This story appears in the February 26 issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe, click here.
Jon Gruden has this idea for a story. It’s not his story—not yet—though it’s clear he’d like it to be. And maybe that shouldn’t come as a surprise. He did spend plenty of time in the dark, alone, over the last decade, and that would set any man, even one who tries to “stay in two feet of water, don’t get too deep or philosophical,” to thinking. Then there’s the fact that at 54 you hear a lot about guys your age getting hit by cancer or heart attack, here one day and—boom!—gone the next. So, yeah, Gruden formulated this theory about purpose and fraudulence and death. He jotted down some notes and even a title, The Football Gods.
“I thought I could write a cool Broadway play,” he says. “I really do want to write this book. But I’d rather it be a movie.”
The base conceit is that in the end, your passion leads to your heaven. Live for classical music? Die and you’ll be up there conducting the New York Philharmonic. Legendary football coaches like Lombardi and Halas? They arrived, started talking ball and never stopped. And now they monitor the coaches down on earth. Gruden is “convinced” this part is real. All those icons are up there, judging.
“If you’re faking it, the football gods will get you,” he says. “They reward the guys who work hard. That’s why Tom Brady is where he is. If you’re focused and determined and legit, good things will happen. I believe that.”
Now, to Gruden-bashers this idea couldn’t be more hokey, but you can’t overstate the power of context. He is saying this not from the Monday Night Football booth, or while tutoring some wide-eyed QB on ESPN. No, he’s sitting now in his old/new Raiders office in Alameda, 27 days after breaking a nine-year exile in broadcasting to become the highest-paid coach in NFL history. It’s Super Bowl Sunday, but he’s been here since before sunrise, “grinding” and “layin’ bricks,” with no one else in sight.
The glass-walled warren is hushed and dark when he first walks me in, a perfect setting for the horror movie Child’s Play, with its psychodoll/Gruden doppelgänger, Chucky. There’s a massive monitor mounted over his desk, paused on a practice script, and another gargantuscreen over his right shoulder playing America’s annual football-and-marketing orgasm, with its endless blabber of pregame, in-game and postgame talking heads.
“Al Davis wanted these walls to be glass,” he says, “so he could see that you were working. He always wore this cologne—a lot of it—and you could smell him before he got to you. ‘He’s coming this way!’ I’m still expecting to smell it sometimes.”
Which makes sense. It’s not just that Gruden is back in the same facility he left on Feb. 18, 2002, when Davis, the Raiders’ notoriously hands-on owner, up and shipped the coach to Tampa Bay for two first- and two second-round draft choices. It’s also that Davis’s Just win, baby persona—brass-knuckle fierce and darker than 2 a.m.—was so unrelenting that even now, his 2011 death at age 82 can seem like a mere technicality. For many, Al Davis remains the Raiders’ heart and soul.
“Did you know,” Gruden asks, one eyebrow cocked northward, “that they’ve kept his office exactly as it was?”
It’s true. Mark Davis, Al’s only son, didn’t dare move into the owner’s suite when he took over the family business. (Asked where his office stands in relation to his dad’s, Mark says, “He’s across the hall.”) While Super Bowl Sunday rattles on in the background, Gruden pads over to the empty desks of Al’s two longtime “angels,” his assistants Karen (Fudgie) Otten and Kristi Bailey; now dedicated to team alumni, they’re due back at their stations next week. Here, some 20 years ago, Gruden would come and wait to be summoned, wondering what he was in for. Often, the angels winced, mouthing, “Good luuuck.”
“It’s just weird coming in here, man,” Gruden says. “Feel like you’re 34 years old again.”
After a cursory tour of Al’s office—rack of leather jackets in the corner; certificates from Syracuse and the Sugar Ray Robinson Youth Foundation; jersey from Lance Alworth, Al’s first signing coup—Gruden dips into Davis’s film room, past four idle TV screens, to a fully marked-up whiteboard backed against a wall. “Here it is,” he says.
Davis, named the AFL’s Coach of the Year in 1963, was consumed by X’s and O’s to the end, and the fact that his last whiteboard, the repository of his scribbled plays and plans, remains untouched from 2011 gives Gruden the biggest thrill. “Lookit,” he says, and then reads aloud from Davis’s scribblings: “Power. Big people. Pass pro. Defense. Play calling. Offensive line. Not signed: 21. 24. 26. 31. That’s the last time he was here.”
