Jon Gruden's Buccaneers made definite strides on offense in 2003 despite a long list of injuries
Though the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' player personnel department is still humming, wrapping up one season and starting to work on the next, two-thirds of One Buccaneer Place sits dark and quiet this week. Head Coach Jon Gruden gave his entire coaching staff a vacation for the first week and a half of the new year.
It is a much-needed break for that hard-working crew, given the endless hours coaches put in during the season. As much as anything, the break will be mentally refreshing for Gruden and his men, given the sour feelings left over from a disappointing, 7-9 season.
"It's hard to put into words the sickness that I feel for myself, our team and our fans," said Gruden before he left. "At the same time, we need to reload a little bit. I'm going to be realistic, in spite of who says what and who does what. We have to be realistic on what we need to do here, and we need to be aggressive as heck, in terms of getting it done."
Gruden sounds as if he will waste no time attacking the team's shortcomings in 2004, and you can't blame him. With the NFL as competitively balanced as it has ever been, every move on and off the field counts in the end. Fortunately, the Bucs believe they are starting with a strong base and are in good position to regain their 2002 glory.
"It's a competitive league," said Gruden. "You see the Jets, the Steelers, the 49ers, the Raiders – there are a number of teams that were in the thick of it last year that aren't this year. Statistically, structurally, we are excited about the future of our football team. We feel like we made great strides offensively with an inordinate amount of critical injuries. The Alstott, the Jurevicius, the Keyshawn Johnson situation, the whole thing was very difficult on us."
Indeed, the 2003 version of Gruden's 'Gulf Coast' offense scored more touchdowns, racked up more first downs, ran more plays per game and averaged more yards per play, improved in the ground game by a small margin, pumped up the passing attack by a larger margin, threw deep with better success, improved upon an already outstanding completion percentage and took almost half as many sacks. The Bucs averaged 340.8 yards per game in 2003, the most in team history and an improvement of almost 10 percent from last year's 312.6. Even on defense, the Bucs slipped only from first to fifth in the league rankings and still had the ninth-most takeaways in the NFL.
"Statistically, we made some leaps and bounds," said Gruden. "I think we improved structurally, from an offensive standpoint. Defensively, we are still very good. But we did not statistically turn out very well in special teams, or didn't turn out very well in penalties, or field position, quite honestly. Those were three areas that hurt us. We can't finish near the end, or at the end in all of the statistical categories in terms of special teams. We need to get better there. We need to get bigger, faster, stronger and we need to get more dynamic playmaking. And that's a primary goal of ours."
The Bucs' penalty and kicking-game problems – really, the underlying causes for the third of Gruden's issues above, field position – are a bit of a double-edged sword, in retrospect. They were intensely frustrating and at times fatal during the season, but they are issues that can definitely be addressed during the offseason. Had the Bucs' 2003 decline been the result of a serious talent drain, the solutions would be more difficult to come by.
"Those penalties inhibited some pretty good efforts," said Gruden. "They put us behind on down-and-distance and field position, and made it an uphill battle, to some degree. We were four or five plays away from being right in the thick of things again, despite numerous injuries, and for that I'm excited about the future."
The Bucs' immediate future will get more clarity when the team hires a new general manager, probably not long after the coaches return next week. That will allow the personnel and coaching staffs to begin working together at the accelerated pace Gruden desires.
"We do have some salary cap issues, that's why it's important to get a general manager in here that has a tremendous vision, in terms of how to handle the salary cap," he said. "That will allow us to be as aggressive as any team in the world in tracking players here because this is one hell of a place to play.
Ultimately a 7-9 record, in many ways, was self-inflicted. We had some injuries. We had some plays in critical stages of games that we did not make. And ultimately it resulted in a 7-9 season. But this fist will stay rolled up and it will keep pounding and it will keep working. That's the best I can do and that's what I'm going to do."