This Guy Knows Quarterbacks
ORLANDO — Jon Gruden rhapsodized for four-and-a-half breathless hours until, finally, he stumped the 23-year-old sitting across him.
Since arriving at Gruden’s classroom at 8 a.m. sharp, Carson Wentz has been a rapt pupil. The big-bodied quarterback diagrams a complex passing route from North Dakota State’s playbook, quickly diagnoses protections and even nods politely as the ex-NFL coach harps about how somebody will need to replace Peyton Manning.
Then Gruden—progressing through a curated lesson plan with a remote control—flashes a picture of the Chiefs’ defensive coordinator on his projector.
“Do you know this guy?” Gruden barks.
Wentz pauses. “Um...”
“This guy is a pain in the ass,” Gruden says. “Bob Sutton. I don’t know what he’s got on his sheet, but he’s got one of the best pressure packages in the league.”
On to the next slide.
“How about this guy?” Gruden asks.
“This is Mike Smith,” Gruden continues. “Now he’s back as a defensive coordinator [of the Bucs]. He’s a pain in the ass, too.”
Gruden scrolls through slides like he’s in a hurry-up offense, moving from the Bears’ Vic Fangio (“another pain in the ass”) to New England’s Matt Patricia (“he has one of the best three-down sub packages in the league”) to the Cowboys’ Rod Marinelli (“he’s getting into double-A-gap blitzes now.”)
“This guy,” says Gruden, clearly giving up on the quiz, “is Dom Capers, the defensive coordinator of the Packers. He’s a badass. And if you know anything about Capers, you know that he’s a crunch-time blitzer. It’s gotta be on the tip sheet, Carson! I walk in on a Friday and I say hey, ‘We’re putting in a two-minute drill. Dom Capers is going to all-out blitz you off a timeout in a two-minute drill!’”
Wentz scribbles notes.
“Do you like this, Carson?” Gruden asks.
“Do you want to take a little break?”
“No sir,” Wentz says, this time assertive.
“Okay,” Gruden says. “Where are you with play-action? Do you love it?”
The exchanges have the look and intensity of a job interview, but don’t forget that it’s all made for television. The VHS tapes on Gruden’s shelves are cardboard, the walls are constructed to hide camera wiring and the office is simply a set, burrowed in Disney’s massive Wide World of Sports complex.
Three football fields away, in a darkened production room, an ESPN producer watches the interaction on several monitors. “This is gold!” he shouts, ordering the segment to be logged and fed for potential airing on the next hour of SportsCenter.
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It’s been seven years since Gruden last paced an NFL sideline, 13 since he won a Super Bowl and 15 since he was among People magazine’s Most Beautiful. And yet… his celebrity is arguably as strong as ever. Broadcasting in ESPN’s Monday Night Football booth with Mike Tirico, the 52-year-old Gruden averages a dozen Vine-ready soundbites by halftime. But it’s his offseason miniseries, “Gruden QB Camp,” that nurtures his cultish popularity.
The program began in 2010. Since then, there have been 50 participants. Although a handful have been non-quarterbacks (tackle Luke Joeckel, defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, linebacker Manti Te’o, to name a few), the show centers on the NFL’s marquee position. With an alumni list that includes Blake Bortles, Sam Bradford, Teddy Bridgewater, Derek Carr, Kirk Cousins, Andy Dalton, Robert Griffin, Andrew Luck, Marcus Mariota, Cam Newton, Brock Osweiler, Ryan Tannehill, Russell Wilson and Jameis Winston, Gruden’s camp is now a pre-draft requisite for any top quarterback prospect. Says agent Ryan Tollner, who represents Wentz and and this year’s other presumed top QB, Jared Goff: “Besides the combine and pro days, I told my clients, the Gruden Quarterback Camp is the only obligation they have to do.”
The show’s concept is a bit campy: Gruden invites a top prospect to his office for the day, which he structures as if he’s hosting a pre-draft visit. After an evaluation of their college film, Gruden introduces NFL concepts, then tests the player’s recall and ability on the field. The segments are bookended by “Real World”-style confessionals —Gruden called Wentz “the most NFL-ready quarterback we’ve had in here in the last couple years,” which in itself went viral. But before Wentz can say “Spider Y 2 Banana,” Gruden is planning for his next subject, upon which he is often just as gushy.
“Gruden’s QB Camp” is an undeniable success for ESPN, which will air two 30-minute shows on ABC on Saturday. The program taps into America’s insatiable draft interest. “It’s kind of got this voyeuristic thing,” says Jay Rothman, an ESPN vice president of production and Monday Night Football’s producer. “The viewer feels like they’re sitting in this intimate meeting between a coach and his player.”
“And of course,” Rothman continues, “there’s the Chucky factor.”
“Right before the draft his phone is blowing up,” says a friend of Gruden’s. “And you know who’s calling? Owners, general managers, coaches—all of them.”
Unlike Monday Night Football, where Gruden is limited to a play clock, a longer format allows him to freely unleash his zaniness, and his insight. Widely accepted as an offensive guru, Gruden liberally sprinkles in anecdotes from his 11 years coaching the Raiders and Buccaneers. For instance, in explaining to Wentz the value of the shift, Gruden recalls a playoff win against Philly. The Buccaneers shifted from 22 personnel to a trips formation; a Eagles defender on the weak side forgot about Michael Pittman, who picked up a 33-yard gain on a Trojan route.
There is an irony in Gruden’s role as a quarterback whisperer: While he was running an NFL team, he often struggled in developing young signal-callers (Bruce Gradowski, Luke McCown, Chris Simms), instead enjoying most of his coaching success when a veteran (Rich Gannon, Brad Johnson) was commanding the huddle. In some ways, his QB camp is a chance to correct that.
