Six years ago, on the most glorious Morning After they'd ever experienced, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers showed up at their training facility a weary and cheery bunch. Having just beaten the Eagles in Philadelphia to earn the first Super Bowl berth in franchise history – and with only a one-week break between the NFC title game and a Super Sunday showdown with the Oakland Raiders – the Bucs had a quick logistical meeting with first-year coach Jon Gruden before hopping a plane to San Diego.
After informing his jittery players that he and his fellow coaches would be staying behind an extra day to work on the game plan, Gruden – who'd spent the previous four years as the coach of the Raiders – issued a calming declaration.
"I know it's hectic," he said, "but don't stress out about our preparation. I know this [Raiders] team so damn well, we'll have a hell of a plan. Don't worry – we'll be ready."
"That really made us relax – and it gave us a lot of confidence," former Bucs safety John Lynch recalled on Tuesday. "Then he took the edge off even more when he made a joke about [defensive end] Simeon Rice, who let's just say was not the promptest of teammates. Jon said, 'I know you guys will be out there for a night without coaches, but don't worry – Simeon will be in charge of curfew.' "
Six days later, it was lights out for the Raiders. The Bucs' 48-21 victory in Super Bowl XXXVII, which included a record five interceptions (three for touchdowns) of regular-season MVP Rich Gannon, has since become the stuff of legend: Gruden, the narrative goes, was so inside the heads of his former players and assistant coaches that it was as though the Bucs could read their opponents' minds.
The reason I bring this up now is that a seemingly similar scenario exists for Super Bowl XLIII. One of the many questions we'll be hearing over and over until kickoff on Sunday, Feb. 1 is this: Can Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, a Pittsburgh assistant from 2001-06, pull a Gruden and exercise mental mastery over quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers?
I'm going to say no, for the following five reasons:
Whereas Gruden faced the Raiders the season after he'd left Oakland, Whisenhunt is more than two years removed from his last day of work in Pittsburgh, where he spent the final three years of Bill Cowher's coaching tenure as The Chin's offensive coordinator. Those seasons coincided with Roethlisberger's first three NFL campaigns, which included a Super Bowl XL victory in the quarterback's second year. After Cowher resigned, Whisenhunt – along with former Steelers offensive line coach Russ Grimm – was passed over by Steelers owner Dan Rooney in favor of then-34-year-old Vikings defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin. Whisenhunt, after landing the Cardinals' job, convinced Grimm to join him in Arizona as assistant head coach/offensive line; he also took Cowher's special-teams coach Kevin Spencer in a similar capacity. Four games into the '07 season, when the Cardinals upset the previously unbeaten Steelers in Arizona by a 21-14 score, I wasn't at all surprised. Though Tomlin had brought in several new assistants, I figured Whisenhunt, Grimm and Spencer had enough familiarity with the Steelers' players that they could give the Cards a slight competitive edge. With Whisenhunt and Tomlin now 30-plus games into their respective tenures and far more turnover having occurred on the Pittsburgh roster, I think any advantage on the Arizona side is now negligible.
2. Regime change
When Gruden left Oakland following the '01 season (for two first-round picks, a pair of second-rounders and $8 million, by the way), part of the deal was that he took no one with him. Bill Callahan, his former offensive coordinator, was promoted to head coach, and the rest of the staff remained virtually intact. Even the audible calls remained the same. "You have to remember, it wasn't just what Gruden did during the week before the Super Bowl that prepared us for that offense," Lynch says. "He and Callahan were basically running the same stuff, so we saw that offense every day during training camp and in practice all through the season. When we saw it in a game, our instincts took over." Conversely, after Tomlin's hiring, Pittsburgh wide-receivers coach Bruce Arians was promoted to fill Whisenhunt's old job, and the new coordinator put his own stamp on the offense. Whisenhunt and Grimm may still have a decent sense of what holdover Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau likes to do, but remember, that works both ways.
