On the Complicated Legacies of Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden: a Retrospective

Last week, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers announced their two latest additions to the Ring of Honor: the late, great owner Malcolm Glazer, and Jon Gruden, the coach responsible for leading us to our first and only Lombardi Trophy. Notably absent from the Ring of Honor announcement was none other than Tony Dungy, the recent inductee to the NFL Hall of Fame.

The Ring of Honor announcement reignited an age-old fan debate regarding the Super Bowl victory, and whether it was “Dungy’s team” that won it, or if Gruden truly deserved the sole recognition. It’s a complicated debate, with no clear answer for one coach or the other.

The crux of it is, Dungy planted the seeds, and Gruden was the catalyst needed to grow the tree (before he chopped it down). The legacies of both Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden cannot be assessed solely upon the Super Bowl XXXVII victory. It’s a question better observed through the context of where the franchise was before Dungy, what Gruden brought to the team that Dungy couldn’t, and how Gruden’s pride dismantled the team in his later years before he was ultimately fired.

Gruden will (deservedly) enter the Ring of Honor this coming fall. To keep Dungy out in future years, however, would degrade his legacy as the coach responsible for turning habitual losers into viable contenders—all in a matter of years. Both are worthy of the Ring of Honor, and in this post, the Jaboo will explore why. 

The crux of it is, Dungy planted the seeds, and Gruden was the catalyst needed to grow the tree (before he chopped it down).

The Tony Dungy Era & the Rise of Tampa 2 Dominance

Dungy & Glazer. Image shared from NBCSports.com

Dungy & Glazer. Image shared from NBCSports.com

In the first 20 years of the franchise’s existence, the Buccaneers had a grand total of two winning seasons out of 20, averaging 4.7 wins per season over that time. Much of the perennial ineptitude of the team could be placed on Owner Hugh Culverhouse, who managed the team with as much reliability as a Sabby Piscitelli secondary, and even that parallel may be generous to Sabby. Culverhouse passed away in the Fall of 1994, opening the door for Malcolm Glazer to purchase the team from Culverhouse’s estate for a (then) record $192M in January of 1995 [Source].

The urgency with which Glazer assumed his role to deliver the fans a competent and competitive franchise cannot be understated. Head Coach Sam Wyche was fired at the end of the 1995 season, and Glazer immediately secured public funds to build Raymond James Stadium, putting an end to the Sombrero.

Even our Bucco Bruce logo and creamsicle uniforms got the axe in Glazer’s early days. But Glazer’s true facelift to the Buccaneers franchise came in the hiring of Tony Dungy, who faced the monumental task of turning around a culture that was born in, molded by, and came to only know losing.

Dungy inherited a promising young group of players from Wyche, including (now) Hall of Famers Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp who had just completed their rookie seasons, Hardy Nickerson, and John Lynch. But the defense had no identity. Within one year, the Dungy-Kiffin Tampa 2 scheme was already having a material impact to the defense. Within two, it was a whole different team. Take a look at the below table with the team’s defensive figures in Weich’s final year, Dungy’s first year, and Dungy’s second year. The takeaways and sacks skyrocketed, and the yards allowed decreased by nearly 20%.

Sacks & Takeaways

Yards Allowed

While the Bucs missed the playoffs in Dungy’s first year with a 6-10 record (what’s another losing season when there were already 18 of them?) Dungy’s Bucs came back with a vengeance in year 2(1997), tying for a franchise history best 10 wins, winning the Wildcard round before losing in the Divisional round to the Packers, ending a playoff drought of 15 years.

For the remainder of Dungy’s career in Tampa, an 8-8 1998 season was the worst record the team saw. For a team that had only two winning seasons prior to Dungy, he delivered four of them in six years in Tampa, making the playoffs in each of them. In 1999, Dungy advanced the Bucs as far as the NFC Championship game, losing to the St. Louis Rams over the goddamn Bert Emmanuel fiasco.

Dungy’s demise came from two fatal flaws: he never had a quarterback, and two, he couldn’t beat the Eagles in the playoffs. In 2000 and 2001, Dungy’s Bucs went out in the Wildcard round to the Eagles. Despite the drastic franchise turnaround by Dungy, the Glazers opted to make a drastic change, firing Gruden after the 2001 season. It would pay off.

Tony Dungy’s career in Tampa can be summarized as follows: he was the reason the Buccaneers went from the serial laughing stock of the NFL to a competitive franchise the fans could be proud of. He’s a figure in team history who deserves nothing but admiration and respect for the seeds he planted for Gruden’s future; and while the playoff record of Dungy was mired by bad luck (see Bert Emmanuel), no viable QB, and an Achilles heel in the Eagles, holistically, Dungy must be considered a Buccaneer legend worthy of the Ring of Honor.

The Gruden Era: the Rapid Rise and Fall

Image shared from Operationsports.com

Image shared from Operationsports.com

Following Dungy’s firing, it was initially rumored that the Buccaneers would be in pursuit of Hall of Fame Coach Bill Parcells [Source], who pulled out at the last second after insisting he was done coaching (he would become the Head Coach of the Dallas Cowboys one year later).

The Buccaneers turned to Plan B, orchestrating one of the most bizarre, blockbuster moves in NFL history to trade for Raiders Head Coach Jon Gruden.

