|Gruden proves his worth to the Bucs
By Len Pasquarelli
PHILADELPHIA -- Having posed with the George Halas Trophy, accepted the congratulations of friends and family and players, and donned a baseball cap commemorating his team's berth in Super Bowl XXXVII, Tampa Bay vice president Joel Glazer paused to consider the new NFL rule that precludes franchises from trading draft picks for coaches.
"Yeah, it's pretty ironic, isn't it?" said Glazer, the son of Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer and one of the men most responsible for brokering the deal that brought head coach Jon Gruden to Tampa Bay. "I don't know what the motivation is (for the rule). But it's great that it wasn't (enacted) a year ago."
Beyond great, the timing was terrific for the Bucs, who essentially traded two first-round draft choices, a pair of second-round picks and $8 million in cash to Oakland owner Al Davis last February to release Gruden from the final year of his Raiders contract.
It marked the second consecutive NFL season in which a "hired gun" coach -- the New England Patriots, who captured Super Bowl XXXVI, invested a quartet of draft choices to pry Bill Belichick from his contract with the New York Jets -- led his team to the championship game. And the irony this time is that Gruden gets to face his former squad, the AFC champion Raiders, on Super Sunday.
One has to wonder: With the NFL increasingly being considered a "coach's league," why shouldn't a team be able to package draft choices to acquire a sideline boss the ilk of Gruden and others? The intent of the draft is to elevate lesser teams and, if that means buying a coach who is perhaps more important to a club's rise than three or four rookies might be, so be it.
Would the Bucs make the deal for Gruden, who improved a very good team he inherited from Tony Dungy, again if they had to?
"Certainly," said Glazer. "He proved his value today."
That he did, along with the value of a staff that thoroughly outmaneuvered the Eagles coaches much of the afternoon on both sides of the ball. Even a couple of hours before kickoff, Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin sat in a corner of the media workroom in Veterans Stadium, drawing doodles that became undecipherable to Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb.
In the locker room, following a win that earned Tampa Bay its first trip to a Super Bowl in the 27-year history of the franchise, players acknowledged a superior game plan. No one could argue that, beyond a physical superiority, the Bucs owned a wide edge on the blueprint as well.
Football is a game of matchups, and on offense and defense Sunday, Tampa Bay got the looks it wanted when it most needed them.
No play more singularly exemplified the design advantage the Bucs owned than a 71-yard completion to slot receiver Joe Jurevicius in the first quarter. The Bucs trailed 7-3 at the time, but the long catch-and-run led directly to a one-yard scoring run by fullback Mike Alstott, the first offensive touchdown scored by Tampa Bay in four games here.
On the play, the Bucs used "max" protection to keep a Philadelphia blitz off quarterback Brad Johnson, a blocking technique that was productive all day. And as Jurevicius crossed the field, from right to left, he was inexplicably being covered by Eagles inside linebacker Barry Gardner. It was, to put it mildly, a Tampa Bay advantage of epic proportions.
It was the first such mismatch of the day but hardly the last.
"We felt there were some things we could do," said Jurevicius, a key player down the stretch of the regular season for the Bucs but nearly absent from Sunday's game because of the premature birth of his son. "And once they started clicking, it gave us even more confidence, and seemed to cause their defense some concern."
There is no denying that Gruden, who basically serves as coordinator and calls his own plays, was both precise and surgical in carving up the Eagles. Brad Johnson, who donned gloves on both hands to provide a better grip in the 26-degree temperature (16 degrees with the wind-chill factor), was masterful in completing 20 of 33 passes for 259 yards and a touchdown. But not to diminish his performance, there were times he threw to receivers so open that it seemed the closest Philadelphia defender was across the Delaware River in New Jersey.
Gruden used the whole package -- substitution groupings, formations, motion variation and blocking scheme -- to discombobulate an Eagles defense that had ranked No. 4 overall in the NFL this season and that was second in the league in sacks. The results were big and meaningful plays for the Bucs.
