The price for prying Jon Gruden from the Oakland Raiders was two
first-round draft picks, a pair of second-round selections and
$8 million, and as his new bosses informed him of the deal, the
just-hired coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was stunned. "When
they started talking about compensation," Gruden said of Bucs
owner Malcolm Glazer and sons Bryan, Joel and Ed, "I assumed it
was a seven-man blocking sled and three size-12 pairs of shoes."
¬∂ Gruden's sarcastic take was typical of the reaction around
the NFL. Back in February 2002, the notion of a team giving up
so much for one man--let alone a man who wore a headset rather
than a helmet--seemed absurd. "Not taking anything away from
Jon Gruden," says Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, "but I
thought that was the most shockingly one-sided deal I've seen
in pro football, eclipsing our trade of Herschel Walker to the
Vikings [in 1989]."
Eleven months later even doubters like Jones had to question
whether the deal was indeed a steal--for the Bucs. Matched
against his former team in Super Bowl XXXVII last January, Gruden
pushed all the right coaching buttons as Tampa Bay rolled to a
48-21 victory and its first championship. The NFL officially had
entered a new era, one in which the term the Franchise could be
applied to the man roaming the sideline.
In a league that owes much of its aura to legendary leaders like
Lombardi, Brown, Halas and Walsh, coaches have never meant more.
The season after Gruden's Super Bowl triumph, Bill Parcells has
engineered a dramatic turnaround of the Cowboys, Bill Belichick
has resourcefully rejuvenated the New England Patriots and Dick
Vermeil, Tony Dungy and Marvin Lewis have worked wonders with the
Kansas City Chiefs, Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals,
In the coming weeks a quarter of the league's teams may be
searching for the next sideline savior. Limited by a salary cap
that has compromised continuity and depleted depth--and seduced
by the instant impact a coach can make in a league ruled by
parity--many NFL owners have adopted a philosophy resembling that
of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory contestant Veruca Salt: I
want a coach who will get me a ring, and I want him NOW....
"We're basically all playing with the same budget and under the
same rules and conditions," says Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
"Everyone has a shot, and a lot of what determines who wins is
how well your coach can establish a system and get players to
adhere to his vision and philosophy."
Kraft, of course, speaks from personal experience, having sent a
first-round draft pick to the New York Jets to hire Belichick
before the 2000 season. Two years later Belichick, playing with
an untested quarterback (Tom Brady) and a roster filled with
bargain-basement free agents, repaid Kraft by coaching the Pats
to their first NFL crown.
This season Belichick's brilliance has been even more obvious.
Though the Patriots were reeling from the release of Pro Bowl
safety Lawyer Milloy five days before the season opener (a game
they would lose 31-0 to Milloy's new team, the Buffalo Bills),
Belichick kept his players motivated. New England's depth,
largely a result of Belichick's discerning eye for talent that
fits his system, has helped the team put together a
franchise-record 11-game regular-season winning streak and the
NFL's best mark (13-2) despite having started 42 players. A
stickler for detail, Belichick also has wowed players with his
uncanny ability to prepare his team for uncommon
situations--racing to the line to run the next play, for example,
before a questionable call can be reviewed in the replay
booth--that crop up in games.
Parcells, Belichick's mentor, is equally revered in Dallas, where
he took over a team that had gone 5-11 in each of its previous
three seasons and prodded the Cowboys (10-5) into the playoffs.
Parcells has blown away Jones, who wooed him out of retirement
last January, with his involvement in all facets of coaching and
with his willingness to adapt.
"Altering his system to fit his players is one of Bill Parcells's
best attributes," Jones says. "In today's NFL, where a third of
your roster turns over each year and it's hard to keep your core
players together, getting the right coach is the only way to
achieve continuity. You'd have to say that Bill's first year here
is a dramatic illustration of what coaching can do for a
The feelings are similar in Cincinnati, where Lewis, in his first
year as an NFL head coach, has pounded away at the Bengals'
13-year legacy of losing. Impressed by Lewis's record as one of
the league's best-ever defensive coordinators, Cincy president
Mike Brown granted his new coach more say-so in personnel
decisions than previous hires, and players were captivated by
Lewis's cool, driven leadership. The Bengals (8-7) remain in the
hunt for the AFC North title.
Dungy, discarded by the Glazers despite having triggered a
turnaround of his own in Tampa, has thrived in Indy, where his
defensive expertise and understated authority have been a boon to
the Colts (11-4), in line for their first division championship
since 1999. Another Super Bowl contender, AFC West champion
Kansas City (12-3), is prospering in its third year under the
emotional yet demanding Vermeil--just as Vermeil's previous team,
the St. Louis Rams, did in their championship season of 1999.
"The thing about all of these coaches is that they not only
command the respect of their players, but they also give it,"
says Rams running back Marshall Faulk. "They may be hard on their
guys at times, but they explain their reasoning and stay faithful
to their systems, and that's why guys love playing for them."
As examples, Faulk cites the Rams' Mike Martz and the
Philadelphia Eagles' Andy Reid. Martz made the tough decision to
bench his two-time league MVP, quarterback Kurt Warner, and then
stuck with replacement Marc Bulger through a rough spell in
November. Reid, his highly regarded team reeling after an 0-2
start, stayed faithful to quarterback Donovan McNabb and
maintained a steely resolve that kept his players from panicking.
The upshot is that the Rams (12-3) and the Eagles (11-4) appear
headed for a showdown in the NFC Championship Game. Gruden and
the Buccaneers (7-8), conversely, will be spending January in
front of their flat-screen TVs. So with the Bucs now struggling,
it brings us back to the question about the deal for Gruden: Was
it worth it?
"I still think the Raiders made a hell of a trade, and Tampa Bay
will miss those draft choices," Jones says. "But if you put the
caveat in there that you'd win a Super Bowl, a lot of us would
make that deal in a heartbeat."