Head Coach Jon Gruden feels good about the Bucs' future, in part because of the heart and drive the team displayed in 2007
The 2007 Tampa Bay Buccaneers held one final team meeting at 9:00 a.m. on Monday morning, less than 24 hours after their season came to an abrupt end. The meeting was stirring, but short, and by 9:15 the team auditorium was quiet and empty again.
The empty chairs reminded Jon Gruden why such a sudden conclusion to an otherwise fulfilling season can be difficult to swallow.
"The best way to explain it, I guess, was that the stadium atmosphere yesterday was unbelievable," said the Bucs' head coach, referring to the Bucs' Wild Card playoff loss to the New York Giants on Sunday. "The flags, the noise, the passion, the excitement…and now it's suddenly quiet. To say goodbye to these guys this morning was very emotional for me and very hard because they mean a lot to me and I'm proud of them."
Gruden's goodbye, of course, is directed more at the 2007 season, and at his team as it is currently constructed. He'll be seeing a good percentage of the players in Monday's meeting again soon. The 2008 offseason program will begin in March, and some men will be around in the weeks between for workouts or injury rehab. Gruden had to bid farewell to this year's chance to win the Super Bowl, and to the unique chemistry of this specific group of 53, but much of what the Buccaneers built – and rebuilt – in 2007 will remain.
That's the number-one thing Gruden learned about his team in 2007. The foundation is in place, and it's very strong at the core.
"We won a division championship; that's a great accomplishment in itself, but in the National Football League that is not enough," he said. "But we do have the heart of a champion. We have the heart of a champion, and around that heart we're going to build what we feel is a world championship football team.
"The character is unique, the work ethnic is tremendous and the camaraderie – you have to be here behind these doors to feel it. Those are things that we're going to emphasize and hopefully strengthen in the years to come."
Of course, the Bucs may have felt the same way after winning the NFC South in 2005, only to see the 2006 season devolve into a 4-12 disappointment. There's reason to feel differently this time around, however, as the Bucs have added a significant amount of talent to the team's core since the beginning of the '05 season, both through the draft and through a long-awaited dive back into free agency.
The 2005 draft paid some immediate dividends – Cadillac Williams, Alex Smith, Dan Buenning – but now the Bucs have the weight of three straight strong drafts on their roster, and many more young and rising contributors. The offensive line is both very young and, for once, a perceived area of strength, and the defense has benefited from the influx of such young talents as Barrett Ruud and Tanard Jackson. Last offseason, after years of working only the fringes of free agency for bargain signings, the Bucs targeted such specific need players as Cato June and Jeff Garcia, and those new contributors will be back, too.
Now the Bucs, who have extricated themselves from their salary cap dungeons, plan to keep adding key elements to what was already a winning team.
"We're going to need to continue to add players," said Gruden. "The hard part about the National Football League is, no matter who you are there's going to be change with the draft and with free agency. We do want to try to remain as consistent as we can in terms of keeping continuity. But as we stated earlier, we're going to try to compete for the best players that are out there in America that are available this year to try to help ourselves get better."
Most importantly, the Buccaneers will approach their roster shaping with a specific plan based on how good the team really is, in all areas. Owning the division title won't prompt the Bucs to don rose-colored glasses, nor will the Bucs simply show up next season and expect to be handed another NFC South crown.
"I think we have to concentrate on the reality of where we are," said Gruden. "We've got to continue to add players, we've got to continue to develop players and we need a few players to explode onto the scene as dominant, great players for us to move on."
But what the team already possesses, what struck Gruden first as he looked out over the empty meeting room on Monday and back over the 2007 season, is heart and unity.
"I think it was portrayed really when Paris Warren got hurt in the preseason, when Cadillac went down in North Carolina," said Gruden. "You don't see that. It's not scripted, it's just special, especially at this level. This is a unique bond, a unique togetherness that we shared and hopefully we can continue to build upon that."