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Thursday, May 24, 2018
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For Gruden, memories of Bucs' title ring true

TAMPA - It took a couple of ESPN executives to remind Jon Gruden he was a Super-Bowl winning coach. "I hadn't worn my ring in about six years after I got fired,'' said Gruden, who will return to Raymond James Stadium Sunday to participate in the 10-year celebration of the 2002 NFL champions. "When I went into the broadcast booth, some ESPN people asked me why I wasn't wearing my ring. Now I wear it on the set and it's spectacular.'' The man hired to put the '02 Bucs over the top is finishing up his fourth season as ESPN's "Monday Night Football'' analyst. Gruden still resides in Tampa, working out of a Carrollwood office crammed with game tapes since the Bucs dismissed him as coach after the 2008 season.
That where Gruden arrives in the dead of night, preparing for the next broadcast when he's not fending off the latest rumor about his imminent return to the NFL sidelines. On Sunday, when Gruden would normally be at New England's practice facility in advance of the Patriots-Texans Monday night matchup, he'll be part of a halftime ceremony honoring Tampa Bay's NFL champions. "That team is never to be forgotten,'' said Gruden, who will instead leave for Foxborough, Mass., on Sunday evening. "Hopefully, it'll be duplicated again someday. I can't believe it's been 10 years. I stay in contact with some of the guys … I wish I could stay in contact with more.'' When Gruden was essentially traded from the Raiders to the Bucs, replacing Tony Dungy, he inherited a stellar defense led by Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, John Lynch and Ronde Barber. The Bucs added some veterans to an offense that was plodding along until Game 9, when Brad Johnson fired five touchdown passes in a 38-24 home victory against Minnesota. "We had a really good defense -- we all knew it,'' said Gruden, "but a defense doesn't become great until you have an offense that can capitalize on that success. You have to play complementary football, and I really feel Brad was our MVP that year. "I know Derrick played great, but for Brad Johnson to lead the NFC in passing efficiency with a bunch of guys he'd never met, including me, and then accomplish what he did in the playoffs was sensational.'' The Bucs finished 12-4 in the regular season, earning a bye week as the NFC's No. 2 playoff seed. Before a raucous home crowd, Tampa Bay trounced the 49ers 31-6 to advance to the conference title game. "Brad's first half against San Francisco might be the best first half of football I've ever been associated with,'' Gruden said. "That was a good 49ers defense and Brad shredded them. After that game, I had a lot of confidence. I knew we could beat Philly. "The Eagles had a great blitzing scheme and they had dominated the Bucs in recent matchups. I knew we had enough skill at wide receiver to make some plays if we knew what the coverage was. The best thing we did that day was going with two tight ends and two backs. We created a lot of crazy formations and they ended up taking (defensive end) Hugh Douglas out of the game. He had been the guy who drove our offensive line crazy.'' Near the end of the opening half, the Bucs went ahead for good at 17-10 when Keyshawn Johnson hauled in a 9-yard touchdown pass. "I'll never forget it, we called 200 Jet Bengal,'' Gruden said. "Brad did not like that play in the tight red zone, but I said I think we can throw a dead slant to Keyshawn and Brad stuck it in there.'' After beating the Eagles 27-10 to close down Veterans Stadium, the Bucs embarrassed Gruden's old team, routing the Raiders 48-21 in the Super Bowl at San Diego. "I think about that club every time we get to playoff season and I hear people asking who's going to win the Super Bowl,'' Gruden said. "We showed what you can do as a team if you have mental toughness and the right group of guys. It took us six weeks just to get to know each other and it's amazing how this community still responds to that team, everywhere I go. "That's become a trademark day in the history of Tampa Bay. To get off the plane in Tampa and see that type of enthusiasm makes you feel you were part of something that will never be forgotten. People I meet can still remember the plays and the formations like it was yesterday.'' Those memories will come flooding back for Gruden Sunday when a packed house salutes the coaches and players that brought a Vince Lombardi Trophy to Tampa. "Maybe one of these days, I'll rent a movie theater and invite some of my best friends here in town to watch that Super Bowl game again from start to finish on the big screen,'' Gruden said. "Yeah, I think I'll do that.''
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