* * *
Gruden wears his heart on his sleeve, and also his title. The FFCA stitched on the polo he wears for the show stands for the Fired Football Coaches Association, which, believe it or not, is a real thing. “When Jon was fired by the Bucs in 2009, he was crushed,” says Mark Arteaga, Gruden’s close friend and member of his staff in Oakland and Tampa. “Devastated. It was the first time anyone on our staff had been fired, and we didn’t know what to do with ourselves.” And so for three days a week, at 6 a.m., the staff assembled in a borrowed office at the St. Pete Times Forum, where Gruden would lead mock-coaches meetings. Part of it was that Gruden didn’t know what else to do with his time; part of it was so that the staff could stay fresh if they were ever given another opportunity.
The group jokingly called itself the Fired Football Coaches Association, and the name stuck. Eventually Gruden rented his own office, an 800-square-foot space in a strip mall. The meetings were open to anyone who wanted to talk shop. Other fired coaches, like Mike Sherman, stopped in to stay fresh. Local high school coaches would workshop with Gruden, as would Division I football staffs, usually as a pit stop on recruiting trips. The FFCA has since upgraded its digs, and has expanded into a charitable group that provides support and financial assistance to high school football programs, in addition to being a self-styled “football think-tank.”
“Jon is an ambassador for the game,” says Tennessee coach Butch Jones, whose staff has visited Gruden at least twice over the past two years.
“He’s just as curious about things we’re doing as we are in picking his brain,” adds Vols offensive coordinator Mike DeBord, who said the staff had specific areas they wanted to address with Gruden upon their last visit, including play-action and use of timeouts. “It’s definitely safe to say there’s a few things we learned with Gruden that we added to our playbook in 2015.”
No NFL firing and hiring cycle goes by without Gruden’s name surfacing. Back in Orlando, he considers the perks of his current gig. “If ESPN ever kicked me out the door and I had to get back to coach, I have to stay on top of what’s going on,” he says. “To be a good analyst you need to know what the trends are and what teams are doing. That’s why this is good. Right now I’m an expert in the North Dakota State Bison. How about that?”
* * *
Early in the session with Wentz, Gruden recaps the quarterback’s career arc. Gruden shows a play from Wentz’s very first snap at NDSU, coming in mop-up duty in 2013.
“Tell me about this play,” Gruden says. “What was going through your mind?”
“Wow,” Wentz says with a chuckle. “That was a long time ago.”
“I don’t have anything else,” Gruden says. “I’m not a good golfer. I don’t have any hobbies, really. I spend a lot of time on each guy.”
Meanwhile, in the production room, producer Josh Hoffman is impressed. “Way to find that clip, Tory,” he says to Tory Zawacki, the segment producer who began preparations for Wentz’s appearance in mid-January. Zawacki combed through hundreds of hours of North Dakota State game film and practice footage that she obtained from the athletic department. Once she selects clips that might prove useful, she overnights them to Gruden.
From his real office in Tampa, Gruden considers a lesson plan for each pupil, deliberately pacing a playlist and handing the producers a flash drive a few days before the shoot. During his five hours with Wentz, Gruden does not consult notes and pauses only once. He references specific plays (“I can tell this is your favorite red-zone look”) and games (“you used a lot of shifts in this game”) without hesitation. Gruden, who famously woke at 3:17 a.m. each day of his coaching career, cherishes the grunt work. “I don’t have anything else,” he says. “I’m not a good golfer, I don’t have any hobbies, really. I spend a lot of time on each guy. And I think they appreciate it. I really do want them to get one percent better.”
If Gruden is criticized for being too complimentary of quarterbacks, it is only because he has a love affair with the position and those who want to be great at it. Gruden uses the phrase, You love football, don’t you? in the same way some most people say, “What’s up?” He’d host every draft-eligible quarterback if he could swing it. “The first time I met Christian Ponder,” Gruden says of the 2010 draftee who did not appear on the show, “he was like ‘Thanks a lot, man.’ I don’t have control over it! I wish I could have everyone!”
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Gruden offers his cell phone number to each participant. “Call me anytime,” he will say, and he means it. Gruden regularly communicates with ex-campers Kirk Cousins and Andrew Luck. After their filming day, some quarterbacks come back for individual tutoring. Goff stayed an extra day, and Wentz was hoping to return, though a schedule conflict had him still finagling a date. Marcus Mariota, another Tollner client, also spent extra time with Gruden before being selected second overall in 2015.
Tollner considers the camp more educational for his clients than it is a media opportunity. “When these guys go in for team visits or at the combine, the team is just trying to figure out what they need of them,” Tollner says. “Jon is giving these guys an unfiltered assessment. Nobody else is telling them that.”
Mariota worked with Gruden on protecting himself at the end of plays (in college, he often took unnecessary hits after a big run), as well as ball security. Another plus: Some NFL and college players train at Disney’s Wide World of Sports, which allowed Gruden to help Mariota work on commanding a huddle. In the pre-draft process, Mariota previously found it difficult to summon enough players to even form a huddle.
The unconventional arrangement makes it difficult to classify Gruden: Is he a media member? An analyst? An advocate? Does it even matter? There is perhaps no other person in football who gets this much access to the top quarterback prospects, and as such Gruden’s opinion is a commodity. “Right before the draft, his phone is blowing up,” Arteaga says. “And you know who’s calling? Owners, general managers, coaches—all of them.”
Just now, they’d have a hard time reaching Gruden. The film session over, he has grabbed a pool noodle and gone out to the field, where Wentz has been warming up. Doing his best to emulate a Bob Sutton blitz, Gruden is running after the quarterback while whacking him with the foam stick.
This is Gruden back in his element. He is flaunting his personality, and he is coaching—however unconventional the set-up.
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