Huddle Up: A conversation with Jon Gruden before 101st MNF broadcast
Most days of the week, Jon Gruden is immersed in film study. And he’s not alone. Gruden’s Fired Football Coaches Association (FFCA) is a self-proclaimed football think tank based in Clearwater, Fla. where Monday Night Football’s ebullient analyst is joined by other former coaches with at least one pink slip in their resume. Monte Kiffin, the longtime ex-NFL defensive coordinator is a regular. Greg Schiano, fired as the Buccaneers head coach in 2013, pops in from time-to-time. Local high school coaches are typically in attendance. Mark Arteaga, Gruden’s assistant from his coaching days in Oakland and Tampa Bay is a full-time employee, as is Jay Gruden’s son and Jon’s nephew who Jon affectionately calls 'Jay Jay.'
“Coaches come from around the globe to come to this palace, “ Gruden says somewhat jokingly.
Collectively the team at FFCA supports high school programs around the country in ways that range from in-person “chalk-talks” with Gruden to equipment donations. They also spend time drawing up plays and keeping up with all the ever-changing schematics across the NFL.
During the NFL season, however, the focus is on prepping for Monday Night Football. Gruden will spend an entire work day, which in his world is from 4 a.m. to 4 p.m., studying film on one of the teams playing on Monday night. Another day, he'll focus on the opponent, and a third is spent on matchups. All of this prep happens in addition to the robust game planning in conjunction with ESPN staffers.
Tonight on ESPN, the Eagles host the Giants in what will be the 101st Monday Night Football broadcast for Gruden. In the following conversation, he reflects on his performance as an NFL analyst, the changing quarterback landscape and where the game is headed.
Melissa Jacobs: How surprised are you to have reached 100 games in the Monday Night Football booth?
Jon Gruden: I am surprised. I’m amazed, really. And really honored. Time flies in this life, unfortunately.
MJ: How do you think you’ve changed as a broadcaster?
JG: My wife still thinks I’m coaching. I’m working hard at it, trying to stay on top of things. Trying to learn, trying to get better. I’ve probably learned to be a better listener and better in organizing thoughts and being part of a team, and being more confident and comfortable. But I know I have a lot of ways to get better. Look, I have plenty of faults. I know that. But I get excited for every game. I consider each one like the Super Bowl. I know what a thrill it was to coach on Monday Night Football, and as a coach’s son I tried to stay up for these games and my mom and dad would kick me upstairs. I've always gotten fired up for Monday Night Football and I still do.
MJ: What’s it like to work with Mike Tirico?
JG: He’s great. He’s a smooth operator, he's very intelligent and he’s a great person. He’s always prepared, and he’s a great quarterback. He sets it up and makes my job easy. He doesn’t miss much ever and when he does he’s all over it. He’s just very professional, prepared, consistent, and he’s a guy I look forward to going on the road to see. That’s what makes this job fun.
MJ: Your vernacular has become its own industry. How aware are you of the masses of people that track your favorite sayings, often called Grudenisms?
JG: It’s funny when you go on the road, and you meet a lot of people that point that out to you. [Laughs]. It’s pretty cool, really. Who knows? I like being around football fans—women, children, grown adults—it’s amazing. I love being around people who love football.
MJ: When you’re in the midst of the broadcast and you say something particularly quirky, do you realize that it might go viral on Twitter?
JG: No, I don’t worry about that Twitter too much. What would you say a Grudenism is, like a Spider 2 Y Banana?
MJ: Sure.That play has a Twitter account, t-shirts, probably a website.
MJ: There’s another notion out there that you are all rainbows and sunshine when it comes to quarterbacks. Is that fair?
JG: I don’t know. But hey, look, if you’re listening carefully, I’ll be critical. If you’re listening for me to be positive, you’ll hear plenty of that too. I know this, it’s a very hard position to play, especially today with the limitations on practice and the amount of free agency turnover. It’s tough. So I look at the world as the glass being half full. I also know it’s hard to get a first down in the NFL. It’s hard to be consistently good.
MJ: Speaking of quarterbacks, five years ago, even three years ago, it was pretty evident that we were in this special quarterback era. How would categorize the quarterback landscape today?