On the first offensive series, a bootleg by Johnson allowed tight end Ken Dilger to get into the right flat hooked up on strong-side linebacker Carlos Emmons, and the 13-yard gain led to a field goal. A second-quarter pass to tailback Michael Pittman, good for 31 yards and leading to a second touchdown, came when the Tampa Bay formation again dictated coverage by Gardner. Two plays later, motion across the formation created a void in the middle of the secondary, and Keyshawn Johnson pulled in a 22-yard pass.
Johnson caught a nine-yard touchdown pass, on third-and-goal, to culminate that drive. He badly beat Eagles "nickel" cornerback Al Harris on an inside slant where the middle of the field was cleared by a complementary route.
Even in the second half, nursing a 20-10 lead, Gruden kept attacking through the air, and twice the Philadelphia defense was caught with tackle Darwin Walker covering Dilger in the flat. On another occasion, Walker was hooked up with tight end Rickey Dudley.
Gruden used his tight ends cleverly to dictate coverages and to create the big physical advantages for his wide receivers. One of the premier line coaches in the game, Bill Muir, alternated between "three wide" and regular "pass pro" schemes, and it kept the Eagles on their heels.
It was a brutal pummeling to a proud Philadelphia defense coordinated by the clever Jim Johnson. Unlike most games, the Eagles blitz made no difference at all, and Brad Johnson was never sacked and rarely hurried.
"For having what everyone said was the worst line in the playoffs, I guess we did OK, huh?" said Bucs right offensive tackle Kenyatta Walker, getting in a well-deserved dig at the media. "All I know is we're going to the Super Bowl, and that's not bad for being such a (crummy) line. Really, though, we had a great scheme. We 'max' blocked them and they got frustrated. You could see it in their eyes. They knew they couldn't blitz us. The first half, it was like they didn't even try. The second half, well, they were desperate."
The Eagles were also confused, and confusing, in their approach to what became their second NFC championship game loss in as many years.
For the most part, McNabb was downright McNasty, more scatter-armed than scorching. There weren't many open receivers, and when there were he did a poor job of finding them. On one play in the second quarter, wide receiver Todd Pinkston ran all the way across the back of the end zone, frantically waving his hands to draw attention, and McNabb missed him.
The Eagles star had just two completions of 20-plus yards, struggled to get the ball to people on screen and swing passes, and ran for just 17 yards.
It is difficult to criticize Andy Reid, but it seemed at times like his Coach of the Year award must have turned into a pumpkin at midnight on Dec. 31, so conservative was the Philadelphia offensive approach.
On their first five possessions, the average starting point for the Eagles was their own 49-yard line. By comparison, the Bucs started their opening five offensive series, on average, at their own 18. But the Eagles failed to take advantage of the wide disparity in field position.
Leading 7-3, Philadelphia gained possession at the Tampa Bay 46 on an interception by cornerback Bobby Taylor. But the play-calling simply got too conservative and, going into the wind, Philadelphia was forced to punt (rather than attempt a 50-yard field goal) from the Bucs' 32.
Noted for its ability to author two or three big plays every game, the Eagles offense rarely attacked the Tampa Bay secondary. And when it did, Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber more often than not broke up the attempt, finishing with four passes defensed and an interception that he returned 92 yards for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
There were some inexplicable defensive sets used by Eagles coordinator Jim Johnson -- like having inside linebackers Levon Kirkland and Barry Gardner on the field at the same time and leaving end Hugh Douglas on the sideline -- that also blew up in their face.
It has hardly been much of a secret that the Eagles' middle linebackers could be exploited, and luck ran out Sunday when the Bucs drew bull's-eyes on the two of them. Noted one Tampa Bay receiver: "We absolutely abused their linebackers. It was no contest."
No one could argue that. In a strategic chess game, Gruden and his staff created more mismatches, and ultimately checkmated the Eagles. Seems that, even if the NFL doesn't want teams swapping draft picks for genius, more franchises shoulder consider it after Sunday afternoon.
Slumped into his locker stall, spent but still spirited enough to cut loose with a loud whoop every so often, Bucs center Jeff Christy made it clear that Gruden was the man who had pulled everything together.
"Eight new starters," he said. "Five free agents on offense. A new scheme on offense. New coaches. He was the man. Whatever (management) here gave up to get him, you'd have to say he was worth it, wouldn't you?"
Indeed, you would.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.