By: Bob George/
January 24, 2003

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SAN DIEGO -- Is it a coincidence that three of the four teams in the NFL conference title games are teams that Jon Gruden has ties to?

He is currently the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He is the former head coach of the Oakland Raiders. Prior to that, he was the offensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles. Makes you wonder why the Tennessee Titans never bothered to take this guy on.

We’ll flash back to Philly first. During his three-year tenure as their offensive head man (1995-97), Gruden’s Eagles earned Wild Card berths in his first two years and went 1-2 in the playoffs (the one win was a massive 58-37 win over Detroit). The Eagles went into a decline after 1996, which helped cost head coach Ray Rhodes his job. When Pete Carroll took over the Patriots in 1997, Gruden was Carroll’s first choice as offensive coordinator. Since the move was lateral, permission from the Eagles was needed and it was denied. Gruden moved up to head coach of the Raiders after the 1997 season.

Back then, he was the youngest head coach in the league. Four years later, he still is (he turns 40 in August). He led the Raiders to postseason berths in 2000 and 2001, but suffered disappointing defeats in both years. His Raiders hosted the 2000 AFC Championship Game, but eventual champion Baltimore won in Black Hole, 16-3. The following year, Oakland lost once again to an eventual champion, falling to New England in overtime, 16-13 in the snowbound final game at Foxborough Stadium.

What wasn’t widely known earlier on became prime news shortly after the Snow Bowl. It was reported that Gruden, who was signed to coach the Raiders through the 2002 season, had become disenchanted with Raiders’ owner Al Davis and was having constant run-ins with quarterback Rich Gannon, many of which were out in the open on the Raider sideline. Gruden’s agent made it known that Gruden would definitely not sign with the Raiders beyond 2002, and openly asked the Raiders to either trade him or let him go outright.

Trade him Davis did, to Tampa Bay for two 1st round picks, two 2nd round picks and $8 million. The Bucs were desperate for a head coach, having canned Tony Dungy on the supposition that Bill Parcells would come on board. The Tuna changed his mind and jilted owner Malcolm Glazer at the altar (sound familiar, folks?), and Glazer wound up overpaying for Gruden.

Except that it suddenly doesn’t seem like overpaying.

In just his first year at the helm of the Buccaneers, he has led this franchise to their first Super Bowl. And it just happens to be against his former employer, the Oakland Raiders. This is the first time in Super Bowl history that one of the head coaches is opposing the team he coached the previous year. With his fingerprints all over both teams, Gruden has assumed the limelight among the NFL head coaching brethren, the same limelight one Bill Belichick tolerated last year at this time.

Just thinking about it is both interesting and amazing. Whose team is really Gruden’s? The terrific Raider offense under the supervision of a caretaker named Bill Callahan? Or the great defensive squad that Dungy built who was only a decent offensive guy away from a Super Bowl berth?

It’s hard to make it out on the Raider side. On the one hand, is Callahan really the architect of this offense? Unheard of prior to this year, and one of the most unassuming head coaches you’d ever see anywhere, it is hard to believe that once Gruden puts more time distance between him and the Raiders, Callahan will be able to keep this juggernaut going. Naturally, age is a factor where the top Raider skill position players are involved. But Gruden might finally expose Callahan on Sunday as nothing more than a rookie head coach who inherited a strong team rather than built one (to wit: How well did Barry Switzer do in Dallas after his win in Super Bowl XXX?).

On the other hand, is this Gruden against Gruden? Will Gruden know enough about the Raider offense to be able and tell his defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin just what to do? Will Gruden and Kiffin be able to anticipate literally anything and deal with it properly? Assuming Gruden has the smarts to stop his old team, he also has the material with which to do it in some of the best speed defenders and hard hitters in the league.

Almost completely ignored is the other side of the ball, and that is the Buccaneer offense versus the Raider defense. This may ultimately prove to be the key to the game, if the other way around proves to be a push.

And in this scenario, it is Gruden who is clearly in charge of the Bucs offense. Like last year, where Belichick was the best weapon the Patriots had in their endeavours to beat the St. Louis Rams, Gruden gives the Bucs that same quality.

It helped in getting some semblance of a quarterback in Brad Johnson. But what really helped Tampa Bay greatly was giving this franchise the biggest shot in the arm it could have ever asked for last weekend.

What Gruden and Johnson did, which should greatly concern Oakland if they are smart enough to realize this, was to score 27 points in Veterans Stadium, a venue where they had failed miserably in each of the two previous postseasons. This is an accomplishment for Tampa Bay of incredible and grandiose proportions. If Tampa Bay’s offense is so good that it can both exorcise past demons the way it did, as well as to score 27 points on the road against an outstanding Eagle defense, the Raiders, with a defense that is inferior to Philadelphia’s, will have plenty to handle on Sunday.

The game will hinge on whose offense gets stopped the least. Tampa Bay’s offense has confidence. Oakland’s offense has its architect as its opposing head coach. This edge here is what should swing Super Bowl XXXVII in favor of Tampa Bay, and bring the first NFL championship to the Florida Gulf Coast.

The best chance the Raiders have to win is to hope that their offensive line wins the battle of the line of scrimmage. Big as they are, they may have all they can handle with speed rushers like Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice and former Patriot Greg Spires down low, and Derrick Brooks behind them. If Gannon gets hurried all game long, he will have to rely solely on the short passing game. It is then incumbent on cornerbacks Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly to come up big against Jerry Rice and Tim Brown and prevent them from gaining big yardage after the catch.

That said, the key factor in the Raider offense might be the forgotten man in the scheme of things, Jerry Porter. Playing in the shadows of his future Hall of Fame teammates, Porter might have the game of his life if Gannon has time to find him. If the Raiders employ a three-wideout set, nickel back Dwight Smith becomes a big factor.

The official opinion of this column is that the Bucs’ defense will disrupt Gannon enough to upset his timing and his rhythm, and it will prove decisive in the game. It will happen because, as previously stated, Gruden will know how to attack Oakland and has the manpower with which to do so.

Fame is fleeting. So is affection. Raider Nation refers to Gruden as “Chuckie”.

Buccaneer Nation hopes to refer to Gruden as “Billy”, as in the first name of the winning head coach last year.

Wait. We’ve got a better nickname for Gruden if he wins on Sunday.