A Belated Thank You, Monte Kiffin
It doesn't seem like a big enough deal has been made. When the 2008 NFL season came to an ugly end for the Buccaneers with a home loss to the cellar-dwelling Raiders, Monte Kiffin paced the Bucs' sideline for the final time.
Sure it was easy to overlook. The Bucs had just completed and 0-4 collapse from 9-3, thus ensuring the club missed the playoffs. Talk was not of the defensive coordinator, but of where to first hang Jon Gruden in effigy.
But some things are not so easily overlooked. The departing defensive guru led the Bucs to rankings in the top 10 in NFL defenses for points and yards allowed for 10 seasons—an NFL record. He compiled a long list of Pro Bowlers and future Hall of Famers and led a defense that carried the Bucs to the 2002 Super Bowl championship.
Kiffin headed a defense that endured Tony Dungy's offensive wasteland of coordinators, headed by the likes of Mike Shula and Todd Christensen. He took the verbal spars of Gruden's press conferences, where his defense was nitpicked. Somehow Gruden's inept offense went sparsely mentioned.
Kiffin walked away for the last time.
It doesn't seem like enough of us have really let that sink in. We just assume another season will be headlined by the vaunted Bucs' defense. But say it with me, Monte Kiffin is G-O-N-E.
We take for granted another offseason of veteran departures will be ably replaced with notice by lesser players. That the next Phillip Buchanon, a failure at two NFL stops, will become a solid starting corner. That the next Jovan Haye will be plucked off a practice squad and start on the defensive line of a top-10 defense.
Maybe we just got used to it. Kiffin has done it for so long.
When Tony Dungy became the Bucs coach in 1996, the Bucs contacted the Saints about hiring linebackers coach Jim Haslett as defensive coordinator. The Saints balked at letting the Bucs talk to Haslett, but instead said that the Bucs may talk to their coordinator, Kiffin. It was Kiffin Dungy had wanted all along.
The two coached together in earlier in their careers in Minnesota, and Dungy never thought the Saints would allow the veteran coordinator to walk.
Saints' error was Bucs' coup.
Upon his hiring, Kiffin inherited a defense with talent, but little results.
Warren Sapp had been benched during his rookie season of 1995 by coach Sam Wyche and coordinator Rusty Tillman. John Lynch was a backup 'Bucco' linebacker to the greatness of Barney Bussey. Nose guard Brad Culpepper was a reserve.
It took Kiffin one season to put it all together.
By 1997, the Bucs augmented Sapp, Lynch, Derrick Brooks, Hardy Nickerson and Chidi Ahanotu with veterans like safety Charles Mincy, cornerback Antony Parker and linebacker Rufus Porter. All had experience in Kiffin's scheme.
The result was a playoff win for the lowly Bucs—but more importantly the beginning of a 12-year run that seems nearly impossible in the era of free agency.
The 'Tampa Two' became as common in the NFL vernacular as Jimmy Johnson hair jokes.
Because Sapp, Brooks, Lynch and Nickerson became household names across the league, it was easy to overlook the changes the underbelly of the Bucs' defense, and Kiffin, had to undergo during the stretch.
Sure, when Lynch departed at safety, the Bucs plugged in Jermaine Phillips. But a chorus line of players has lined up the safety position opposite that duo. Donnie Abraham and Parker were a solid corner duo. But Parker was soon replaced by Ronde Barber. Abraham by Brian Kelly. Kelly by Phillip Buchanon.
The Tampa Two production line never stopped.
When Nickerson departed, he was replaced by Jamie Duncan. Duncan was overtaken by Shelton Quarles, whose job on the strongside was taken by Al Singleton. Both had learned behind Porter.
And when the biggest name on the defense wasn't resigned, Sapp's place was taken by Booger McFarland, then former practice squader Haye. Unwanteds Chris Hovan was plucked from Minnesota, Cato June from Indianapolis, Simeon Rice from Arizona.
There are too many examples too mention.
And Kiffin always used players off the NFL scrapheap to contribute. Few nationally may know Tyoka Jackson, Jeff Gooch, Steve White or Damien Robinson, but Kiffin knew how to use them. They were cogs in a Buc defensive machine.
And look at the original coaching staff Dungy and Kiffin compiled—defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, linebackers coach Lovie Smith and secondary coach Herman Edwards.
Though Marinelli's tenure in Detroit didn't work out, Edwards coached the Jets to the playoffs. Smith took the Bears to the Super Bowl.
Maybe you've heard of Edwards' replacement as secondary coach, some guy named Mike Tomlin. He had a nice 2008. Another, Raheem Morris, will try to guide the Bucs post-Kiffin as head coach.
So now Jim Bates takes over the Bucs' D. He has huge shoes to fill. Bates is scrapping major parts of Kiffin's scheme. Undersized tackles and ends are out. The Bucs have cooled on zone corners like Barber. Linebackers have gotten bigger and more physical than the speed types Kiffin loved. Time will tell whether Bates can take the torch.
But chalk me down as one who would feel better with another full season of Monte.
So as Kiffin reaches the twilight of his coaching career in what must be every coach's dream, assisting with his son, I tip my hat to him. As he prepares at Tennessee for Tim Tebow and Steve Spurrier, I'm reminded of just what we had in Tampa Bay. And I wonder how Bates will do slowing Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and the Panthers running attack.
I have a sneaky suspicion Buc fans will soon miss Kiffin, too.
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