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Rebuilding by the Bay Historic tumble hasn't dampened Gruden's intensity

Jon Gruden might have lost a few brain cells in the past two years, but certainly not enough to matter.

Yet the Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach can't escape the question: Have you gotten dumber or were you just not as smart as people thought in the first place?

"Ha! I don't know, man," Gruden said laughingly this week as he prepared his Bucs to face the Buffalo Bills on Sunday. "All I know is I've been working just as hard."

Gruden was atop the football world 31 months ago when he led the Bucs to the Super Bowl title in his first season as head coach there. It seems like forever ago.

Gruden is 13-20 since hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy, and those 20 losses are the most ever for a franchise in its first two seasons following a championship. His 2005 Bucs still are in a rebuilding mode, even though they opened the season with an upset at Minnesota.

Gruden's name even has appeared on the list of coaches on the "hot seat" by the estimation of some national publications. In reality, the 42-year-old has no worries about his job security this year. He has a contract for four more years that pays about $4 million a year. And the Bucs' owners are not about to bail on a coach they had to pay a king's ransom to acquire. (Tampa gave Oakland $8 million cash, plus two first-round picks and two second-rounders.)

Still, Gruden knows he needs to show progress to calm the restless Tampa fan base.

"Hey, you've got to have a thick skin," Gruden says. "You've got to take negativity for what it is. You've got to keep working, keep pushing."

There's no diminishing what Gruden accomplished in 2002. He took an offense with a weak line, an average running back (Michael Pittman) and a good-but-hardly-great quarterback (Brad Johnson) and got it to produce 31, 27 and 48 points in three postseason victories.

The 2003 Bucs, however, were a team that had contended for six straight years and was headed for a fall.

"Let's be honest, man," he says. "We've lost a lot of players since we've had great success. A lot of guys we won a Super Bowl with aren't here.

"You look at the salary cap spreadsheets that you're handed, and yeah, you know the inevitable is going to happen. When you're $20 million to $30 million over, whatever it is, you've got to get under the cap. . . . We sacrificed some draft picks. And to be honest with you, the last seven, eight years, we haven't netted much from the draft here."

Age and injuries caused the Bucs to decline to 7-9 in 2003.

Last year, Gruden had to absorb some cap cuts (Warren Sapp and John Lynch) and tried to copy the New England Patriots' blueprint of 2001 by signing 20 bargain-bin free agents. They were cheap but old. Veterans such as Charlie Garner, Todd Steussie and Tim Brown helped grease the skids in a 5-11 campaign.

This year, the Bucs stockpiled 13 draft picks, headed by star running back Carnell "Cadillac" Williams of Auburn.

"We've got some young guys contributing here for the first time in a long time," Gruden said. "Guys like Mike Clayton, Carnell Williams, Alex Smith, a lot of these guys are not only playing, they're starting. So this team needed an injection of young players."

No one doubts Gruden's X's-and-O's ability. He is a coaching prodigy. His father was an assistant coach at Notre Dame and a scout with the Bucs. Gruden spent his youth playing catch with Joe Montana in South Bend, Ind., and Doug Williams in Tampa. At age 26, he became a low-ranking aide on George Seifert's star-studded staff in San Francisco. At 28, he was coaching a young Brett Favre with Mike Holmgren and Steve Mariucci in Green Bay. At 35, the Raiders' Al Davis made him the youngest head coach in the NFL (a distinction Gruden still holds).

No one doubts Gruden's work ethic. He still rises every day at 3:17 a.m. -- not 3:10, not 3:20 -- and his passion for the game is unquenched.

"I'm still 42 years old; it's not like I feel I'm at the end of the rope," he said. "I love competing with the best players and coaches, and that fires me up to come to work."

The question is can Gruden build a team as well as he can coach it?

Gruden has budding stars at running back (Williams) and receiver (Clayton). But his offensive line is questionable. By the time his offense is title-ready, will his dynamite defense be too old?

"We're trying to put it together the right way," Gruden says. "It might take us a little time. . . . But we're all the same in this business. You're only as good as your last game."

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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