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Michael Silver
February 03, 2003
Led by a defense that picked off five passes and a coach who proved his worth, Tampa Bay blistered Oakland to win its first NFL title
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February 03, 2003

What A Steal!

Led by a defense that picked off five passes and a coach who proved his worth, Tampa Bay blistered Oakland to win its first NFL title

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MAMA TOLD JON GRUDEN THERE'D BE DAYS LIKE THESE—DAYS when his dreams would play out with chilling clarity, his incessant intensity would be rewarded and nothing could wipe the blissful smirk from his freckled face. Kathy Gruden couldn't have known that her son's most vivid triumph would come on Super Sunday, but that was always the dream for little Jonny. As a six-year-old in Dayton, he watched the Kansas City Chiefs upset the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV; then, he says, "I went out in the backyard and made diving catches in the mud, pretending I was Otis Taylor." ¶ Thirty-three years later, on a warm, still evening in San Diego, Gruden's dream became reality. The first-year coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers prodded and cajoled his team to a 48-21 weed whacking of the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII. In front of 67,603 fans at Qualcomm Stadium and more than 100 million TV viewers, Gruden's team smoked the favored Raiders, simultaneously showing up his former employer, Oakland boss Al Davis, and validating Tampa Bay owner Malcolm Glazer's desperate pursuit of Gruden's services last winter.

It was a story line only a hokey screenwriter would pitch, with an ending only a mother could love. And so, late on Sunday at the Bucs' team hotel, Kathy entered Room 2086 and started crying as she locked her son in a long embrace and whispered, "I'm so proud of you. You put a lot of things to rest tonight."

First and foremost, Gruden, 39, ended the debate over whether he was worth the ostentatious price (two first-round and two second-round draft picks, plus $8 million) that Glazer paid last February to pry him away from the Raiders with a year left on his contract. We now know that Gruden, as many critics had charged, wasn't worth it—he was worth more. In the words of Bucs executive vice president Joel Glazer, one of Malcolm's three sons who help him run the team, "He's one in a million. We'd make the deal again without blinking." That was said two days before a Super Bowl in which Gruden, as both a motivator and strategist, fielded a team that was as well-prepared for a title game as any that ever strapped on helmets.

"I've never been involved in a game where everything we ran in practice played out so identically," said All-Pro strong safety John Lynch, part of a swift and swarming defense that keyed the victory.

In erasing 26 years of frustration for Tampa Bay and becoming the youngest coach to win a Super Bowl, Gruden proved an old adage: Defense wins championships. The battle between the NFC-champion Bucs, who had the league's No. 1 defense, and the AFC-champion Raiders, who boasted the NFL's top-ranked offense, was a bigger mismatch than Star Jones versus a Junior Mint. Tampa Bay intercepted a Super Bowl-record five passes, returning three for touchdowns; sacked quarterback Rich Gannon, the league MVP, five times; and held Gannon to 72 passing yards in the first 40 minutes of the game. At that point the Raiders trailed 34-3, and though they rallied to cut the deficit to 13 points, the comeback only inspired the Bucs' defense to tack on two more touchdowns on interception returns.

"Their defense was just unbelievable," Oakland fullback Jon Ritchie said. "It was just really, well, perfect."

Oakland, meanwhile, hit a speed bump even before taking on Tampa Bay. On Saturday evening, after Pro Bowl center Barret Robbins missed a walk-through and a team meeting (THE LIFE OF REILLY, page 88), first-year coach Bill Callahan told his dumbfounded players that they'd be going into their biggest game without their most important lineman. Callahan, who had coached Oakland's offensive line and served as offensive coordinator before succeeding Gruden last March, said he had "dismissed" Robbins from the game. Sixth-year man Adam Treu, who started 14 games last season in place of an injured Robbins, was thrust into the fray. Said Gannon of Robbins's absence, "Obviously, it didn't help our cause, but I don't know whether it would have made a difference."

While Callahan was doing damage control, Gruden was dispensing his uniquely eloquent motivational advice to his players. Citing the San Francisco 49ers, who followed a stirring comeback victory over the New York Giants in the wild-card round of the playoffs with a lackluster 31-6 loss to the Bucs in Tampa, Gruden exhorted his players not to go "limp" in the wake of their robust 27-10 upset of the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship Game. That Gruden, in typically bawdy fashion, used a part of the male anatomy to underscore his point was the source of much amusement in the team's meeting room.

If the Glazers were looking for a departure from the style of the staid Tony Dungy—who was fired last January despite four playoff appearances in six years—they could not have picked a lewder dude. "The day they hired Gruden, he came in to address the team, and the first thing out of his mouth was a curse word," wide-out Keyshawn Johnson recalled last week as he dined at an Italian restaurant in San Diego's Gaslamp district. "We were like, 'Wow, things will be a lot different around here.' Tony's a great coach, but after six years some people had gotten bored with his coaching style. Jon gave us new energy, a charge."

What Gruden remembers about that initial address to the team was how daunting it was for him. Gruden wasn't allowed to take any of his coaching staff with him—the only Oakland employee he brought along was administrative assistant Mark Arteaga, and even then the coach says the Raiders threatened to file tampering charges with the league—so he walked into One Buc Place feeling like a callow corporate executive taking over a family business. "It wasn't just meeting the players, bro; it was meeting a coaching staff, trainers and secretaries too," Gruden said last Friday. "I was succeeding a guy who had done a hell of a job, and I was talking to a group of people who loved him. I told them, 'I respect who I'm succeeding, and I understand that it's emotional. Just give me a chance to implement a program.' "

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