In his third year as the Raiders Head Coach, Gruden had grown estranged from Owner Al Davis, and with his contract set to expire soon, Davis wasn’t willing to offer Gruden more than 3 years, $9.5M. The relationship was further eroded [Source].

Gruden was one of the hottest young names in coaching, and Bucs Owner Malcolm Glazer decided to go with a “whatever it takes” approach to land Gruden. Thus, the Buccaneers shipped off a whopping, unprecedented two 1st round picks, two 2nd round picks, and $8M to the Raiders to get him [Source]. The payoff was immediate. In his first year as Head Coach, Gruden led the team to a franchise best 12-4 record, and would go onto win its first and only Super Bowl.

The dominant defensive performance continued and hit its peak that year. Monte Kiffin was retained as DC, and his unit produced 31 interceptions, 16 recovered fumbles, and 43.0 sacks.

The glorious story of the playoffs that year need not be rehashed once again; but, it goes without say how beautiful Ronde’s pick 6 to take us to the big game was, as well as the absolute 48-21 humiliation of the Raiders and Rich Gannon in Super Bowl XXXVII.

The magical 2002 season remains cherished to this day, but in many ways, winning the Lombardi became Gruden’s curse. It started with the nightmarish 2003 season. Star WR Keyshawn Johnson was deactivated for the remainder of the season after a public sideline blowup with Gruden, the Colts delivered one of the most devastating losses in team history on Monday Night Football, and RB Michael Pittman had a much-reported incident of domestic abuse after ramming his Hummer into his wife’s Mercedes in a fit of rage.  The Bucs finished 7-9, missing the playoffs—their first losing season since 1996.

Things began to unravel from there.

By the end of the 2003 season, GM Rich McKay and Gruden had become incompatible. McKay asked to be released from his contract, and in perhaps committing one of the biggest mistakes in franchise history, the Bucs allowed McKay to walk for the Atlanta Falcons. ''What it mainly came down to was Jon's vision of the football team and how to build it that was different from mine,'' McKay said. ''No question about it, and I really became uncomfortable as to how do I compromise this and how do I make it work and how do we build a consensus? Because in the cap era, to the extent that you do make mistakes, you will pay the piper.'' [Source]

McKay’s quote was prescient, in many ways. Gruden hired his former Oakland GM Bruce Allen from Oakland, but assumed personnel control. The Bucs would make a series of mind boggling moves, including the signing of an aging Tim Brown, signing 32 year-old RB Charlie Garner to a $20M deal, and a pair of poor OT’s in Todd Steussie and Derrick Deese. Worst of all, franchise staples John Lynch and Warren Sapp were allowed to walk in free agency, despite their continued abilities to play at a high level. The Bucs finished 5-11—good for a 4th place finish in the NFC South.

Gruden’s remaining time in Tampa was non-descript, and the Buccaneers didn’t win a single playoff game (and still haven’t since). Between 2004 and 2008 (when Gruden was fired), the Buccaneers started seven different QB’s (Johnson, Simms, Griese, Rattay, Garcia, McCown, Gradkowski), failing to find a long-term solution at the position.

Draft selections were (mostly) abysmal, and included names like Michael Clayton, Sabby Piscitelli, Davin Joseph, Jeremy Trueblood, Gaines Adams, Arron Sears, and who could forget Dexter Jackson!

Year by year, the Buccaneers roster eroded piece by piece until the denouement of Gruden’s coaching career: the 2008 season. After starting the season with a respectable 9-3 record, the Bucs unraveled in spectacular fashion, finishing the season 0-4. Monte Kiffin announced he would be leaving the team to join his son Lane at Tennessee, no doubt creating distraction for a team that had been familiar with him for a dozen years. On the heels of Kiffin’s departure, the Buccaneers announced that DB Coach Raheem Morris would be promoted to Defensive Coordinator.

After seven seasons, Gruden was fired, ending an era that began with a bang and concluded with the team unraveling. While perhaps time to part ways, losing Gruden left the Buccaneers with a coaching void and a playoff drought that has continued since his departure. The Buccaneers are on their 4th head coach since his firing, and have only managed two winning seasons.

Jon Gruden "delivered the goods," so to speak, but his legacy is often viewed with rose colored glasses, neglecting to assess some of the destructive personnel decisions that dismantled the team's core and set the franchise back for many years. Despite his flaws, the continued admiration of Gruden is warranted. He remains an iconic figure in Buccaneer history, and continues to be adored by football fans for his candor and knowledge in the booth. His induction into the Ring of Honor is a worthy accolade for bringing the team to the promised land and for giving fans the memory of a lifetime. 

The Legacy of Dungy & Gruden

The fairy tale ending to this story would have been for Gruden and Dungy to be inducted into the Ring of Honor together. One story can not be told without the other, and the Super Bowl ring wouldn't have been possible without the combined success of both men. 

Dungy would go on to build a Super Bowl winning team in Indianapolis, proving that he could in fact take a team all the way if given a good QB-- something he lacked during his tenure in Tampa. 

Following Gruden's firing, he would retire to the broadcast booth where he has since become one of the most beloved and entertaining commentators in sports. Many fans speculate that had Gruden kept McKay on board to handle personnel decisions, he may have remained Head Coach to this very day. 

Dungy will hopefully join his successor in Ring of Honor enshrinement in the near future. The manner in which he turned a 20 year loser into a dynastic defense and contender was unprecedented, and his induction would be worthy given his accomplishments. 

Dungy & Gruden Wins