- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 28, 2003

SAN DIEGO The sneer remained in the third quarter, long after Jon Gruden's Tampa Bay Buccaneers had seized control of Super Bowl XXXVII and were well on their way to their first NFL championship.
The sneer was replaced by a smile at the coach's wrap-up news conference yesterday, a day after the Bucs' 48-21 win over the Oakland Raiders. But even that expression was typical of Gruden as frequently a grimace as a show of satisfaction.
"You should see me when I shank a 6-iron," he said, declining further analysis of his famous facial contortions.
So it's no wonder the dominant theme in the wake of the game remained Gruden and his expectation of improvement, though the Bucs already are at the pinnacle of their sport.
"We plan on improving in all aspects of our play," Gruden said.
Tampa Bay was defined by its first-year coach this season, nearly overshadowed by him last week as it prepared to play his former team and still seemed more a function of his dominant personality yesterday than a collection of great players.
One need look no further than the game's MVP, safety Dexter Jackson, to know who the real star was. Jackson had two interceptions in the first half, helping establish the tone but setting up just three points. Runners-up were defensive end Simeon Rice (two sacks), solid but uninspiring running back Michael Pittman (no touchdowns) and defensive end Greg Spires (one sack).
Gruden said jokingly that coaches deserve to ride "mopeds or bicycles" while Jackson got a Cadillac Escalade for his award, but it was clear that the youngest coach to win a Super Bowl (39) deserved some sort of luxury ride out of town.
"You knew there was something special about him from Day 1," quarterback Brad Johnson said. "He just wanted me to get excited about football. I always was, but he took me to another level. I wish we could just keep playing through the month of February and March and get ready for minicamp."
"Contagious" is how Johnson described Gruden's attitude. All over this team is the coach's mark, signs that his intensity was the missing factor between this club and the ones that fell short of the Super Bowl under Tony Dungy of whom Gruden, incidentally, always spoke in respectful tones.
Among the hot topics yesterday were Gruden's challenge to his defense to score nine touchdowns which it did, including a Super Bowl-record three on interception returns Sunday and his playing scout team quarterback in practice Thursday.
Regarding the latter, Gruden figured the best way to prepare his defense for the regular-season MVP, quarterback Rich Gannon, was to impersonate him during practice. Gruden, of course, was Gannon's coach from 1998 to 2001 before being obtained by the Bucs for four draft picks and $8 million.
"Rich is very unique," Gruden said. "I just wanted them to get a feel for what it was going to be like."
It worked.
"It's hard to simulate a player's performance," Jackson said. "But he did a great job getting us prepared for that."
Jackson joked that the defense couldn't intercept Gruden at first, but "most of that came because we couldn't hit the quarterback."
The coach responded with a smile, "It was a very competitive drill. I moved the ball against them."
From bracing the defense for Gannon's deadly pump-fakes to devising an offensive strategy to exploit hobbled cornerback Charles Woodson, Gruden prepared his Bucs for distinction. In the end, they completed an amazing journey from their bumbling search for a coach last winter.
"To think where we came from, it was one of the all-time great coaching jobs," safety John Lynch said. "It was a tough situation. You had so much love and affection for our former head coach, Tony Dungy, who did such a great job of turning our franchise around. Jon made the transition by communicating what we were about and showing us how to get there."
How much longer can this success last? Gruden, for his part, shows no signs of trimming his outrageous work schedule or burning out. And his focus, again, is improvement. The sneer might have been gone yesterday, but it'll be back soon enough.
"I don't know how long I'm going to live, so I just try to live hard," Gruden said. "I try to max out and get the most out of every day I can. I don't require that much sleep. There's plenty of time for sleeping, and right now I just don't need much."


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