You’re Fired!

November 15th, 2023

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Two decades have passed since one of the most shocking episodes in Buccaneer history.

It was 20 years ago this week that Jon Gruden, backed by Rich McKay, told Keyshawn Johnson to get lost. The message was simple and direct: we’ll pay you to stay home.

The appropriate background music for this unprecedented move?: “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” by the late Tom Petty.

Keyshawn Johnson, who caught 321 balls during his four Tampa Bay seasons.

It was a stunning moment for Buc Nation and Buc players, but it had been brewing for a while.

“For whatever reason, he didn’t want to be here,” Gruden said of a 3-time Pro Bowl receiver who had helped Tampa Bay to a Super Bowl victory less than 10 months earlier. “He let me know that some time after one of our early games.”

The relationship between Johnson and Gruden turned out to be a clash of the titans in terms of ego. These were two alpha males who grew increasingly sick of each other and that impasse contributed to a 4-6 record at the time of Johnson’s banishment from One Buc Place.

A month earlier, after the Bucs were drubbed 24-7 by the 49ers, Johnson didn’t accompany the rest of the team on the flight home from San Francisco. More importantly, he failed to inform the head coach and GM of his unusual travel plans. They didn’t realize Johnson wasn’t aboard until the aircraft was 30,000 feet above Albuquerque.

At that point, Gruden didn’t need a cocktail … he needed a Xanax.

That was the deal-breaker for Gruden, who had been fed up with Johnson’s attitude for weeks. Still, the decision to deactivate a healthy player of Johnson’s caliber seemed rash.

“I’m very disappointed because I really wanted to win another championship with this team,” Johnson said. “I was never Gruden’s guy. He never liked me. I told him I’d rather retire than play for him in 2004, but I also told him I wouldn’t be a distraction.”

McKay begged to differ, suggesting Johnson’s commitment to the organization slipped after he expressed his desire to leave in ’04.

“Following that, I really feel Keyshawn’s actions changed,” McKay said. “His approach to us, to the organization and to the team changed. A lot of mandatory workouts missed and a lot of team functions that are football related that were not attended and it became in our mind a problem — one that needed to be addressed.”

A lot of things went wrong for the defending champions. You can’t blame Johnson for the stunning OT loss to the Colts in prime time as Indy overcame a 21-point deficit in the final five minutes on Tony Dungy’s birthday. Some key injuries were also a factor and a widening rift between McKay and Gruden didn’t help.

Johnson certainly knew how to push Gruden’s buttons.

A week after the loss in San Francisco, Johnson publicly embarrassed Gruden before a home game against Dallas by racing across the field to shake the hand of Bill Parcells, who Johnson had previously proclaimed to be his favorite coach from their days together with the Jets.

At the time of his deactivation, Johnson had 45 catches for 600 yards and three touchdowns. He had been eclipsed by Keenan McCardell as Brad Johnson’s favorite target, adding to his frustration with the head coach.

“I’m in shock,” Johnson said. “I thought we would get through the year. Why would you do that when you’re trying to win another championship?”

Although there were six games remaining and a playoff berth was still a remote possibility, Gruden came to the conclusion that Johnson’s presence at One Buc Place was hurting the team. Tampa Bay went 3-3 the rest of the way, averaging only 17 points in Johnson’s absence.

By the following spring, Johnson was traded to the Cowboys in exchange for Joey Galloway, a wide receiver swap that ultimately favored the Bucs. Galloway posted three 1,000-yard seasons during his five years with Gruden while Johnson finished his career with stops in Dallas and Carolina.

Twenty years later, the decision to deactivate Johnson remains stunning. He wasn’t fined, he wasn’t deemed in breach of contract and he wasn’t placed on injured.reserve.

He was simply told don’t come around here no more, so he didn’t. Five years later, the Glazers gave Gruden the same message.

29 Responses to “You’re Fired!”

  1. MegaFailure Says:

    typical crybaby wah wah wah i need the ball more receiver. it was good riddance when they deactivated him. thank god for guys like mike evans

  2. HC Grover Says:

    Hire Gruden for HC.

  3. Buc1987 Says:

    Grover you know that shyte ain’t happening.

  4. Tampabaybucfan Says:

    Meshawn………behind Gruden 100%…….players get paid to play and not cop attitudes……coaches are in charge and their a$$ is on the line.

  5. BucsFanSince1996 Says:

    I wasn’t much of a fan of Jon Gruden as head coach of the Bucs but am hoping he wins his contract interference and conspiracy lawsuit against the NFL because I feel he got totally screwed!

    I hope we do see him some day either as a coach or back on TV where he was really good.

  6. Bucsfanman Says:

    There are few players who I genuinely dislike. Me-Shawn is atop that list. If you’ve met him in person, you know what I’m talking about.

  7. Seattle Buc Says:


  8. Greg Says:

    We absolutely got the better of that deal. Joey Galloway was fun to watch.

