Don’t Go There, Raiders: Pass on Jon Gruden

Oakland needs a savior, and bringing back the former silver-and-black coach would make a splash. But it’s not worth the money or the heartache
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Tough call on which was the biggest fait accompli in the NFL this week: Dennis Allen being fired by Oakland after a dismal 0-4 start, or Jon Gruden’s name surfacing 12 seconds later as the Raiders’ dare-to-dream scenario in their endless loop of a coaching search. Score it a nil-nil draw in terms of surprise factor.

Gruden’s history in Oakland and his sky-high Q rating would make for the sexiest of hires, and his name carries the cachet, credibility and Super Bowl-glamor the downtrodden Raiders have sorely lacked for what seems like an eternity. After all, it’s not every day you get to take a shot at landing a coach who hasn’t lost a game in almost six years. Making such a splash would certainly help restore the Raiders brand in the Bay Area.

But a few words of unsolicited advice: Don’t do it, Oakland. Don’t make the mistake of thinking Gruden is the answer to all your problems, the “superstar’’ coaching option capable of restoring a football Camelot to Raiders Nation. Even if you make him an offer he can’t refuse—and it’ll have to be a big one in order to pry him out of the Monday Night Football booth he’s grown so comfortable in since 2009—executing such a bold back-to-the-future move won’t make you dramatically better off in the long run.

Chasing after past glory is always a tempting call in NFL coaching searches, but it’s rarely the right one, writ large. Throwing big money at Gruden wouldn’t make him anything close to a lock when it comes to transforming the league’s biggest doormat into a winner. It would just make him that much richer coming out of a six-year retirement. Gruden’s Super Bowl pedigree would certainly add a sizzle factor, but it doesn’t remotely guarantee a Raiders’ restoration.

If the equation were that simple, Joe Gibbs’ second tour of duty in Washington from 2004-2007 would be remembered as a grand slam-hire by Daniel Snyder. Bill Parcells reign in Dallas from 2003-2006 would have lifted the Cowboys and Jerry Jones back to the heights of the Jimmy Johnson glory era. And Dick Vermeil would have managed more than one division title and two winning seasons in his five years (2001-2005) working for Kansas City owner Lamar Hunt.

Throwing big money at Gruden wouldn’t make him anything close to a lock when it comes to transforming the league’s biggest doormat into a winner.

There were no failures in that illustrious group, but no real saviors either. Add it all up and those three Super Bowl winners combined to produce just one playoff victory in the 13 seasons that represented their final coaching stops (five playoff trips yielded a 1-5 postseason record). Those coaches were all handsomely paid, but they had more name than game at that stage of their careers.

And do we have to remind anyone of the embarrassing Mike Ditka experiment in New Orleans, when his glittering Super Bowl résumé couldn’t turn around the down-and-out Saints? In fact, the Lombardi Trophy that Vermeil won with the Kurt Warner-led Rams at the end of the 1999 season—in the coach’s third season of a remarkable comeback from a 14-year career in the broadcasting booth—stands as Super Bowl era’s lone example that runs counter to the prevailing wisdom about coaching comebacks (unless you’re willing to count Barry Switzer winning a ring in Dallas, and I’m not). The magic isn’t easy to recapture.

Tony Sparano has been named the Raiders’ interim coach, but Mark Davis has made no secret that his search starts with Gruden, and perhaps the Raiders owner will even offer Chucky total personnel autonomy to entice a homecoming. But buyer beware: Gruden had a strong four-year run in Oakland, going 40-28 from 1998 through 2001, but his track record in Tampa Bay was undeniably uneven.

Gruden raising the Lombardi Trophy at Raymond James Stadium a day after winning Super Bowl 37. His Bucs rolled to a 48-21 victory over the Raiders, the coach’s former team. (Scott Martin/AP)

Gruden raising the Lombardi Trophy at Raymond James Stadium a day after winning Super Bowl 37. His Bucs rolled to a 48-21 victory over the Raiders, the coach’s former team. (Scott Martin/AP)

Gruden’s seven-year tenure with the Bucs started out as well as it possibly could have in 2002, when he took over a talent-laden team, lit a fire underneath it and led it all the way to a blowout victory over Oakland in Super Bowl 37.

It’s fair to point out that Gruden walked into a good situation in Tampa Bay and won a ring with Tony Dungy’s roster, though we must hasten to point out that Gruden’s prior work had plenty to do with the success of the Bill Callahan-coached Raiders. One way or another, Gruden’s fingerprints were on both Super Bowl teams.

But the rest of Gruden’s time in Tampa Bay was streaky at best. The Bucs still haven’t won a playoff game since their Super Bowl victory, and Gruden made just two more trips to the playoffs in his final six seasons, losing at home in the opening round to higher-seeded teams in both 2005 (Washington) and 2007 (the Giants).

Including the playoffs, Gruden’s first Bucs team went 15-4 in 2002, but he was just 45-53 after that, finishing close to .500 (60-57) for his entire Tampa Bay run. In 2008, his final Bucs club went 9-3 and seemed destined for a first-round bye when it collapsed in December, becoming the first team to start 9-3 and miss the playoffs since the 1993 Dolphins.

And for a coach with a reputation of being an offensive guru—who hasn’t seen his wildly popular quarterback camp each draft season on ESPN?—Gruden never proved to have much of a handle on the position in Tampa Bay. After the underrated Brad Johnson started on the Super Bowl-winning club, Gruden burned through a litany of other QBs, with the likes of Shaun King, Brian Griese, Rob Johnson, Chris Simms, Bruce Gradkowski, Jeff Garcia, Tim Rattay and Luke McCown all starting at least one game for him. That’s nine different starters in seven seasons overall. Gruden was always looking for the next guy, seemingly never satisfied with the quarterback he had. In his last season, do you remember the Bucs flirting with but failing to land Brett Favre, who signed with the Jets in 2008? The pattern was the same: Gruden swooned hardest for the players he couldn’t have.

The constant changes at quarterback were reflected in the results. In his Tampa Bay years, Gruden’s offenses ranked 25th in scoring, never once finishing in the top half of the league. Simply put, he was never able to live up to the reputation for offensive innovation he had in Oakland, where he thrived with Rich Gannon at quarterback and was thought to have one of the game’s brighter young minds on that side of the ball.

If I were Davis, I’d be very wary of giving Gruden complete authority over personnel decision-making, minus a general manager with a strong voice and track record of draft results. Some believe Gruden started going downhill in Tampa Bay when he feuded with and then won a power struggle over longtime Bucs general manager Rich McKay in 2003, with McKay resigning in December to take Atlanta’s GM job. Gruden never distinguishing himself as a personnel evaluator with the Bucs, or built up the roster to the point where the franchise could enjoy sustained success.

In time, his feuds with McKay, receiver Keyshawn Johnson, and even respected Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin toward the end of their association, damaged Gruden’s reputation and made him seem difficult to work with. By the end of his tenure in Tampa, his personnel decisions, offensive acumen and head coaching touch all drew fire, giving his critics plenty of fodder.

It’s not hard to understand the Raiders’ infatuation with Gruden. He was at their helm during the final glory days of this fabled franchise. But resist the urge, Oakland. Don’t make your past the map you use to find your way to a better future. Learn from history. Don’t go chasing the celebrated return of the Gruden era. Instead, you could easily wind up recalling the Gruden error.