Then Gruden’s out, down the hall toward Al’s private bathroom, stopping at a bookshelf jammed with Davis’s massive video collection of games, plays, ceremonies. Gruden had epic arguments with the old man, and they never made peace after a final dispute over roster control and salary led Davis to deal him. But, really, who would better appreciate the stiletto irony of Gruden’s coming back that first season in Tampa Bay to crush the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII? Looking back, Gruden loves the man for his sheer territoriality, that hilariously profane will.
“His wife, Carol, had all these videos at their house, and she’d ask, ‘Do you want any?’ ” Gruden recalls, laughing. “I’d say, ‘I would love to have some of those.’ And Al says”—here the coach affects a menacing, low-and-slow, Brooklyn-tinged Al Davis inflection—“ ‘Carol . . . don’t you . . . give him . . . a f-----’ thing!’ ”
It’s at that moment I realize: If Gruden ever writes The Football Gods, Al Davis will be one of them. Hell, maybe football heaven ends up a version of this very office. Because, at least in Gruden’s mind, this return to the game isn’t all about proving critics wrong, or justifying that 10-year, $100 million contract, or giving Oakland a playoff run before its planned move to Las Vegas in 2020. Years ago Gruden called the Raiders, got the name of Davis’s cologne (Antaeus, by Chanel), mispronounced it at a New York department store, bought a bottle and, to his wife’s dismay, doused himself with “four scoops,” à la Al. There’s a bottle in his Hampton Inn hotel room right now. Gruden, for gods’ sake, wants to channel the old pirate.
“A lot of coaches are miserable,” Gruden says. “These guys have been fired, hired, fired again; they’ve got houses here, got to move over there. They’re distraught. I grew up [associating] every team with a coach. Pittsburgh Steelers, I’d think Chuck Noll. Seahawks, Chuck Knox. Now? Who’s coaching up in Jacksonville? In Miami? I don’t know how many coaches they’ve had in Tampa since they fired me! I don’t like it.
“So, you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to come back and put it all on me. Everybody’s going to want to kick my ass, step on me. They can’t wait to talk about what a dumbass I am, and how s----- I was to start with. How ‘overrated’ I am. I hear it all. I know it’s going to happen. And I’m like: Come on! Just like Al Davis. When I was here, he said, ‘The great thing you’ve got going, Jon, is they’re never going to rip you. They’re going to rip me.’ ”
Gruden’s mouth tightens into a slash, one eye popping wider than the other, and there it is for the first time today: full-on Chucky, to finish the thought. “And Al goes, ‘I love it, personally.’ ”
He settles back into his office chair, his face reverting to the one his mother loves. The volume drops. “I’ve kind of taken to that, man.”
The idea was to sit with the Raiders’ new coach and watch Super Bowl LII. It seemed cool, if obvious: ESPN’s highest-paid broadcaster (at a reported $6.5 million per), nine years the face of Monday Night Football, eight years the host of the quirky-compelling QB Camp show, calls one last game before diving back in. Setting this up turned out far easier than expected, though, because of one minor-key bizarre fact: Jon Gruden answers his phone.
Do you instantly pick up when a strange number flashes across your cell? Does your spouse or teenage kid—seriously?—answer each time you call? The most mundane exchange, these days, demands some texty preamble. And if your target carries any kind of heft, like a coach or a television personality, the road to any kind of chat involves email proposals, agents, media-relations officials, a clutch of on-the-ground minders.
Someone flipped me a number for Gruden, last tried in 2012. It was a Saturday, 72 hours before his hiring would be officially announced at a press conference in Oakland: NFL World was ablaze with rumors and stories about his return. I figured I’d leave a never-to-be-heard message on a phantom voicemail, to be stranded in limbo forever. . . .
“Hel-lo,” Gruden replied.
I had written an SI cover story about him 16 years earlier, and he vaguely remembered the photo but—rightly—had no memory of me. Still, he said, he might be able to make some time.
The Jan. 9 presser, attended by just about every living Raiders notable, felt less like a coaching change than the Dauphin’s return. Mark Davis, 62, confirmed that he’d spent six years chasing his man and called it “the biggest day of my life”; Gruden spoke of how he viewed his first-go-round in Oakland as “unfinished business.” Nobody seemed bothered that 11 months after the announcement of a four-year contract extension for the now-deposed Jack Del Rio, the franchise would be on the hook for $20 million.
