|Despite early playoff exit, Gruden likes direction of Bucs|
|Written by Admin|
|Monday, 07 January 2008 12:02|
The team's worst-to-first climb in the NFC South came to an abrupt halt during a 24-14 loss to the New York Giants, although Gruden and his players said the quick postseason exit didn't diminish what the team achieved after finishing 4-12 in 2006.
``We may not have won a Super Bowl championship. We won a division championship. That's a great accomplishment in itself,'' Gruden said.
``In the National Football League, it's not enough. ... But we do have the heart of a champion. And around that heart, we're going to build what we feel is a world championship team.''
It figures to be a busy offseason for the Bucs (9-8), who lost four of their last five games and could use an infusion of offensive playmakers to help 37-year-old quarterback Jeff Garcia get the team in the end zone more often.
Ownership also must decide if Gruden, who entered the season on the hot seat after missing the playoffs three of the previous four years, did enough to warrant extending his contract beyond 2008.
Meanwhile, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin's contract expires at the end of next month. The Bucs re-emerged as one of the NFL's stingiest defenses this season, ranking second overall after plummeting to No. 17 in 2006.
Gruden, who has one year left on his contract, said he expects to keep Kiffin on the staff. He danced around questions about his own future.
``I'm really proud of the progress we've made. Whether it's good enough or not for a contract or whatever it warrants, I really don't care at this point,'' said Gruden, who led the Bucs to their only NFL title five seasons ago.
``I'm going to fulfill the contract I signed. I'm going to work as hard as I can to get this team back to the Super Bowl. All those issues will take care of themselves. As I said earlier this year, this is the best job in football. I'm fortunate to have the job.''
The Bucs are positioned well under the salary cap and expect to be active players in free agency for the second straight winter.
Receiver and running back are a couple of areas that could be addressed in free agency or through the draft.
However, Gruden stressed the No. 1 priority is helping several key players, including offensive tackle Luke Petitgout, safety Sabby Piscitelli and running back Carnell ``Cadillac'' Williams, return from injuries.
Williams may face the toughest road back after suffering a season-ending knee injury in September.
``It's a dark, lonely world right now that he's in. It's going to be a grind. All I can say is we have as many people on his situation as you could imagine,'' Gruden said.
``He's in here early, he's going to be pushed. It's not going to easy. If there's any guy who can get it done, he can get it done. It's important to him. ... I'm cautiously optimistic.''
The Bucs overcame a slew of injuries to clinch their third NFC South title under Gruden with two weeks left in the regular season.
They did it with five new starters on defense, an offensive line featuring a rookie and three second-year pros and with Earnest Graham gaining 898 yards rushing after entering training camp as the fourth-string tailback.
End Gaines Adams, the fourth pick in last spring's draft, led all NFL rookies with six sacks after moving into the starting lineup halfway through the season. Another rookie, safety Tanard Jackson, started all 17 games and helped solidify the secondary.
Linebacker Cato June, tackle Jovan Haye and end Greg White, a former Arena League star who wasn't with the team when training camp began, also were among the newcomers who helped the defense regain some of its swagger.
Veterans delivered, too.
Garcia threw only four interceptions during the regular season and was the league's seventh-highest rated passer. Receiver Joey Galloway had his third straight 1,000-yard season and led the league in yards per catch at age 36.
Linebacker Derrick Brooks and cornerbacks Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly, holdovers from Tampa Bay's dominant Super Bowl defense, had solid - if not spectacular - seasons and provided leadership on the field and in the locker room.
``It's going to be hard to see the silver lining in a very dark cloud today, but as I told the guys earlier, be proud of what we've come from,'' Brooks said.
``The guys that were here that went 4-12 ought to be very proud of what we accomplished this year. The guys that weren't here, get ready to build on how we ended 2007. We want to use that as the motivational tool for 2008 because we will get better. ... We did a good job of responding to that (last year), and I look forward to us doing a good job of responding in 2008.''