By: Bob George/
January 19, 2003

No Brady or Gronk, but plenty of storylines at Patriots OTAs
Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski not at the start of the team's OTA's today
NFL notes: Don't be surprised if Deatrich Wise Jr., Derek Rivers rise up for Patriots
New Patriots DL Danny Shelton preps to hit the hill
Patriots center David Andrews excited with his new Georgia Bulldog teammates

Do not, repeat, do not believe a word that comes out of Jon Gruden’s mouth where the Oakland Raiders are involved.

“I have a lot of respect for where it is I came from.” Well said, mate. Sounds good. Nice sound byte. Not true, but it sounded good. The last thing you want to do is torque off Al Davis and Bill Callahan (he’s the head coach of the Raiders, and you may still not know that next Sunday) a mere twelve months after you used to work for and with them.

Jon, we know the truth. You hate them. During the AFC Championship Game last year between the Patriots and the Steelers, Armen Keteyian of CBS Sports filed a sideline report, saying that “The agent for…Gruden has restated that there is zero percent chance that Gruden will coach the Raiders beyond the 2002 season, and if somehow Gruden were to lose his job as head coach of the Raiders in the interim, he would be very pleased with that prospect.” Don’t try and con us with this nice stuff about the Raiders. You hate them. We’d feel better if you’d just go Barry Bonds on anyone who asks you about the Raiders. Just say, “Next question!” That’s all.

Gruden was acquired by Tampa Bay in the offseason for two first-round picks, two second-round picks, the deeds to both Raymond James Stadium and Tropicana Field, and the firstborns of every Buccaneer player. In just his first year, Gruden has directed the once-woebegone Bucs to the first Super Bowl berth in their shoddy and forlorn history.

Against them.

Oooh. If anyone thought that last year’s match between defensive genius Bill Belichick and supposed offensive genius (certainly not game manager genius) Mike Martz was interesting, that matchup is nothing compared to this. Gruden versus Davis (we’d say Callahan, except we’d have to keep explaining who he is. It’s much better to just say Davis, since this guy is the only man in this organization who wears the pants) is sexier than those two catfighting chicks on that beer commercial. In fact, Gruden and Davis would make a great tussle in its own right.

Super Bowl XXXVII is now set. What was supposed to be the scene of the Patriots repeating as Super Bowl champs is instead a matchup of a three-time champ and a super neophyte. Davis has been here on this stage many times before, and the NFL hates it every time he’s there. On the other hand, the Glazer family finally gets to shed their buffoon image with a win next Sunday over Oakland.

No, it won’t be as exciting in these parts because the hometown team is sitting instead of playing. But this championship game does offer some intriguing matchups beyond the Tampa Bay head coach going up against the team he coached to a Snow Bowl loss last year. If nothing else, Gruden may know better than any other NFL head coach how to stop the optical illusion that is the Oakland offense.

The Buccaneers gained entry into this game thanks to a landmark 27-10 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles. In a way, it largely resembled the Patriot win at Miami in 1986 to gain entry into Super Bowl XX. It was the first road playoff win in Tampa Bay history, the second win in franchise history in cold (below 40 degrees) weather, and they win the first NFC Championship in franchise history after two previous attempts. They did it in a venue which had been unkind to them in recent years; the final game in the history of rancid Veterans Stadium obviously turned sour for the locals.

The win was sort of a surprise, given how well Philadelphia had played against Tampa Bay in past years. But on Sunday, the Buccaneers really took it to the Eagles, and dominated them in every way possible.

Despite a huge game from cornerback Ronde Barber, who ran back an interception 92 yards for a score to seal the deal, the game’s MVP ought to go to wide receiver Joe Jurevicious. Embattled with family problems all week long surrounding his wife and their newborn infant, Jurevicious made it for the game and caught only one pass. But it went for 71 yards, and it led to a Mike Alstott touchdown and a lead that Tampa Bay would never relinquish. The momentum stayed with the Bucs after Jurevicious’ catch.

Joining the Buccaneers in the Big Show will be the Raiders, making their first visit to football’s biggest stage in nineteen years. The Raiders won Super Bowl XI (and I fall sick to my stomach when I hear Davis complain about how the Immaculate Reception game was “stolen” from his Raiders, when the Raiders won Super Bowl XI only because their playoff win was “stolen” from the Patriots thanks to Ben Dreith), 32-14 over Minnesota, won Super Bowl XV over Philadelphia, 27-10, and won Super Bowl XVIII over Washington (the team at the time was based in Los Angeles), 38-9. The only time the Raiders have lost a Super Bowl was in Super Bowl II against Green Bay, 33-14.

Oakland laid another pasting on the Tennessee Titans on Sunday, 41-24, to win the AFC Championship (and officially sending the Patriots into “past champion” status). Rich Gannon threw three touchdown passes in a virtual pass-only offense. But what did Tennessee in were two fumbles late in the second quarter which gave the Raiders ten quick points and the all-important halftime lead. The Titans drew within three at 27-24, but got no closer after that.

The Raiders continue to be nothing short of amazing, given that many of their key players are long in the tooth. But many of these long in the tooth players will wind up enshrined in Canton not long after they hang up their cleats. Be it Gannon, Jerry Rice, Tim Brown or Rod Woodson, the Raiders are setting youth in the NFL back fifty years.

So, what do you make of this impending collision between Gruden and his former team?

Gruden may know the Raiders, but he is more of an offensive guru than anything else. For all the credit that is paid to Martz, a case can be made that Gruden is actually the best offensive coach in the league. What may turn out to be key to a Buccaneer win is how well defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin gameplans for this weekend. The all-pro secondary of the Bucs will be severely tested by the veteran Raider wideouts and by the lightning quickness of Gannon.

What will be some key matchups right off the bat will be Barber versus Rice, and perhaps strong safety John Lynch versus Charlie Garner. Lynch may be more needed in pass defense, but Garner remains an unsung hero of the Raiders, and deemed by many as the real key to the Raider offense.

On the other side of the ball, Gruden will not have an easy time defining his focus as to how to attack the Raider defense. His offensive line took another hit on Sunday with the knee injury to Cosey Coleman. Fullback Mike Alstott will need to punish the Raiders up the middle, and wideouts Jurevicious and Keyshawn Johnson will test the Raider secondary. Johnson will likely match up with Charles Woodson. Both Woodsons will be a great test for both Tampa wideouts.

But this deep game analysis won’t matter until Saturday. All week long, it’ll be about Jon and Al. The rest of the hype won’t matter. Media day could very well involve everyone getting their take on Gruden taking on his old team. That’s all anyone will care about.

And Gruden tops that list. He cares deeply about Oakland right now. Beating them Sunday tops his life’s priorities at this moment.

And for Gruden, a victory will be as sweet as Ghirardelli chocolate.