Though it was officially affirmed that Oakland had complied with the Rooney Rule by first interviewing USC offensive coordinator Tee Martin and Raiders assistant Bobby Johnson, it was clear that both minority candidates were called in for form’s sake. Asked later if, lacking Gruden, he would’ve fired Del Rio, Davis says: “I don’t see how I could have. To spend $20 million, and on top of that hire Tee Martin? No. What I would’ve done is probably brought in a president—somebody with X’s and O’s ability—to work with Jack, and I would’ve gotten some more competent coordinators.”
Still, even the biggest cynic had to admit Davis had pulled off a p.r. coup. For years, anytime a big NFL job opened, Gruden’s name was floated. And when he seriously mulled a previous Oakland offer, in 2014, ESPN jacked up his salary with a seven-year extension. Considering that Gruden and Del Rio share the same agent, Bob LaMonte, Davis says that landing his man was a tougher lift, even, than getting NFL owners, in 2017, to approve the Raiders’ move. “This ain’t just some cakewalk, like hiring a teacher,” he says. “This is Jon f-----’ Gruden.”
An f-bomb middle name is hardly the most eloquent way to convey charisma, but that quote isn’t meant for the high rollers. Davis is speaking here to the gritty, embittered core of Raider Nation. “The team has one—perhaps more—year left in the market,” says former Raiders CEO Amy Trask, now an NFL analyst for CBS. “Their magnificent fans have supported them through thick and thin; this is going to excite them. And the team has taken on a breathtaking amount of debt associated with the Las Vegas deal [a reported $650 million loan] and, therefore, has a tremendous amount of extremely expensive product to sell in that new stadium—sponsorships, suites, club seats. Hiring Jon is going to help them do that. It’s a shrewd business move.”
In the weeks after the announcement, the issue of Gruden’s appeal—his seeming ability to excite the base and engage casual fans—became oddly entwined for me with his phone. His answering felt more a matter of reflex than cultivation; I never showed up as more than a strange area code on his caller ID. The second time I rang, he was meeting with his coaching staff. The third, he was sitting down to dinner with family. I kept wondering, Why pick up at all? Would Bill Belichick or Nick Saban even bother?
A few days after LaMonte called to relay that his client would be going home to Florida to “say goodbye,” and then would meet me in Oakland, I rang Gruden again. “Just sitting here alone in the office in Alameda,” he said. “Grindin’.”
What of Florida and bidding the state farewell?
“Already did that,” he rasped. “I’m like Chevy Chase in Vacation, man, looking at the Grand Canyon. Yep. I see it. How much longer do I have to be here? Goodbye.”
I proposed watching the Super Bowl together, but he said not to expect anything special. In previous years he would do his ESPN pregame show on-site, then jet home during the game. For someone who’s set off by the tiniest clank of a spoon on a cereal bowl, the jostling drunks and traffic and hype is a special kind of torture. “I don’t have a team in it,” he said. “It’s not like I really care about what happens.”
Yes and no. When I arrive a week later, Gruden has little interest in the broadcast, though he plans to mine the game tape later for any stealable material. He declares the Eagles the better team, gives the edge to Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and predicts a New England win. With Philadelphia up 15–6 in the first half, he blurts out something prescient: “What will Philadelphia prove, if they keep this lead? They have a fourth-quarter pass rush to close you out, unlike Atlanta did last year.”
But he’s more engaged in talking about why, after so many flirtations with Mark Davis (and at least one other serious bid by an NFL team), he came back now. ESPN was a sweet gig, being home for his three boys’ high school years while still punching in at his Fired Football Coaches Association. Daily, he’d go to his custom setup in a Tampa office complex—film library and shower downstairs, gym and bed upstairs—and for years he loved it, spending days and nights surrounded by hundreds of miles of tape. Coaches from all over the league, college and even Pop Warner, would come to brainstorm. Quarterbacks shut out of their team facilities by the collective bargaining agreement would come to chalk-talk and throw.
Year after year, at least 15 times, Mark Davis would show up, too, and try to pull Gruden away. But he was having fun without the pain that losing brings. “I was near the fire, but I didn’t get burned,” Gruden says. “In some ways I was coaching.”
