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by Dan Pompei

» email Pompei | Pompei's archives/bio | Pompei's mailbag

Best-laid plans: How the Bucs prepared to be champions

January 27, 2003 Print it

In the Thursday practice before the Super Bowl, the Bucs' offense walked up to the line of scrimmage. Coach Jon Gruden got the attention of his team by announcing, "This play right here wins the Super Bowl. This is the play."

Quarterback Brad Johnson hit receiver Keenan McCardell down the right sideline on a go route. The play was intended to take advantage of Raiders left cornerback Charles Woodson, who had not been playing up to his capabilities because he has a metal plate holding together a fracture in his leg.

"Charles is a guy who's hurt right now," Gruden said. "He's one of the game's best corners. I have great respect for him, but you have to challenge those guys when they're playing up in bump-and-run coverage."

And on the third play of Super Bowl 37, that is exactly what the Bucs did, running the play that was supposed to win the game. And sure enough, McCardell streaked by Woodson. But as Johnson was about to unload the ball, Raiders defensive end Regan Upshaw hit him. The pass was several yards shy of McCardell, and Woodson had an easy interception that led to three points.

"It didn't work out the way we thought," Gruden said after the game, "but some of the plays did work." Actually, just about everything else worked out the way Gruden and the Bucs planned it in their 48-21 victory.

So how did it get to the point where Bucs defensive lineman Warren Sapp was dancing in the locker room wearing nothing but a jock strap and the smile of a champion? Preparation.

The Bucs were so well prepared for one Raiders play that safety John Lynch called it before it happened. The result was Dexter Jackson's second interception of the game. "I was in the slot with (Jerry) Porter one-on-one, so I told Dexter cover me, and he did," Lynch said. "I ended up coming off on the smash, but Dexter got over there."

The Raiders' formation and their situation tipped Lynch, who had seen the exact same play from the exact same formation in a similar situation in practice earlier in the week. "We were so well prepared today," Lynch said. "It's uncanny how the plays we ran in practice showed up, same formation, same motion."

The Bucs knew Rich Gannon as well as they possibly could know a quarterback they hadn't faced in years. For that, they can thank Gruden, who took the highly unusual step of playing the role of Gannon on the scout team during Thursday's practice. As the pool reporter for the Bucs, I witnessed this performance, but Gruden asked that I not write about it until after the Super Bowl. Then he said, "What did you think? How did I look?'' Asked who practiced well, he said, "I can't talk about it, but I had a hell of a day today."

As it turned out, Gruden played Gannon better than Gannon, the player whose career he resurrected when he brought him to Oakland. Gruden audibled repeatedly on most plays. Every one of his passes was catchable, and the only two incompletions were drops. "I think that was because we were laughing so hard," Lynch said.

It was the highlight of the week for the Bucs, who responded to the end of Gruden's drive with a round of applause. Said Lynch, "We had a lot of fun with it, but we also got a lot done out of it. One of the things he said is Rich hates bad plays, and he likes to (audible) up to three times to get out of them, whereas some quarterbacks you're lucky to get one audible. He tried to simulate that. I think it was probably the highlight of his career."

Gruden, in his imitation of Gannon, also was pump-faking as if he were being swarmed by bees. This is something the Bucs talked about in meetings, and they weren't overly concerned about Gannon's pump fakes. During the game, the Bucs dropped to spots on the field and didn't react to the fakes. The Bucs knew their pass rush wouldn't give Gannon much time to pump. Tampa Bay sacked Gannon five times.

Gruden also made it a point of emphasis to isolate receiver Joe Jurevicius on the Raiders' linebackers. It worked three times for 67 yards. The Bucs' coaches knew that once they got the running game going, the Raiders would have to widen their linebackers in order to be in position to react to toss plays. That set the table for Jurevicius to run slants and get behind the linebackers.

The week had not started with as much promise for the Bucs. After beating the Eagles in the NFC championship game Sunday night, they flew back to Tampa. But they had to wait four hours on the tarmac in Philadelphia until all their equipment could be loaded onto the plane. Normally, the equipment is transported back by truck, but in this circumstance it had to come back with the team so it could be loaded for the trip to San Diego. The players didn't get to their homes until 2 a.m. Monday. Many of them hardly slept.

By Monday afternoon, the players were flying to San Diego, although the coaching staff stayed behind to work on the game plan. Gruden never went to bed Sunday or Monday. He worked on the coaches' chartered red-eye flight to San Diego on Monday night. His sleep total for the week by Wednesday morning was two hours. It's no wonder he had the flu and was taking an antibiotic.

For their initial practice of the week on Wednesday, the Bucs were sluggish from the improbable victory and the long journey. Gruden felt the staff was a little behind in preparation because of the travel, but he was wired. So was defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, who tried to get the juices going by messing with strength coach Johnny Parker at the start of practice. "Come on, Oakland is stretching like professionals right now!'' Kiffin railed. "Look at Derrick Brooks! He's not stretching right!''

On Thursday, Gruden told his team how important practice that day would be. He asked Lynch to speak as well.

"Hey,'' Lynch told his teammates, "everybody knows the opportunity we have in front of us. Don't take this practice for granted. Make every play exact and precise. Let's make it our best practice of the year."

Lynch later said it was the team's best practice of the year. The Bucs were fired up and full of life. Gruden was particularly feisty. When one of his scout-team players failed to accurately portray one of the Raiders' defenders, Gruden yelled, "Come on, the guy is 58 years old!"

During a special teams portion of practice, Jackson hit cornerback Corey Ivey in the back, and Ivey went at Jackson. They brawled before coaches could separate them. The fight gave the Bucs a spark, players said. "During the Super Bowl week, going back in history, somebody usually gets into it," Jackson said after the game in front of his locker, which was just to the left of Ivey's locker. Jackson had a typed cheat sheet on his wristband. Further up his forearm was a bandage where an IV needle had been. "(Fighting) shows you want to win and that you have the emotion you need."

By Thursday, Gruden was beginning to relax more. That night, he slept more than four hours, which is his version of pulling a Rip Van Winkle.

On Saturday afternoon, Gruden had a little free time. So he invited offensive coordinator Bill Muir and Mark Arteaga, his assistant in charge of football operations, up to Room 2806 at the Torrey Pines Hilton. In Gruden's suite, they enjoyed the views of the Pacific Ocean and the golf course beneath them. They had some conversation about how they could be on the verge of their greatest moment and reflected on how some of the Raiders' players had badmouthed Gruden. The coach eventually dozed off, sleeping for an hour before a phone call woke him up.

When he spoke to his team that night, he wasn't particularly emotional or as inspirational as he can be. That night, before the biggest game of his life, he slept for six entire hours.

This was a man who knew he had prepared well.

Senior writer Dan Pompei covers the NFL for The Sporting News. Email him at pompei@sportingnews.com.


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