3. Creative differences
During their three years together in Oakland, Gruden, a first-time head coach, and Gannon, a journeyman-turned-Pro Bowl performer, were more like brothers than player-coach. Gruden was only two years Gannon's senior, and the player – at the expense of his locker-room popularity – assumed much of the disciplinary burden typically handled by a coach. Because the two men had been so close, Gruden was able to tap into Gannon's thought process when they met in the Super Bowl, even famously mimicking his presnap cadence in a practice three days before the game.
Whisenhunt and Roethlisberger had a much different relationship. Big Ben, a first-round draft pick in '04 who was thrust into the starting role early in his rookie season after Tommy Maddox was injured, felt Cowher treated him like a child and considered Whisenhunt part of the same camp. Early in the '07 season, Roethlisberger praised Arians in comparison to his former offensive coaches, telling reporters, "We were so predictable. … It will be nice to know that Bruce isn't going to handcuff us." Before that late September game in Arizona, Roethlisberger was asked by reporters who cover the Cardinals if Whisenhunt had been tough on him the way he seemed to be pushing Matt Leinart, the Cards' second-year starter. "I know what Matt's going through," Roethlisberger said, laughing. After that defeat to the Cards, I asked Roethlisberger about Whisenhunt's insertion of Kurt Warner into the game in place of Leinart for selected series. "The whole thing is weird," he said. "I don't see how it can work." Whisenhunt has been more measured in his public comments, and it's not like there's full-blown hatred between the two men. However, they're definitely not finishing one another's sentences the way Gruden and Gannon were.
4. The dude in the headset
Whisenhunt, whose nickname is "Whiz," consistently lives up to it by formulating (along with offensive coordinator Todd Haley) creative game plans (last Sunday's NFC championship victory over the Eagles being a prime example) that use his players in optimal fashion. But whereas Gruden was going up against a staff led by Callahan, his onetime understudy (and, ultimately, a massive head-coaching disappointment in Oakland and at the University of Nebraska), Tomlin is already a star in the profession – perhaps the closest thing to Cowher since The Chin himself. Come Super Sunday, each of these teams will be very, very prepared.
5. Gruden's impact in that Super Bowl blowout of the Raiders may have been overstated
On the one hand, Lynch can cite specific instances in which the Bucs' knowledge of Gannon's tendencies paid tangible dividends. "There was a play early in the game where he pumped to his right and came back to the other side," Lynch recalls. "With Gannon, you had to respect the pump more than with most quarterbacks because he was able to complete sidearm-like passes from such weird angles. But we'd been taught to expect that, and when he turned back, one of our pass rushers – Simeon or Greg Spires – was right in his face and knocked the ball down. Right then I said, 'It's over.' "
On the first of Super Bowl MVP Dexter Jackson's two interceptions, Lynch recognized a "Sluggo Seam" route just before the snap and yelled out the play-call to his teammates. Jackson, instead of jumping on a slant-and-go pattern to the outside, ignored Gannon's pump fake and stayed in the middle of the field, positioning him perfectly for the pick. "In a normal game, you might have one or two moments like that, where you can tell exactly what's coming," Lynch says. "In this game, we had six or seven." Still, Lynch concedes that some of the legend surrounding Gruden's importance to the victory was "probably a bit overblown." The Bucs, after all, had the league's top-ranked defense, and Oakland's deactivation of Barret Robbins after the Pro Bowl center went on a drinking binge in Tijuana and missed curfew dealt a severe blow to the Raiders' top-rated offense. "In their heads?" Sapp asks. "Fool, we had a defense that was the best, and nothing was gonna get in our way. Their plan was to run the ball until Robbins went AWOL. We were a better team."
So there you have it: Another convenient story line shredded, and one more reason to hold out hope that Super Bowl XLIII will be a lot more competitive than SB XXXVII.
Until we find out for sure, enjoy the next week-and-a-half's worth of hype – as well as our final two questions of the 2008 season, in order of perceived power:
2) Arizona Cardinals: Did a certain Pro Bowl wideout's "Q" rating take a major hit when he stormed off the field following Sunday's victory – and will Anquan Boldin take out his frustration on the Steelers?
- Rich Gannon
- Jon Gruden
- Bill Cowher