill Clinton did worse things than Darrell Russell, and he won Florida twice," Allen said.

The next morning, Gruden was a lot less glib, contending that Russell has been made painfully aware of the score. Defensive line coach Rod Marinelli went to Oakland, Gruden said, and had a long talk with Russell, letting him know what's to be expected.

"Hopefully, his work ethic will have improved," said Gruden, who knows Russell all too well. Allen, too, has watched Russell unravel. The fact is that Russell is a cheap replacement -- about $500,000 a year. And, at age 28 when the season starts, if he can get his act together -- a big if -- Russell still has a few good years left in him.

"Rod laid it on the line for him," said Gruden. "There will be no surprises in terms of what's expected of him. There are basically two rules: Don't be late. Don't be overweight. He ain't going to be late here. If he's good enough, he'll play. If not?"

Gruden didn't finish the sentence. He didn't have to. Young defensive tackle Anthony McFarland will replace Sapp in the so-called "under" technique of Monte Kiffin's defense. Russell will be expected to be attract a double-team to free up Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Brooks to make the plays he's supposed to make, and allow McFarland to get to the quarterback.

Sapp-Brooks-Lynch -- that trio up the middle of the defense had been the bulwark of the Bucs' success. The three of them shared 19 Pro Bowl appearances, and two defensive player of the year honors. The three of them had started more games (119) together than any other active trio in the NFL.

With or without the complications brought on by the Russell signing -- and we still haven't heard from Brooks on this matter -- re-formulating that kind of special chemistry won't be easy. The roster is bulging with 20 new players -- about five more than the NFL average each year. But when you subtract guys like Sapp and Lynch, the displacement is much more dramatic than the numbers indicate.

So, where will the leadership come from? "It will have to come from guys like Derrick Brooks on defense, and Mike Alstott and Todd Steussie, and Keenan McCardell and Brad Johnson on offense," said Gruden.

"We have to come together," he said. "Leaders have to lead. Unity and camaraderie on this team is going to be vital to our success. We have to be together and be humble. It's not like we had our heart removed. We lost great players, but we've still got some very dynamic leaders there. And I think we'll see the emergence of others now."

Sal Paolantonio, who wrote about the Eagles for the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1993-94, covers the NFL for ESPN.