Kiffin's legacy will last in Tampa Bay

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

TAMPA, Fla. -- What happened on the field at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday was something Tampa Bay fans should savor.

It's going to go down as one of the final chapters of a story that won't get fully appreciated until it's over. Yes, Monte Kiffin's time as the Buccaneers' defensive coordinator -- heck, his time as the best defensive coordinator in the NFL -- appears to be coming to an end.

The man who's made the Bucs respectable since 1996 apparently will join his son, Lane, who officially will be announced as the University of Tennessee's new coach on Monday. There were no denials after the Bucs defeated the Saints, 23-20.

"It's all just speculation,'' Kiffin said. "That's all it is. I can honestly tell you it's speculation, just like it came up with the Raiders, it came up two years ago, it came up last year. So all I'm going to talk about and stay focused on is Monday Night Football, the Carolina Panthers and how about this game we just played?''

If you're still clinging to hope that Kiffin will stay in pewter forever, think again. He was given several chances to shoot down the stuff he called speculation.

"No, no, no,'' Kiffin said. "I'm going to talk about our football team.''

That's the Buccaneers, for now, and Kiffin is the kind of old-school guy who means what he says. This guy is no Bobby Petrino. He's not going to leave his team in the middle of a playoff run.

But he wouldn't deny all that could change after the season.

"Well, we'll see,'' Kiffin said. "It's all speculation. It really is. I'm just telling you, that's all I can tell you, it is speculation.''

So speculate away and picture Kiffin on Rocky Top and wearing orange and white next season. Funny, those were the same colors the Buccaneers used to wear when Kiffin arrived in Tampa Bay in 1996.

Thirteen seasons later, it might be time to move on. Kiffin is 68 and has a chance to bring instant credibility to his son's regime. And, really, is there anything left to prove with the Bucs?

No, Kiffin's done it all and let's not forget that. Years from now, people will look back and give Tony Dungy, Warren Sapp, John Lynch, Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber credit for taking the Bucs from laughingstock to annual playoff contender. They'll talk about how Jon Gruden came in and got the team its first Super Bowl and kept them consistently competitive through time.

It would be a shame if history doesn't include Kiffin in those conversations. He's meant as much to this franchise as any of the above and he's done it through two regimes that are about as different as can be.

For 13 years, Kiffin (and Brooks) has been the constant on the Tampa Bay defense. Play along here and ask yourself what you think of when you think of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers?

I'm guessing you're saying either the pirate ship in the end zone or great defense. It wasn't always that way around here and Kiffin's a big part of the reason.

Back before Kiffin followed Dungy to Tampa Bay, the Bucs played in an old stadium that was a shrine to concrete and they lost an awful lot. There was talk of the team moving to Los Angeles, Sacramento or Orlando.

But a funny thing happened before the Bucs could bolt. All of the sudden, they got very good. Kiffin came in preaching aggressive defense and showing his players movies with animals attacking one another to fire them up the night before a game. He brought the "Tampa 2 Defense'' into the NFL's vocabulary and watched as former assistants Herm Edwards, Mike Tomlin, Lovie Smith and Rod Marinelli went on to head-coaching jobs.

All the while, Kiffin was a rock as coaches and players came and went. You just kind of thought he'd always be here. But that's no longer looking like the reality.

"Tonight isn't about Monte Kiffin,'' Kiffin said. "It's about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, our defensive football team, Jon Gruden, our offense, our special teams and a great, great win. And we're 9-3.''

That's all true, but the Bucs are 9-3 largely because they have Kiffin. Sunday's win had Kiffin's signature all over it. Six days after New Orleans ran up 51 points against Green Bay, Kiffin's defense made Drew Brees look rather ordinary. The Bucs intercepted Brees three times and held him to a quarterback rating of 60.2. Sure, Brees threw for 296 yards, but that's 4 yards less than 300 and that's another tribute to Kiffin. The last time the Bucs allowed a quarterback to throw for 300 yards was Brees in the season opener.

"I thought Monte did a great job once again mixing up his defenses,'' Gruden said. "We played some man-to-man, we blitzed, played some different kinds of zone and our guys played well. Our defense played really well and I hope they get a lot of credit.''

This defense will go on after Kiffin. In the last couple of years guys like Barrett Ruud, Tanard Jackson, Aqib Talib and Gaines Adams have started to emerge as the heir apparents to Brooks and Barber. On the current staff, Larry Coyer and Raheem Morris have the résumés to step in as defensive coordinator and there's always the possibility former Bucs defensive line coach Rod Marinelli could become available if he's fired as Detroit's head coach.

Tampa Bay's defense isn't going to suddenly fall apart if Kiffin leaves. His Tampa Bay legacy will continue to grow as long as this season goes on -- and it should go on long after that.