The price for prying Jon Gruden from the Oakland Raiders was two first-round draft picks, a pair of second-round selections and $8 million, and as his new bosses informed him of the deal, the just-hired coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was stunned. "When they started talking about compensation," Gruden said of Bucs owner Malcolm Glazer and sons Bryan, Joel and Ed, "I assumed it was a seven-man blocking sled and three size-12 pairs of shoes."� Gruden's sarcastic take was typical of the reaction around the NFL. Back in February 2002, the notion of a team giving up so much for one man—let alone a man who wore a headset rather than a helmet—seemed absurd. "Not taking anything away from Jon Gruden," says Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, "but I thought that was the most shockingly one-sided deal I've seen in pro football, eclipsing our trade of Herschel Walker to the Vikings [in 1989]."
Eleven months later even doubters like Jones had to question whether the deal was indeed a steal—for the Bucs. Matched against his former team in Super Bowl XXXVII last January, Gruden pushed all the right coaching buttons as Tampa Bay rolled to a 48-21 victory and its first championship. The NFL officially had entered a new era, one in which the term the Franchise could be applied to the man roaming the sideline.
In a league that owes much of its aura to legendary leaders like Lombardi, Brown, Halas and Walsh, coaches have never meant more. The season after Gruden's Super Bowl triumph, Bill Par-cells has engineered a dramatic turnaround of the Cowboys, Bill Belichick has resourcefully rejuvenated the New England Patriots and Dick Vermeil, Tony Dungy and Marvin Lewis have worked wonders with the Kansas City Chiefs, Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals, respectively.
In the coming weeks a quarter of the league's teams may be searching for the next sideline savior. Limited by a salary cap that has compromised continuity and depleted depth—and seduced by the instant impact a coach can make in a league ruled by parity—many NFL owners have adopted a philosophy resembling that of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory contestant Veruca Salt: I want a coach who will get me a ring, and I want him NOW....
"We're basically all playing with the same budget and under the same rules and conditions," says Patriots owner Robert Kraft. "Everyone has a shot, and a lot of what determines who wins is how well your coach can establish a system and get players to adhere to his vision and philosophy."
Kraft, of course, speaks from personal experience, having sent a first-round draft pick to the New York Jets to hire Belichick before the 2000 season. Two years later Belichick, playing with an untested quarterback ( Tom Brady) and a roster filled with bargain-basement free agents, repaid Kraft by coaching the Pats to their first NFL crown.
This season Belichick's brilliance has been even more obvious. Though the Patriots were reeling from the release of Pro Bowl safety Lawyer Milloy five days before the season opener (a game they would lose 31-0 to Milloy's new team, the Buffalo Bills), Belichick kept his players motivated. New England's depth, largely a result of Belichick's discerning eye for talent that fits his system, has helped the team put together a franchise-record 11-game regular-season winning streak and the NFL's best mark (13-2) despite having started 42 players. A stickler for detail, Belichick also has wowed players with his uncanny ability to prepare his team for uncommon situations—racing to the line to run the next play, for example, before a questionable call can be reviewed in the replay booth—that crop up in games.
Parcells, Belichick's mentor, is equally revered in Dallas, where he took over a team that had gone 5-11 in each of its previous three seasons and prodded the Cowboys (10-5) into the playoffs. Parcells has blown away Jones, who wooed him out of retirement last January, with his involvement in all facets of coaching and with his willingness to adapt.
"Altering his system to fit his players is one of Bill Parcells's best attributes," Jones says. "In today's NFL, where a third of your roster turns over each year and it's hard to keep your core players together, getting the right coach is the only way to achieve continuity. You'd have to say that Bill's first year here is a dramatic illustration of what coaching can do for a franchise."
The feelings are similar in Cincinnati, where Lewis, in his first year as an NFL head coach, has pounded away at the Bengals' 13-year legacy of losing. Impressed by Lewis's record as one of the league's best-ever defensive coordinators, Cincy president Mike Brown granted his new coach more say-so in personnel decisions than previous hires, and players were captivated by Lewis's cool, driven leadership. The Bengals (8-7) remain in the hunt for the AFC North title.