“As the years went on,” says his wife, Cindy, “I got tired of living in my brain, 30 places that he’d consider. I just decided that he was not going back ever. Then it became so long that I really didn’t think he would.”
But the house kept getting emptier. The oldest Gruden, 24-year-old Deuce, spent the last two years with his uncle, Jay, as a Redskins strength and conditioning coach; Michael, 21, is a junior at Tennessee; Jayson, 17, has just one more year of high school. When Jon was inducted into the Bucs’ ring of honor in December, surrounded on the field again by 70 of his old players, it stirred him to tears. The following week, the Raiders were in Philly for a Monday game, and the night before, Christmas Eve, Davis hosted Jon and Cindy in his hotel suite for dinner. Gruden had shot up similar flares before, but this time when he said, “I’m going to get back in, if I can get a job,” Davis sensed he meant it.
“Leaving dinner that night I felt very, very, very strongly it was going to happen,” says Davis. (Not Cindy: “Not until he signed on the dotted line. I never pretend to know what my husband is thinking. As soon as you do, he’ll change his mind.”)
This time was different. “I got tired of sitting in a dark room, watching tape by myself,” Gruden says. “I took rumba-dancing classes; that didn’t last—I wasn’t any good. Bought a boat; I never used it. Live on a golf course; I never play. I’d go to the FFCA early, and next thing I know it’s 10:30 at night. I’m thinking, S---. I’m wasting my time. I got to go compete.”
He glances up from his desk. Deuce, a 5' 6" wedge of muscle, is standing in the doorway. Gruden blurts out the fact that his eldest won a powerlifting gold at last year’s world championships and introduces him as the Raiders’ newest strength-and-conditioning staffer. Deuce chats, politely, then gets to the point: “They got food near here?” Gruden says no and reaches for his car keys, but his son has wheeled and gone. “He’s like his mom, a tiny little lady,” Gruden says. “But he’s a beast.”
Having a son in the office is a bonus, no doubt, but Gruden’s guilt over neglecting his family has come and gone. The doubt planted by mentor Bobb McKittrick, a 49ers line coach who died lamenting their monomaniacal obsession with the game, has eased. “The one thing I will regret,” Gruden says, “is that [McKittrick and I] really didn’t take to fishing, we didn’t like traveling abroad. We just liked one thing. But I don’t think I’m going to be regretting my decision. Life is flying by. Here I’m 54 years old, just like that. Football is going to be the only consistent theme in my life. The feelings inside of me that I can’t get enough of”—and here Gruden squints, rubbing his fingertips together—“are nervousness, excitement, a little fear, a little pressure. People go to casinos to get that. But I wake up every morning now and I go, God! Whoo!”
Jon Gruden is an awful driver. Sure, he can handle a straight shot on an empty highway, with Zeppelin or BTO cranking, on the two-minute early-morning hop from the Hampton Inn to the Raiders’ facility. But given that the team just dropped this gleaming Mercedes S 550 on him four days ago, and that there’s all kinds of new signage and roads and a helluva lot more traffic since he worked here 16 years ago, the 20-minute trip to Ricky’s Sports Theatre and Grill in San Leandro figures to be a bit of an adventure.
First there’s the matter of his side-view mirrors, which stay folded flush no matter how much Gruden shoves and bangs with his left hand, or feels about the car’s instrument panel with his right, all while drifting down 98th Avenue toward I-880 South as the GPS ladyvoice cuts in every 10 seconds to dictate the next turn. “Where am I going here, you think?” he asks more than once. “You think this is right?”
Finally Gruden hits the correct button, and the mirrors unfold like wings. But—what with his utter lack of direction, the cars whizzing angrily past, the rehash of yesterday’s Super Bowl (“I got caught up in it,” he says of the second half, “and it came down to fourth-quarter pass rush”), one missed turn, his describing the morning’s offensive meeting and breaking down two still-delicious plays he called in the 2002 NFC championship game—it’s a wonder we arrive unscathed. “That’s why I have a driver most of the time,” he says.
Gruden has only been to Ricky’s, a semi–biker hangout and a hub of Raider lunacy since the AFL days, a few times, but he’s still got a reserved parking space, and when we arrive, owners Ricky and Tina Ricardo (who switched allegiances to Tampa when Gruden was traded) are waiting. Tina screams, drops her head through the open passenger window and plants a kiss on Gruden’s cheek. “We believe, we believe, we believe!” she gushes. “You’re here. . . .”