  9. D-Rome Says:

    What a bizarre time in Bucs history. The team wasn’t winning anything that year with or without Keyshawn Johnson. I wonder if he ever looks back and wishes he handled it differently (probably not).

  10. Larrd Says:

    Galloway was great. Second best wideout in team history, maybe. Keyshawn was a fine blocker.

  11. Mark Says:

    So we started Charles Lee instead. Needed a strong character guy in that spot, not some thug.

  12. SRQ Bucs Fan Says:

    If I recall Keyshawn disrespectfully patted Gruden’s head on the sideline his last game before “Don’t come around here no more”. I think it was replayed in game on the jumbotron.

  13. Jack Burton Mercer Says:

    We definitely got the better of that trade. Galloway was a great player for us in a time of ordinary QBs. Seemed to me to be a great teammate. Good riddance to Johnson.

  14. hammerhead Says:

    Didn’t we trade 2 First round draft picks to the Jets to get him? That’s a bust of a trade.

  15. TOMMY MORDUE Says:


  16. Joe Says:

    Didn’t we trade 2 First round draft picks to the Jets to get him? That’s a bust of a trade.

    Bucs got a Super Bowl win in part because of him. That’s a win of a trade.

  17. NYbucsfan Says:

    I’m not going to lie I’m a little disappointed I thought this article would be about firing Todd Bowles.

  18. Rod Munch Says:

    Gruden’s ego was soo big, he couldn’t do what was best for the team, he had to show everyone he was in charge and he could win without Keyshawn – just like later he’d show everyone he could win without Sapp and Lynch as well. If you wanted a place on Gruden’s team you’d keep your mouth shut and do what you were told.

  19. rickym Says:

    Maybe he sensed something in Gruden’s personality that he didn’t like?

  20. Mike C Says:

    Yeah Hammerhead, I will take the SB

  21. SlyPirate Says:

    A lot of prima donna WR in that era: Owens, Moss, Keyshawn, Ocho Cinco, AB

    Keyshawn and Justin Bieber live in the same neighborhood. Keyshawn was playing with his daughter in the front yard when Bieber comes ripping through the streets in his new sports car. Keyshawn didn’t appreciate it. He went to Biebers house, “helped” him out of his car, and told him he’d kick his ass if he ever raced through the neighborhood again. Bieber still drives 25 after pulling into the gated community.

    Keyshawn didn’t like Gruden because he felt he’d say one thing to you and do another behind your back. Keyshawn is a no BS (Parcells) guy. I like it.

  22. Capt.Tim Says:

    Dont blame that on Keyshawn.
    Dont forget, Gruden also Turned on Keenan MacCardell. Who was by all accounts a great teammate, and great person.

    By the time we fired Gruden- the entire team was sick of him. He was called out by many players as an egomanic, who constantly lied and used players.

    Gruden came here, and won with Dungy’s defense. Dungy couldnt. He always went mega conservative in the playoffs.

    Gruden came, beefed up the Offense, and rode that defense to the a Superbowl.
    And then lead us to a losing record in his 2nd year.
    Then the players began leaving. And we werent a good team again.
    Gruden packed the team with old, over the hill players. We’d get the playoffs every other year, and immediately get eliminated without being competative.
    Then we would be the worst in the NFC south the next season.

    That was Gruden after year one. Last, first, last first.

    Its a shame that was a fantastic team. Dungys conservativeness and Grudens ego cost us at least one more SuperBowl

    History lesson complete.

  23. Cobraboy Says:

    Without MeShawn, I doubt the Bucs win that 2002 Lombardi.

  24. WillieG Says:

    Gruden didn’t like offensive players if they were more popular than him. Johnson, Jurevicius, Alstott….

  25. BillyBucco Says:

    Didn’t like Johnson then, and don’t like him now.

  26. Arians4President Says:

    Question for Ira or Joes,

    If Rich McKay was not the CEO of one of our divisional foes, do you think that the Glazers would have put him in the Ring of Honor by now? Am I being too simplistic by making this assumption?

    I wasn’t yet a Bucs fan back then (moved here and embraced pewter during Rah’s last season), but from what I have picked up it sounds like the architect of our first great rosters was not Dungy or Gruden, but actually Rich McKay. Is he an unsung hero, or am I misunderstanding how that all went down?

    PS – Love this website!!

  27. Bucsbleeder Says:

    Didn’t BA do the same thing with Antonio brown?😁

  28. Fred McNeil Says:

    Antonio Brown is simply insane.

  29. garro Says:

    You sir are on fire this week. Great article Ira!

    Of course a whole book could be written on that season but you definitely hit the high spots. Still miffs me to this day when a Diva like Meshaun can get any traction at all with his BS about Gruden or anyone else for that matter. He was all but run off by the Jets before he ever came to the Bucs. BTW

    Go Bucs!