Time Was Right For McKay To Exit

The National Football League is an exception to a lot of rules. We won’t even bother counting the ways. Suffice it to say that celebrity double standards and an obscenely subsidized marketplace are two of them.

But here’s one that does apply. Timing is everything. A Super Bowl, for example, doesn’t happen without the right coach at the right time orchestrating and exhorting injury-free personnel to play their best when it counts the most.

For the Bucs, the ill-fated tenure of Hugh Culverhouse never would have happened had not the finances of the original ownership group collapsed. Had John McKay not been the Buc head coach, Tampa Bay likely would have drafted Tony Dorsett instead of USC’s Ricky Bell. Had not the Community Investment Tax been passed, the Bucs would have beaten the Browns to Baltimore. And had Rich McKay not been the front man, the CIT wouldn’t have carried.

Had Steve Spurrier not turned down the Bucs, Tony Dungy would never have had the opportunity to turn them around. Had Warren Sapp not had off-the-field issues at Miami, he never would have been available to the Bucs on draft day. Had Jon Gruden not been heading into the lame-duck year on his Oakland contract, he would not have been available to the Glazers at any extorted price.

And had several well-chronicled events not occurred, Rich McKay would still be the Bucs’ general manager.

The most obvious of those was the hiring of Gruden, the charismatic, creative genius with the successfully amoral, win-now mantra. It was hoped that he could complement the look-to-tomorrow, community-conscious paragon of probity that was McKay.

The timing was hardly fortuitous. But not just because the volatile Gruden and the low-key McKay were as different as Ray Lewis and Derek Brooks. It was simply the final act of a two-act drama.

The first act was played ham-handedly by the Glazers who paid McKay well to swallow his pride. Recall the shabby scenarios involving the firing of Dungy, the courtship of Bill Parcells and the back-door channels to Gruden. McKay was trumped and waived off the case after he had all but signed up Marvin Lewis as head coach.

The Glazers gave McKay a handsome new contract, however, and the humiliation presumably subsided. But never disappeared.

When Gruden came in, he took a close look at what he had. Sure, the offensive line was an issue, but right off he saw that he had more than a highly skilled, Pro Bowl wideout who could block. He also saw that Keyshawn Johnson was an over-paid, over-rated, over-the-top annoyance who couldn’t put team first. Reportedly, he told insiders that Johnson, who snubbed early mini-camps, was the one player he just didn’t like.

Johnson’s big mouth and big contract also had come at the expense of top draft choices. Johnson at his worst was a recurring reminder of who had cut the deal for him: McKay.

Ditto for the whiney, lazy, immature, underachieving offensive tackle Kenyata Walker, for whom the Bucs and McKay had spent a number one draft choice and a lot of money. Gruden didn’t even let him dress out for the 2002 season opener.

McKay had a reputation for going after “character guys,” and Brooks and John Lynch were typically cited. But McKay had also saddled Gruden with Johnson and Walker, who were distracting, annoying “caricature” guys.

And then there was the guy who wasn’t there: Warrick Dunn, the all-purpose back whom Gruden wanted retained for whatever it would have cost. Dunn signed a lucrative free-agent deal with Atlanta.

Sure, McKay and Gruden disagreed over roster help — from Emmitt Smith to Kyle Turley — and McKay was weary of his “Dr. No” role. But an ill-timed breach of in-house confidence undermined the relationship even more. In fact, it punctured any lingering Super Bowl euphoria last summer. That’s when Gruden — at an NFL convention — spoke in unflattering terms about McKay and his reluctance to pull the trigger on personnel acquisitions favored by Gruden.

At a certain point, even a wealthy pillar of this community who bled orange and then pewter for the Buccaneers, couldn’t live with that kind of disrespect. McKay became rich man, poor-mouthed. For an executive who was extremely well-regarded around the league, he had become a frustrated, humiliated, under-appreciated prophet in his home town.

But Gruden didn’t push McKay out the door. He prodded him. The door had already been flung open by the Glazers.

And no less important to McKay, who had largely grown up with the Bucs, was that he was no longer leaving “family.” He was merely leaving a franchise and a job — albeit in a city he genuinely loves. Tampa’s still a community; Atlanta’s all marketplace.

If the Bucs’ window of Super Bowl opportunity has, indeed, closed for now, McKay’s departure, however awkward, could prove well-timed. For him. If a resurgent, Michael Vick-led Falcon franchise soon returns to the playoff status it enjoyed just one year ago, McKay’s move could look even better.

Timing is everything.

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