It’s 4 p.m. on this hangover Monday, so the place may be brimming with Silver and Black memorabilia, but it’s also nearly empty. We walk in with Gruden’s new defensive coordinator, Paul Guenther, a former colleague of Jay’s who wisely took his own car. Immediately some former Raiders game-day employees point out how things have changed at Oakland Coliseum since Gruden last coached there, how the starters no longer run out from the south end zone’s infamous “black hole” of costumed crazies, how NFL and team marketing forces keep trying to tame Al Davis’s Oakland beast.
“They don’t come out of the black hole anymore?” Gruden asks. “I’m going to have to look into that.”
We sit at a high-top, order burgers and beer. Word has already spread, and over the next hour a steady trickle of fans hustle in. Gruden’s modus operandi is to greet anyone warily edging his way with a hearty “What is going on? What’s your name?” Then up steps Ahmed Fasail, with his two kids, all kitted out in Raiders gear. His nine-year-old daughter hands Gruden a fistful of dandelions and asks, “How come you left the Raiders?”
“I got traded!” Gruden replies.
Ahmed: “I told her, ‘He didn’t leave. They left him.’ ”
“How would you like to come home one day and hear you got traded to Florida?” Gruden asks. “You wouldn’t like that, would ya?”
Ahmed’s eyes widen. “Wow, you got the same voice as on TV!” he says. “The same voice!”
They talk a few more minutes and Gruden insists on buying the family lunch. I wander over to speak to Guenther, but after a while, over the bar din, I overhear two words: “Marshawn Lynch.” The Raiders’ flinty running back has been a hot topic ever since Gruden was hired, with speculation centering around their ability to coexist. In the coming days, in fact, one report will state that Lynch blew off a meeting with his new coach, and another will feature Lynch’s agent’s denial. The entire matter remains touchy because, under the current CBA, coach and player aren’t allowed contact until April.
But now I look over, and Gruden is telling superfan Ahmed, in an open bar, “I met Marshawn today at the facility. He and Josh Johnson [a Texans backup and Lynch’s cousin] came in.” And when Ahmed asks Gruden the question of the moment—What’s your impression?—Gruden says, “I like him.”
Ahmed, to his eternal credit, isn’t having it.
“I like him, too,” he presses, “but what do you think?”
“We’ve got to get him in, ah, better and stronger, through the season. . . .”
“He didn’t get in shape until Week 10,” Ahmed says of last year.
“We’re not going to have that,” Gruden says. “No. I said to him: ‘I need Marshawn Lynch. I don’t need this part-time Lynch. I need full-time Lynch.”
“Man, you’re motivating me right now, baby! If he ain’t getting motivated, something’s wrong.”
“We need the real deal,” Gruden says. “If you’re going to put those letters on the back of your jersey, man, you’ve got to back it up, Marshawn—right? We don’t need another back, we need a feature back.”
Just as I’m trying to conjure Bill Walsh or Chip Kelly—or any other coach, past or present, who has run his football operation like some CIA sleeper cell—casually spilling such news, Tina stops by to say that during Gruden’s payback Super Bowl win with Tampa, she designed a play for the coach to use against the Raiders. “South right, Nickel 41, Kill 3, 74 Wasp,” sent via text to Gruden’s mother, she says. “Took me three days. I drew it up, and he used it.”
Gruden takes this in, nodding, and whether or not the play was already in his game script, he’s happy to give her credit. The Buccaneers, leading 13–3 at the time, faced first-and-goal on the Raiders’ five-yard line. “It was going to be a draw to Michael Pittman if they were playing zone,” he says. “But we killed it, we changed the play—Kill, kill, kill! Seventy-four wasp! . . . Keenan McCardell [on a fly stop route], touchdown. He came off the field going, ‘Bzzz!’ ”
Everybody roars, and I’m beginning to see it as all of a piece: the phone etiquette, the Lynch revelation, the always-glowing assessments of players on Monday Night Football. Gruden has never been pure rah-rah; he rode Tampa quarterback Chris Simms and tackle Kenyatta Walker mercilessly. (“Some people think I was an a------, and I probably was at times.”) But he has always been open to players, owners, fans—anyone who matches his energy, who needs football as much as he does—and he will talk to anybody, anytime, on the off chance of finding a kindred spark. “Do you like the game plan? The play call?” he used to implore players back in the day. And when they nodded, “just [like] a bobblehead,” it killed him. Oakland quarterback Rich Gannon knew enough to trot off shouting, “I love it, man! Love it! Love!!!”
