Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Ultimate Buccaneer

Paul Gruber officially retires on Tuesday, but he will always be remembered as a franchise cornerstone

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Paul Gruber is one of the greatest players in franchise history

In Paul Gruber's first regular season NFL game, his Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost to the Philadelphia Eagles 41-14, kicking off a 5-11 season.

In Gruber's last NFL game, more than 11 years later, the Buccaneers dismantled the Chicago Bears, 20-6, in the process clinching the 1999 NFC Central title.

Gruber spanned the interim like a bridge, one stanchion in the era of Tampa Bay futility, one in the new age of Buccaneer Super Bowl contention. But to which does he belong?

Emotionally, we want to say the present. The ultimate Buccaneer warrior deserves to be linked with the team's new winning ways. But, as much as Gruber is a winner, the answer to the question is: both.

The fourth overall selection of the 1988 draft, Gruber is forever linked with the Bucs as they were, in the manner that a lighthouse is associated with a stormy sea. Even as Tampa Bay's NFL franchise struggled through one season after the next, Gruber silently and strongly did his job.

He was a key aspect in the team's 1997 and 1999 playoff runs, yes, but he was just as effective in 1991, when the Buccaneers went 3-13. It is almost ludicrous, in retrospect, that one of the worst teams in the NFL featured one of its best players at left tackle, a position of immeasurable importance.

But it did. While 12 different left guards, 12 different right guards and eight different right tackles lined up alongside him, Gruber went about his job, spectacularly. He is an offensive tackle, which means he toils in a statistical vacuum, yet we can wow you with stats. For instance:

· Paul Gruber was in for 4,850 consecutive offensive snaps after being drafted in 1988; · Paul Gruber played the entire 1989 season, only his second in the league, without being called for holding; · Paul Gruber started 183 games as a Buccaneer, 38 more than the next guy on the list (Tony Mayberry)…that's 66 more than Lee Roy Selmon; · Paul Gruber is the only player in Buccaneer history with at least 75 games played who started every game he played.

So Gruber is as much defined by his excellence in the face of mediocrity as he is by the newfound success in which he played a big part. That he missed the team's playoff run last year after suffering a broken leg in the regular season finale is unfortunate, but it sullies his career not one bit. While Tony Dungy was rebuilding the Buccaneers from 1996 on, the team never once drafted a tackle in the first round. Coincidence? Probably not.

We can and should remember Paul Gruber in pewter and red, helping to open running lanes for Mike Alstott in the 1997 playoffs. But we'll also see him in orange because, you know what, he made that color look good.

Paul Gruber retired today, ending his career as a Tampa Bay Buccaneer. Paul Gruber retired today, forever remaining a Tampa Bay Buccaneer.

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