JG: It’s a changing atmosphere, there’s no doubt about it. I worry about the time when Tom Brady and Drew Brees and Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers and Eli Manning move on. I look at their backups. I look at the Dallas Cowboys without Tony Romo. I look at a lot of things like that. We’re not training quarterbacks like we used to in high school and college. When they come to the NFL, there’s a limitation on how we can train them there. We’re not even allowed to work with them until the end of March because of the CBA. So when you take away some training and education that these guys used to get, you’re going to see more and more no huddle, option football, out of the shotgun, For some, that’s exciting. I worry about it because I think these quarterbacks are subject to getting hurt but you’re seeing athletes at the position that we’ve never seen before. It’s exciting but you have to be able to adapt.
MJ: Aside from Luck, are there any other young quarterbacks you possibly see in the mold of a Brady or Manning, or is that just an untouchable status?
JG: I thought it was an untouchable status when Joe Montana retired. I didn’t think anyone would be like that. But I like Andrew Luck, obviously. I think Marcus Mariota, what he’s shown is going to be special. I think Derek Carr is a super player. I think Russell Wilson is on the moon. I like some of the things I’m seeing from young Jameis Winston. It’s a process, though. Look at Andy Dalton. I think he’s finally putting it all together. For a lot of these guys, they have to start over after a year or two when the team fires the coach or the coordinator.
MJ: Coaches do get fired rather quickly these days.
JG: I don’t like the way it is. Forget the head coaches for a second, but what about the coordinators. These guys are being changed out like they change shirts. Head coaches, there’s been so many on some of these teams in the last ten years you can’t remember who went where. When you’re a student and you’re learning the American language and someone comes in and starts teaching you French, it’s a little different. Some guys change your fundamentals. Some guys change the way you read progressions. Some change the way you practice. It derails a lot of young quarterbacks.
MJ: One guy who’s had the same coach, at least head coach, all along—Tom Brady—appears to be in the best shape of this career at age 37. Do you believe what you’re seeing?
JG: When I’m around guys like Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady and Drew Brees, it’s a year-round job for these cats. They don’t rest. They don’t go to Clearwater, Fla. with me and go fishing on my boat. These guys go to [pitching coach] Tom House, other passing specialists, and talk about how to get more velocity on the ball. They study their mechanics. They have nutritionists, they have full time trainers. So physically they’re way more equipped then they used to be. These are CEO-type quarterbacks. They realize that the CBA prohibits them from working out in the team facility, so they go get the players and workout and run the plays themselves. It’s the damndest thing I’ve ever seen.
MJ: Onto your 101st Monday Night Football telecast, what are a couple of storylines we should be watching in the Eagles-Giants matchup?
JG: I think Eli Manning is one of the most improved players we’ve seen in the game. I see him and this offense under [offensive coordinator] Ben McAdoo, he adjusted his fundamentals last year. He stands in the pocket like Aaron Rodgers now. There’s a lot of things that McAdoo brought to New York from Green Bay, and you see it. Not only the plays they’re running, but the fundamentals they’re using with Eli. He’s making more plays with his feet. He’s getting out trouble and has even run for yardage at times. He’s getting to his second ad third receiver faster than he ever has before. The ball is coming out of his hand quicker than it ever has. There are less sacks, less turnovers, there’s so far less negative plays. If the Giants could get Beckham, Cruz and Randle healthy with this line, this could be one of the top offenses in football.
Philadelphia has been a big mystery team. I think they need to keep their hands in the pile and stay together. They have to do better on third down—to me, that’s the key to this offense. If the Eagles don’t’ get their act together on third down it’s going to kill their offense and kill their defense because their defense is out there for too many plays. Their defense is out there for more plays than I’ve ever seen on defense. I bet they’re out there 75-80 plays a game. I bet they lead the league in defense in number of plays played. If you look at Philadelphia’s third down conversion, I bet they’re not very good at all. It would help if they’d stop losing yardage on first downs with negative yardage runs.
MJ: Where do you see the NFL in 10 years?
JG: I don’t know. Probably in London. Probably all over the world.
There’s been a lot of rules changes in the last couple of years on special teams and in terms of illegal hits and contact. The biggest rule change has been in the collective bargaining agreement so the way we practice and the way we train these players is different. Will the future player be as ready to go as the current player? Will be interesting to see that. Where will be playing? Los Angeles? London? How many teams will there be? Is there going to be a farm system league anywhere? I think we could certainly use that league to train young players.
That would be fun. One of these days you and I will have a couple of Cokes, float on the boat and talk about what we would do if we were commissioner.