But a motor can only rev so hard, and for so long. Ninety minutes after our arrival, time to go, Gruden’s mood has dropped. Maybe it’s the setting sun, or the fender he scraped on a post backing his Mercedes out. Traffic has thinned on I-880; the car’s interior is growing dimmer. After a mile, he breaks the quiet. “You come back and it’s not the same,” Gruden says. He mentions Raiders legend Ken Stabler, a regular visitor during his first stint, dead since 2015. He mentions Ricky, once so vital, now halting and frail.
“It hits you in your core,” Gruden says. “It’s almost like I’m living my life twice, like Back to the Future. I’ve got the same office. I walk down the hall, in frickin’ Al Davis’s office, and he’s not there. You see his writing on the board. . . .”
There’s something else. It’s as if Gruden, after reveling again in the fans’ pure passion, remembers the pain that sets in when, suddenly, there’s no place for it to go. The Bucs fired him after the 2008 season. Soon the Raiders will leave for Vegas. He’s closing in on the team facility now, the control tower at Oakland Airport looming outside.
“It’s kind of sad, man,” Gruden says. “What will they have once we go?”
Heaven is just the setup. The key conceit to Gruden’s novel/movie/play about the football gods is that they’ve been watching and judging the sport like some celestial TV panel, and they’re appalled by what they see. Yes, in this case writing is autobiography; Gruden happens to be upset about the same things. Most pressing, of course, is the CBA which limits his offseason time with players, restricts him to 14 regular-season padded practices, stops him from extending sessions an extra hour whenever he’d like. But that’s just the iceberg tip. Overall, he’s sure football is losing its soul.
“The state of the game? We have to put a GPS in Bobby’s shoulder pad to see if he’s working too hard,” Gruden sighs. “We stop a high school game in Florida three times every half to give ’em a water break. We run a zone-read every play in college—don’t even block the defensive end; we read him—because players can’t push themselves. It’s too risky; somebody had an episode six years ago. . . . Anyway, the Lord sees these gods and says, ‘We’ve got a problem with football. I need you guys to go back to earth and fix this.’ ”
So down to earth go Bear Bryant, George Allen, Vince Lombardi and the rest. They don’t look the same; they’re young guys with names like Jimmy Bryant or Joey Halas. But they take over and go all Junction Boys on the millennials, with hard-ass practices and endless film sessions. It’s Jon Gruden’s fantasy football league. One god curses out a ref and can’t believe it when he gets fined $15,000. A bunch sit in on owners’ meetings, disgusted by the obsession with marketing and fan experience. “I just think it would be hilarious,” Gruden says.
Maybe, but any laugh would be sardonic. His time at the FFCA, and volunteer-coaching Deuce’s and Jayson’s high school team, convinced Gruden that the game faces a serious crisis of identity and morale. Almost as soon as the Bucs fired him, he began distributing personal funds to high schools, landed some corporate sponsors and spearheaded an initiative to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for youth and prep teams. He says he’s on a “mission to save football,” and, yes, it’s personal. The game gave him work, discipline and joy, and it has made him ridiculously rich.
“I wasn’t worth a damn, but I was on a team, I had to [report] by seven o’clock,” Gruden says of his time playing in high school and college. “I had to run through the line, not to it; my coach made me do it right. And I hated it at times. But if it wasn’t for football, I wouldn’t have any of these benefits. These geniuses tell you, ‘It’s a dangerous game, we shouldn’t play, you can [learn the same things] in drama class.’ I say bulls---.”
Of course, Gruden is reentering an NFL in which throwback fashion applies only to jerseys. His appreciation for sheer physicality seems undented by the tragedy of player concussions and CTE research, and the one clanging note at his press conference was his curiously lax handle on national anthem protests. “I’m not really aware,” he said, “of that subject at all.” Meanwhile, the raw clay he’s so eager to grab has this whole new texture.
“These players are different,” says Jay Gruden, an offensive assistant under his brother in Tampa, and now the Redskins’ coach. Jon “will have to adjust. College football is different now—less refined, a lot more no-huddle and spread offense, a lot less physicality. We’re getting a different type of player. Some are fine, but some you have to teach. There’s more ADHD, more video games. It’s a matter of molding ’em, and that’s why it’s so important to get your hands on ’em. But these rules [limit] that. So you do the best you can: Draft well, get the free agents you want. . . .”
