Executive Vice President Joel Glazer presented Head Coach Jon Gruden with a game ball in Kansas City after Gruden became the winningest coach in team history
Number 57 might just be number one, at least in terms of in-game drama.
From the opening of the 2002 season through Week Eight of 2008, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won 56 regular season and postseason games. On Sunday in Kansas City, the Buccaneers made it 57, thus making Jon Gruden — who took over in 2002 in one of the most dramatic personnel moves in team history — the winningest head coach in the franchise's 33 years of play.
To do so they had to mount the most incredible Buccaneer comeback ever, thereby making this milestone victory one that neither Gruden nor the rest of the team would ever forget. There have certainly been bigger wins in Gruden's tenure — Super Bowl XXXVII and the 2002 NFC Championship game are just a couple examples — but few have been so improbable in their construction.
By rallying from a 24-3 deficit to win 30-27 in overtime, Tampa Bay moved to 6-3 on the season and breathed life into their second-half NFC South title chase. It's fitting that victory #57 might be the fulcrum around which another Buccaneer playoff season will pivot, because the most obvious result of Gruden's hiring in 2002 has been the team's dominance within perhaps the NFL's most competitive division.
Gruden became the Buccaneers' head coach in 2002 only after the Glazer family made an incredibly bold move, prying the former Raider leader away from Oakland with a package that included four draft picks and millions of dollars. That cost was more than returned 11 months later when Tampa Bay defeated those Raiders in the 37th Super Bowl, giving the Buccaneers their first league crown.
That 2002 season coincided with an NFL realignment that created the NFC South. In the first six years of that division's existence, the Buccaneers won three division titles; every other team in the South has won it just once. That accomplishment is even more impressive when matched with the first 26 seasons of Tampa Bay football. The Bucs won three division titles in their first six years under Gruden; they had won one in the previous 20 years.
Gruden is now in his seventh season at the Bucs' helm, and his team is one-half game behind Carolina for the lead in the South in 2008. Tampa Bay also has a game in hand against the Panthers, having demolished their division rivals, 27-3, in Week Six. A fourth division title in seven years is a distinct possibility, which speaks not only to the talent possessed by Gruden's staff and the Bucs' player roster but also to the franchise stability that has been forged over the last seven years.
That stability — Gruden has enjoyed a staff that includes the same defensive coordinator (Monte Kiffin), offensive coordinator (Bill Muir) and special teams coordinator (Rich Bisaccia) for his entire tenure — is one of the main things he credits for his teams' success over the years.
"I am very appreciative for the opportunity to be here as long as I have," said Gruden. "I thank the Glazers for hanging in there with me. There's been a couple tough years. There's been some exciting times, but I really respect and appreciate their confidence and them giving me the opportunity to stay here and do what I like to do. Monte Kiffin, Bill Muir and Rich Bisaccia, my coordinators, been with me and I really appreciate them."
Gruden inherited a talented group of players in 2002, one that had been to the playoffs in four of the five previous seasons. But he also put an immediate stamp on the roster with the import of such players as Michael Pittman, Roman Oben, Joe Jurevicius and Keenan McCardell and the move of Shelton Quarles to middle linebacker, where he would become an instant Pro Bowler. Gruden also provided the creativity and the leadership that put the team over the top and delivered the Lombardi Trophy to Tampa.
Ultimately, though, he credits his players for all of those 57 victories, especially the veteran core of the team.
"I've got to give it to Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber, the guys that have been a big part of winning all of those games," he said after Joel Glazer presented him with a game ball in the visitor's locker room in Kansas City. "I should give them that ball."
Barber has been on the field for every one of Gruden's 57 wins, and he has enjoyed the last seven seasons immensely. Three of his four Pro Bowl campaigns have occurred since Gruden's arrival, and his greatest professional moment was the 92-yard interception return that sealed the Bucs' victory in the 2002 NFC Championship Game. Barber is a work-hard, say-little, bottom-line type of player, and that has fit well under Gruden's no-nonsense style.
"When people get here, they realize that all he really wants to do is win," said Barber. "It's not so much about the image that is projected outside of this building. He just wants to be a successful football coach and he wants to be successful for his players."
Barber was drafted by the Buccaneers and already on the team when Gruden arrived. By contrast, wide receiver Ike Hilliard signed on as a free agent in 2005, willingly joining the program. He hasn't regretted the decision.
"I love the guy, man," said Hilliard of Gruden. "I have a lot of respect for him, a lot. I enjoy the way he prepares for the game. I enjoy how intense he is during a game, whether you make a play or really screw up something. You really know what to expect from him. It has allowed me to have fun playing football again when I got here as a free agent."
Perhaps the biggest compliment Hilliard could pay Gruden is that he hopes to emulate him in the future. Hilliard is one of those players who is already thinking about his post-playing future in the NFL, and he thinks he could find a spot in coaching. His four seasons under Gruden have not only strengthened that belief but possibly given him some important training for his next occupation.
"I'm happy to learn from him because I really want to coach, and I think he's a guy in this game that I can learn a lot from," said Hilliard. "And I have, and hopefully I can pick his brain a little bit more. He has an unbelievable football mind and it's just a joy playing for him."
Gruden's 57th victory gave him one more than the total the team amassed under Tony Dungy from 1996-2001. A few months ago, as this season was beginning, it dawned on Barber that he had now played longer under Gruden than he had under Dungy, his first NFL coach. Looking back over the six and a half years since Gruden's arrival, Barber could see how the franchise's seventh head coach had completely remodeled the team to his design.
"He's intense, man," said Barber. "He expects to be the best at what he does, so it doesn't surprise you that he eventually became the all-time leader in wins here."
It was a little surprising, perhaps, the way in which it happened. The Buccaneers hadn't rallied to win from a deficit of even 17 points since 1983. They needed just the second kickoff return for a touchdown in franchise history to get the rally started, and just the third touchdown pass by a Buccaneer running back ever to keep it alive. There was the scrambling, 24-yard TD pass to Antonio Bryant in the back left corner of the end zone in the final seconds of regulation, and the two-point conversion catch by tight end Alex Smith as he was bent painfully over his own ankle.
It took dozens of incredible plays to get the Buccaneers their sixth win of the season and Gruden his 57th ever as Tampa Bay's head coach. It might not have been the single most important win in team history, but it was one of the most memorable, and probably will remain that way for Gruden for a long time.
"It was a special day and we had to work hard to get that game ball, I know that," said Gruden with a chuckle. "That was a tough one to get."