In 2002, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers gave up four draft picks and $8 million to pry Jon Gruden away from the Oakland Raiders. They were rewarded with their first Super Bowl title the same season.
Roughly 7 years later, he is on the unemployment line after failing to reach the playoffs for the fourth time in 6 seasons and failing to win even one postseason game in that time span. This includes two straight losing seasons following his Super Bowl win.
Now that the Buccaneers have chosen to make a late coaching change, I think it is time to answer the question “what went wrong.”
Here, in my opinion, are four major contributing factors to his fall from grace in Tampa Bay.
The Trade. To get Raiders owner Al Davis to release Gruden from his contract, the Buccaneers gave up their 2002 and 2003 first round picks and their 2002 and 2004 second round picks. Teams count on first day picks like that to bring in fresh talent at an affordable price; something the Buccaneers missed out on. In 2002 alone, they lost out on their chance to draft players like Ed Reed and Clinton Portis.
Rich McKay leaving– Prior to Gruden coming to Tampa Bay, the Buccaneers were already a legitimate Super Bowl contender. General manager Rich McKay deserved a lot of credit for that considering he drafted players like Mike Alstott, Ronde Barber and Warrick Dunn. McKay left the franchise in 2003 and went to the Atlanta Falcons, an NFC South rival. Bruce Allen, who was also fired this week, replaced him.
Saying goodbye to popular veterans – After Allen was hired, the team purged a lot of popular players from the roster, including Warren Sapp and John Lynch. Both were playmakers in the Tampa 2 defense that was being run and the team never fully replaced their leadership on that side of the ball. Tampa Bay went from being ranked in the top 5 for defense in 2003 to 22nd in 2004.
The revolving door at quarterback – When Gruden came to Tampa Bay, he had a veteran quarterback in Brad Johnson. In the 6 years since, Gruden has started players like Chris Simms, Tim Rattay, Brian Griese and Jeff Garcia; usually making a change at least once each year. The inability to decide on a full-time starter led to distractions ranging from a trade for a retired Jake Plummer (who never played for the Buccaneers) to rumors he would attempt to trade for Brett Favre. The fact he benched quarterback Jeff Garcia, who led the team to the playoffs in 2007, in favor of Brian Griese at the start of the season also raised a few questions.
Chances are, Gruden will get another chance with another team. If he does, we can only hope he and any team hiring him will learn from these mistakes.