'Chucky Bowl': Jon Gruden vs. ... Jon Gruden

During the past XXXVII years, the Super Bowl has only sporadically produced memories on the field strong enough to displace the images of car commercials or Britney Spears's bare midriff.

But this year's edition, set to unfold Sunday afternoon, may turn out to be noteworthy for more than the Cadillac fins and latest piffle from Ozzy Osbourne.

The supporting casts are in place: Oakland and its No. 1 offense, Tampa Bay and its No. 1 defense. The story is compelling: Oakland's veterans seeking to recapture the tradition that brought three Super Bowl titles, Tampa Bay's upstarts looking to bury a long and infamous run as kings of the blooper reel.

And then, of course, there is Jon Gruden.

For those of you just joining these playoffs, it may seem that the game is less about championship rings and trips to Disney World than the Play-Doh-faced Tampa Bay coach whose eyebrows say more in a five-second sideline shot than "2001: A Space Odyssey" said in two hours.

This is the Chucky Bowl - not because Gruden's facial contortions make him look

like "Chucky" from the "Child's Play" horror films, though they do. Not because, at 39 years old, he is the youngest coach in pro football, though he is. And not because the words "offensive genius" are often affixed to his name as though they were some sort of football knighthood, though they are.

Super Bowl XXXVII will be the Jon Gruden Personal Grudge Match because, in many respects, he is the reason both teams are there. In four years he rescued one of football's most storied franchises from mediocrity and brought it to the cusp of the Super Bowl. This year, he moved to Tampa Bay and has taken the team to the Super Bowl - where it had never gone.

Never before has a coach left one team only to play it the following year in the Super Bowl - much less a coach once named one of People Magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People."

But distinctions are nothing new for Gruden. He took his first coaching job with the San Francisco 49ers at age 27, assisting the team's offensive coordinator for $500 a week. He rented a one-room apartment with no furniture because he usually slept at the 49ers' Santa Clara, Calif., offices. When he couldn't sleep, he would watch tapes of former coach Bill Walsh's West Coast offense. He still has the notes he took.

It's an ethic that defines him. A coach's son, Gruden didn't dream of throwing the winning pass so much as diagramming the play. He is a pencil-pusher with a linebacker's scowl, a magna cum laude master at the calculus of play-calling.

He arrives at the office at 4 a.m. every morning and leaves after dinner. This week, when the rest of his team went to San Diego for the Super Bowl, he and his coaches stayed behind an extra day to review game tape.

Surely, when he got to looking at the Oakland Raiders, he saw an image of himself.

Not that the Raiders are a facsimile of the team that he left. Players have been outspoken in their criticism of their former coach, saying this is a new team under coach Bill Callahan's new regime. Moreover, in these days of deep film study and advanced scouts, it's doubtful that Gruden will have much more clairvoyance into Callahan's play-calling than other coaches.

But when Gruden glances to the other side of the field Sunday, he will see a team that is largely his creation - one that he knows more thoroughly than any coach in the league.

"It might only be a little bit of help," says Marv Levy, former head coach of the four-time Super Bowl runner-up Buffalo Bills and now an analyst for NFL.com. "But every little bit helps."

Gruden recruited Callahan into professional football when he was at Green Bay and Callahan was at the University of Wisconsin. He cajoled Jerry Rice into crossing San Francisco Bay. And the quick-fire passing that catapulted quarterback Rich Gannon to NFL journeyman to Most Valuable Player - though tweaked - is still based on Gruden's principles of pitch and catch.

It is his own offensive Frankenstein, and he has to turn to the defense he inherited to stop it.

Gruden, after all, was brought in to build an offense for a team that hoped to win its games by hockey scores. Before Gruden arrived, Tampa Bay hadn't scored a postseason touchdown in three games.

Fifty-eight points in two playoff games counts as progress, but it was defense that turned Tampa Bay from league laughingstock to Super Bowl contender five years ago. And defense will have to finish the job.

If there is an antidote for the Raiders' pass-first, pass-later, then-pass-some-more offense, it is the Tampa defense. Picture Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain or Dallas's Doomsday Defense - huge packs of corn-fed linemen and linebackers who wielded their meaty hands like maces of flesh and athletic tape.

Now give them sprinter's speed. And 30 more pounds of mass and muscle.

While the Raiders spun scoreboards with 450 points, Tampa Bay surrendered a league-low 196. While Oakland led the league with 389 yards of offense a game, Tampa Bay allowed 253 yards, by far the fewest.

It is a clash that would have demanded the title "super" even before there was a Super Bowl to bestow it - a kindergarten King of the Hill played between the hashmarks of America's most watched sporting event.

The Immovable Object versus the Unstoppable Force. The Old Guard versus the Young Turks. The blond-haired Golden Boy versus his old team.

Perhaps Monday, people might remember more than the ads.

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