Dungy, discarded by the Glazers despite having triggered a turnaround of his own in Tampa, has thrived in Indy, where his defensive expertise and understated authority have been a boon to the Colts (11-4), in line for their first division championship since 1999. Another Super Bowl contender, AFC West champion Kansas City (12-3), is prospering in its third year under the emotional yet demanding Vermeil—just as Vermeil's previous team, the St. Louis Rams, did in their championship season of 1999.
"The thing about all of these coaches is that they not only command the respect of their players, but they also give it," says Rams running back Marshall Faulk. "They may be hard on their guys at times, but they explain their reasoning and stay faithful to their systems, and that's why guys love playing for them."
As examples, Faulk cites the Rams' Mike Martz and the Philadelphia Eagles' Andy Reid. Martz made the tough decision to bench his two-time league MVP, quarterback Kurt Warner, and then stuck with replacement Marc Bulger through a rough spell in November. Reid, his highly regarded team reeling after an 0-2 start, stayed faithful to quarterback Donovan McNabb and maintained a steely resolve that kept his players from panicking.
The upshot is that the Rams (12-3) and the Eagles (11-4) appear headed for a showdown in the NFC Championship Game. Gruden and the Buccaneers (7-8), conversely, will be spending January in front of their flat-screen TVs. So with the Bucs now struggling, it brings us back to the question about the deal for Gruden: Was it worth it?
"I still think the Raiders made a hell of a trade, and Tampa Bay will miss those draft choices," Jones says. "But if you put the caveat in there that you'd win a Super Bowl, a lot of us would make that deal in a heartbeat."