With personnel at even more of a premium, then, the new coach’s relationship with Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie figures to be crucial. Gruden wasn’t shy about opposing Al Davis’s draft picks or roster moves in 2001; he clashed with Bucs GM Rich McKay until winning that power struggle; and—together with McKay’s replacement, Bruce Allen—he made a string of questionable player bets (Cadillac Williams over Aaron Rodgers in the ’05 draft?) in his last six years in Tampa. Asked what makes Belichick so special, Gruden starts with “unrelenting drive,” but very quickly he gets to “the great thing that he has: complete control of that organization.”
But Gruden also says that years of grilling coaches and execs for TV broadened his appreciation for a team’s total makeup and killed dead the notion that players were less vital to success than genius play calls. “I can work with Reggie,” he says. “I need him.”
For his part, McKenzie, who has known Gruden for 33 years and worked with him on the Packers’ staff in 1994, says, “I really wanted to have him on board.” Why else, when the Gruden hire was all but done, would McKenzie decline Green Bay’s request to interview him for its vacant GM position? “If I had any doubt, I probably would’ve considered it,” he says. “I have no question we can work together.”
That imperative, of course, is urgent for reasons that go beyond last year’s 6–10 stumble. Mark Davis would love to rejuvenate his Oakland fan base, go out with a bang before bolting for Vegas. And NFL history has seen plenty of popular coaches try, unsuccessfully, for an Act II. All with a stake in Gruden’s return betray no worry in that regard, not least because he won his title against the Raiders, not with them. Yes, unfinished business. Here, Act II is less a restoration than it is a do-over: Davis feels his dad never should have traded Gruden in the first place.
Still. Mark can declare himself at peace now and put up $100 million to prove it, but he’s just like anyone else. He has no idea how Gruden will work this time around. This much becomes clear when the Raiders’ owner, after spending two hours in a Walnut Creek restaurant preaching his new hire’s every virtue, leans back against the booth, pauses and asks, “You still think he’s got it?”
And in answer I end up weaseling a bit, repeating arguments about why he may and why he may not. I don’t mention that this very subject is on Gruden’s mind too; that on the quiet drive back from Ricky’s he said, “If we don’t win? It’s going to be, ‘Gruden ain’t got it. He ain’t got it.’ But I know one thing: I still got it.”
But it’s often the case, too, that those gifted with a distinctive edge are the last to know when it’s gone. Gruden never won another playoff game after that Super Bowl with Tampa. He had unlimited power to shape and coach—and went 45–53 the rest of the way. His partisans will point to his five division titles or say the Bucs were hamstrung by the very trade that brought him to Tampa, all those lost high draft picks. Karma: One more win in 2008 would’ve put Gruden back in the postseason, but the 5–11 Raiders came to town for his last home game and won. Gruden’s voice had worn thin. His West Coast offenses, heavy on veterans and ball control, struggled to score. And through it all, despite his reputation as a QB guru, he never did develop a great young passer.
“We helped do some good things in Tampa; it wasn’t a total train wreck,” he says. “And now [in Oakland] we’ve got a young quarterback signed for a long time. I owe it to myself to give it one more shot.”
Indeed, it was only back at his office afterward, when Gruden spoke of Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, that I felt myself buying in. The coach was calm describing Carr’s visit to QB Camp in 2014, but then he started mimicking Carr scribbling notes, leaning on his elbows—and within seconds Gruden’s eyes were gleaming.
Then he started yelling, filling the halls with his voice, about how Carr had a rocket! for an arm and in one drill kept nailing this bull’s-eye on a target; how, yeah, the damn CBA won’t let him work with his QB right now, but Gruden brought his tapes along so he can watch Carr installing a hurry-up on the fly, see him adjusting to six different slot combinations, see him just grinding.
“Unbelievable,” Gruden says. “I like him. Family man, married, two kids. He’s just got it. He’s alive.”
And that’s the moment I realized: Yeah, I’ll steal that story idea. Football god arrives, mad and glad and hair on fire. And Gruden is right, it shouldn’t be told with paper and ink. The entire thing needs to play out in high definition, week after lunatic week, loud and in living color.
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