The Oakland Tribune

Mooch has less to lose than Gruden
January 12, 2003
TAMPA, Fla. -- Today, finally, we get some hard answers about who made the shrewdest maneuvers during the Bay Area Bermuda Coaching Triangle last February.

Was it Steve Mariucci, hesitating at the riches, power and security offered by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who instead stayed with the San Francisco 49ers and now has them one victory away from the NFC Championship Game?

Was it Jon Gruden, who not only jumped at the Tampa Bay job Mariucci balked at, but now has home-field advantage against Mooch and the Niners in today's NFC playoff semifinal?

Or was it the Oakland Raiders, who would tell you big-money players are more important than big-money coaches any day and will set about proving it this afternoon against the New York Jets?

It's very possible there could be an "all of the above" answer to those questions. But perhaps only Mariucci is safe from severe scrutiny with a defeat today, even he's the prime Most Likely To Incur A Beating candidate.

Gruden has enjoyed a strong first year in Tampa. He coached the Buccaneers to a franchise-best 12-4 record. But you know what? No one cares here. He was brought here specifically to do something about today and beyond, and if Gruden can't change the recent postseason past for the Bucs by at least getting past the first playoff opponent, his first year will have been deemed a failure. Rather suddenly, he'll be sitting on a hometown hot seat.

The Raiders? Certainly, they have to win today, too. They've lined up all their Super Bowl ducks and done it with a rookie head coach. To lose, though, will throw all the current feel-good attitudes about Bill Callahan into chaos and circumspection.

So ... right. Big day. Huge day ... and huge in both Bay Areas, the California and Florida versions.

But as difficult and unsettling as his situation may be both today and in the near future, Mariucci looks to be the one who can enter this afternoon's playoff tilts with the least amount of frayed nerves.

The 49ers aren't expected to win this game, for starters. They could get pummeled by Tampa Bay's legitimately fearsome defense -- a defense that Floridians constantly remind was fearsome before Gruden ever got here --and no one would do so much as blink loudly.

Mariucci's big day was last week, when the 49ers had no business rallying from 24 points down against the New York Giants to win, yet did so under his watch. Impressive. In other words, whatever happens from here on in, it's gravy for the Niners and their coach.

Win today, in fact, and the Mooch Marketability Meter may go off the scale. With two playoff wins, he would have a tremendous amount of leverage going into his lame-duck off-season as Gruden did a year ago.

Maybe that's why Mariucci seemed to be in such an upbeat, relaxed mood as the 49ers went through their final paces at Tampa's Raymond James Stadium on Saturday. He knows what the score will be after today, even if he doesn't exactly know what it'll be today.

As he glanced around the glistening Bucs' stadium, it was suggested to Mariucci that all of it could have been his had he snapped up Tampa's coach/GM offer last winter when the Glazer family came calling. Mariucci simply grinned and pushed his hands away, not wanting to bite on that bait.

But it's very clear now Mariucci simply didn't feel comfortable with the Buccaneers.

"Continuing to coach this football team (the 49ers) was -- and is -- what consumes me," he reiterated this week. He added that in spite of the current circumstances, it all worked out for the best for all concerned.

"Yes, yes, I really believe that," he said. "The Raiders came out OK, too."

Again, more accurate judgments can be made after today. Without question, the pressure is squarely on Gruden in this particular game. You get a strong sense for all the accomplishments he's had this season, the Tampa area is still very wary of Tony Dungy's highly touted and high-priced replacement.

Gruden knows he has to get the Bucs to the Super Bowl quickly and preferably this season. He wraps both arms around the challenge without reservation.

"If you're getting A-minuses, good for you," he said this week. "Why not try to get an A-plus? Why not try to max out?"

Typical Gruden. But his quest has not come without a degree of exasperation, even this week. He was conspicuously ruffled by Keyshawn Johnson's latest publicized pout about being under-utilized and under-appreciated and that he might want out of Tampa. The view in the Tampa media is that Johnson was looking to get some publicity in a pregame fish bowl dominated by Terrell Owens.

Considering what he's been through himself with Owens, it's just more cause for Mariucci to smile, regardless of how today's game turns out. Even if things turn sour for the 49ers, he has escape routes Gruden and the Raiders do not.

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