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Gruden Drove McKay Away

You could see this one coming a mile away.

So forget about Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden's lame denial Friday, when he

refuted speculation he was the big reason general manager Rich McKay decided to

pursue other opportunities around the league. "It's totally untrue," Gruden

said. "If there's a perception that I tried to run him out of town, that's

unfortunate."

It's not perception. It's reality.

McKay has been one of the most faithful Bucs employees since 1976, the year

his father took over as the first coach of the expansion franchise. Even when

the Glazer family, which owns the team, usurped McKay's authority by reneging

on his choice of Marvin Lewis as coach in 2002, McKay didn't leave.

It was only after Gruden joined the team that the problems became so

intolerable that McKay decided he had to get out. He's almost certain to end up

in Atlanta, where he interviewed two years ago before opting to remain with

Tampa Bay.

Every coach-GM relationship has inherent strains, simply because the coach

wants players he can win with now and the GM must take the long-term view and

think about salary-cap implications and other factors that coaches are either

unwilling or unable to consider.

McKay has been one of the league's top executives for years, combining

forces with former coach Tony Dungy to turn the Bucs from a national joke into

a perennial playoff team. Gruden got them over the top last season with a

masterful coaching job, but his frequent disagreements over personnel quickly

wore on McKay.

For instance, Gruden politicked for Emmitt Smith, even though he's washed

up, while McKay opted to stay with incumbent Michael Pittman and trade for

Thomas Jones. Gruden adores defensive tackle Warren Sapp and pushed for a

contract extension, but McKay decided not to invest big dollars in a defensive

tackle who turns 31 next Friday. Wise choice, especially now that Sapp is

bothered by a foot injury.

And McKay wasn't entirely convinced Gruden needed to de-activate Keyshawn

Johnson because of his frequent run-ins with the coach. Remember, it was McKay

who traded two first-round picks to the Jets to get Johnson in 2000. In fact,

after Johnson was de-activated Nov. 18, his agent, Jerome Stanley, told us to

keep an eye on the Gruden-McKay relationship because it was about to blow up.

It just did.

In Atlanta, owner Arthur Blank fired Dan Reeves on Wednesday and is anxious

to hire a top-flight GM. There is no better man available than McKay, who is

said to have serious interest in hiring LSU's Nick Saban as Reeves' replacement

if he gets the job. Saban has indicated a preference to remain at LSU, where

he has a chance to win a national title, but at age 52 and with his best

opportunity to turn his college success into a financial windfall in the NFL,

Saban might be tempted to make the move.

McKay also would consider Rams defensive coordinator Lovie Smith. Rams

coach Mike Martz believes Smith is ready to be a head coach, and Smith has had

a good relationship with McKay: They worked together in Tampa when Smith was

linebackers coach from 1996-2000.

As for Reeves, he's undecided about next year but will listen to any

offers. Given the uncertain situations of several other coaches around the

league, he might not be out of a job for long.

As for Gruden, he's now left to his own devices with a team that was on top

of the world last season but has quickly become old and expensive. Without a

quality personnel man such as McKay to right the ship, Chucky is in for a rude

awakening.

Is Cowher Next?

The Steelers have no immediate plans to part ways with coach Bill Cowher,

who has been with the team since 1992 and is the NFL's longest-tenured coach

with his current team. But it will be revealing to see what happens during the

offseason.

Cowher has two years left on his contract after this season, and Pittsburgh

has extended him in similar situations. But with the Steelers proving to be a

major disappointment this season, and with Cowher's role in personnel decisions

coming under increased scrutiny, there's a chance his time in Pittsburgh is

growing short.

Could he be out after this season? Not likely. Then again, in a business in

which coaching changes are coming at an increasingly frequent pace, anything's

possible. After 12 years on the job and only one Super Bowl appearance to show

for it, Cowher might need a change of scenery and the Steelers might need a

fresh face.

If a change is made, the Steelers could go after Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz or

promote offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey.

EXTRA POINTS

Charging Westward?

Don't be surprised to see the Chargers take a long look at Dolphins

offensive coordinator Norv Turner as a replacement for head coach Marty

Schottenheimer, who will be fired after the season. Turner was a runner-up to

Schottenheimer in 2002 and was a Chargers assistant in 2001.

Excuses, Excuses

So why did Browns coach Butch Davis pass up running back Clinton Portis, a

guy he recruited to Miami, and choose Boston College's William Green? Try this

one.

"We looked around in our division [in 2002] and the teams that we were

playing against, and Pittsburgh had Jerome Bettis, Baltimore had Jamal Lewis,

Tennessee had Eddie George, Cincinnati had Corey Dillon and Jacksonville had

Fred Taylor," Davis told reporters this past week. "The division was

predominantly played in really rainy, muddy, sloppy weather. You were looking

for somebody at that time that might be more durable over the long run of a

running back's career."

It hasn't quite worked out that way. Green is in the midst of a suspension

because of repeated problems with substance abuse, and the Broncos' Portis has

emerged as one of the NFL's best running backs.

Davis will get to see his former player up close when the teams meet Sunday

in Denver.

Around the League

Packers officials are confident that Brett Favre, who is 34, will be back

next season. Last year Favre hinted he might retire, but he seems to have

regained a new zest for the game this season ... Vikings defensive coordinator

George O'Leary, the former head coach at Central Islip High School, is as

surprised as anyone that he got the head coaching job at Central Florida.

O'Leary thought he didn't have a chance when he asked for $700,000 per season,

about $100,000 more than Vikings head coach Mike Tice gets. But UCF officials

OK'd the asking price and hired him. O'Leary will remain with the Vikes through

the end of the regular season and the playoffs - assuming they get that far

... One reason the Patriots have been so successful under quarterback Tom Brady

is their ability to win close games. Since Brady took over as the starter

early in the 2001 season, the Patriots are 13-1 in games decided by seven or

fewer points. Brady has never lost an overtime game (7-0) and he's 22-4 in

games played after Nov. 1 ... The Panthers might be done with wide receiver

Muhsin Muhammad, who has dropped several passes the last two seasons and

admittedly shortened a route that resulted in an interception return for a

touchdown against the Falcons last week. Coach John Fox isn't blaming Muhammad

for the loss, but he could be released in the offseason in a salary-cap move.

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