Jon Gruden was a 29-year-old neophyte wide receivers coach for the Green Bay Packers when Joe Gibbs stunned the NFL by retiring as the Washington Redskins' coach after the 1992 season. Gruden says that he and a few coaching buddies stashed away some game tapes of Gibbs-led Redskins teams as keepsakes of a coaching legend, and he is dusting them off now as he and his team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, prepare to face Gibbs and the Redskins on Sunday at FedEx Field in the Hall of Fame coach's official return to the sideline.
"We'll try to look at some of the old stuff and, at the same time, respect the time that has passed and respect the creativity that Joe Gibbs has," Gruden, a 41-year-old veteran of six seasons as an NFL head coach with a Super Bowl triumph on his résumé, said at a recent media briefing.
But Gibbs and his staff also face uncertainty in readying for the Buccaneers, for the Redskins won't be the only dramatically remade team on the field in Sunday's regular season opener. The Buccaneers still have Gruden and veteran defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin pulling the strings, but they are coming off an extensive offseason roster overhaul.
Not only do they barely resemble the team that overwhelmed the Oakland Raiders, 48-21, in Super Bowl XXXVII less than 20 months ago, they don't even look much like the club that unraveled last season on its way to a 7-9 finish. The 53-man roster includes 24 players who weren't with the team last season; only 22 players remain from the Super Bowl club.
Gruden and new general manager Bruce Allen said goodbye to two mainstays, defensive tackle Warren Sapp and safety John Lynch, and gave quarterback Brad Johnson a reworked offensive line and wide receiver corps. The Buccaneers were even busier than the Redskins in free agency, even if their moves weren't necessarily as splashy.
"We knew we'd have about 20 new guys on the team, and that was a function of the salary cap more than anything else," Allen, the son of the Redskins' late Hall of Fame coach, George Allen, said by telephone over the weekend. "We had the least amount of cap space in the NFC. We were limited in what we could do. We did what we could. Now we'll find out if it works. I'm confident we'll play hard. I'm confident we'll be well-prepared."
Gruden and Bruce Allen worked together with the Raiders, and Allen joined Gruden in Tampa in January as the replacement for Rich McKay, who had an uneasy relationship with Gruden before leaving to become GM of the Atlanta Falcons. Gruden and Allen have assembled a veteran team littered with former Raiders, including tailback Charlie Garner and wide receiver Tim Brown.
"They made a lot of changes the year we won the Super Bowl, and we've made a lot of changes this year, too," Johnson said by phone late last week. "It's really been similar. Really, I feel good about it. They were changes that needed to be made. Last year, I thought we were ready to go, but we lost games we could have won. . . . We set a team record for [penalty yards], and you just can't do that. If you're going to win in this league, you have to play above your head. That's what we did in the Super Bowl year. Last year we only played average, and that's what our record was."
Allen says some decisions were made for him. He traded wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson -- placed on the inactive list by Gruden for the final six games of last season for insubordination -- to Dallas for fellow wideout Joey Galloway. He made little effort to re-sign Sapp, who ended up signing with the Raiders as a free agent, because the Buccaneers in effect had made their choice, Allen said, by signing fellow defensive tackle Anthony McFarland to a six-year, $34 million contract extension just before last season.
Allen said that most of the backlash for parting with Sapp and Lynch, who was released in March and now is with the Denver Broncos, has come from the media, not fans. The Buccaneers have promoted Chartric Darby to replace Sapp and Jermaine Phillips to replace Lynch and hope that free agent newcomers such as linebacker Ian Gold and cornerback Mario Edwards will help a defense anchored by end Simeon Rice, linebacker Derrick Brooks and cornerback Ronde Barber.
On offense, Garner must carry the rushing load while tailback Michael Pittman serves a three-game suspension imposed by the league after his conviction on a domestic-abuse charge. Fullback Mike Alstott has returned from a career-threatening disk injury to his neck. The line includes three starters new to the team -- tackles Derrick Deese and Todd Steussie and guard Matt Stinchcomb -- and Brad Johnson has a new set of receivers in Galloway, free agent newcomer Bill Schroeder, first-round draft choice Michael Clayton and Brown. Joe Jurevicius is sidelined after undergoing back surgery, and Keenan McCardell is holding out in a contract dispute in which neither side seems ready to blink.
"He's said he's going to sit out the season," Allen said, "and we believe him."
Said Johnson: "I think we're a more explosive offense. Galloway makes us more explosive. Billy Schroeder makes us more explosive. Tim Brown fills the role that Keenan McCardell had, and Michael Clayton is coming along. Joe Jurevicius is the X-factor when he comes back. I think we've upgraded our team as a whole group."
Johnson, who threw 21 interceptions last season after throwing only six while leading the Bucs to the Super Bowl, faced the prospect of being replaced when the Buccaneers negotiated with free agent quarterback Jeff Garcia before he signed with the Cleveland Browns in March. Now there are rumblings that second-year pro Chris Simms, jockeying with former Denver starter Brian Griese for the number two quarterback job, could push for playing time this season. But the refrain is familiar to Johnson, who rarely has been firmly entrenched as a starter during a 13-year, three-team NFL career that also included a playoff appearance with the 1999 Redskins.
"I'm used to it," he said. "It's funny how everyone else looks at it, and how I look at it. It happens every year: There's going to be someone to replace me. Eventually, I will be replaced. But I'll be appreciated more when my career is over than I am now. It'll be funny to look back at one Super Bowl and maybe more, funny to look back at the numbers, and people will look at me a different way."
Gruden must fret about a starting offense that didn't score a touchdown during the preseason and a kicker, Martin Gramatica, who missed four preseason field goal attempts. Gruden has had to juggle his practice schedule around the effects of Hurricane Frances. But he, like Gibbs, can't wait for Sunday.
"It's a great business," Gruden said. "It's a lot of fun. It's thrilling. It's a rush. What can I say? I'm sure he missed it.''