Chris Simms couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
There was Jon Gruden scurrying around the league meetings this past March with his head buried in the Raiders playbook. The man more resistant to change than almost any Simms had met in his football life was trying to make alterations to his notoriously wordy play calls before rookie camp. With a different generation of player coming in, there was no time to holler out War and Peace before the snap. It was time to streamline the operation.
“He was quizzing himself because it wasn’t natural to him either,” said Simms. “He’s going to make it easier for these college kids, these free-agent kids, so they can come in and not have to learn a play that’s a paragraph long. Ten years ago he would have said, ‘I’m Jon Gruden, and if you can’t keep up you’re outta here.’”
When Simms was quarterbacking Gruden’s Buccaneers in 2004, a typical call would, verbatim, sound like: West right slot, Z counter orbit, 72 Z bingo U split can it with 58 Lexus apple 314 hammer. Dummy snap count on one. To apply some pressure to his young QB during practices, Gruden would throw Simms into the huddle with no prior warning, knowing that his rookie was wearing an NFL Films microphone and was in danger of embarrassing himself by stumbling through the words on camera.
“That was him. He’d ask NFL Films to mic us,” said Simms, who started 15 games for Gruden in Tampa from 2004 to ’06. “The games were easier. I didn’t have this psycho five feet behind me yelling at me all the time.”
As Gruden begins his first head-coaching gig in nearly a decade, he does so buoyed by a talented, big-name Oakland roster and a briefcase of new ideas from his time in his fabled Florida film laboratory. But some of his former players wonder whether he has also taken the time to operate on some old habits. Ex-Bucs say Gruden’s, stubbornness, hubris and occasional disingenuousness could sometimes color their relations with an otherwise likable guy and brilliant football mind.
To discuss Gruden with members of his Buccaneers teams is to hear about two different men. Gruden is at once inspiring, complicated, two-faced and hysterical. He is forthcoming, and perhaps a little hard to trust. In a lot of ways, such characterizations sound no different from the common neuroses associated with many NFL coaches. Most players possess a deep love-hate relationship with their leaders. Some of those who played under Gruden, however, wonder if the extremes were more pronounced with him, and whether that aspect of his personality can change at all.
Consider Simms, who had a brief falling out with Gruden after, he said, the coach started a disinformation campaign in the media about his recovery from emergency surgery to remove his spleen, after he was injured in a game in September 2006. In an interview with SI for this story, Simms said that Gruden “tried to run me out of town 10 months after I almost died on the field,” by telling reporters he was healthy but just not practicing well. Minutes later in the interview Simms added: “I just found myself randomly thinking about him one day [years later]. It was kind of f---ed up how he treated me at the end, but there were a lot more positive times and growth that I didn’t forget about, so I found his number and sent him a text.” (The Raiders did not respond to requests for Gruden to comment for this story.)
In conversations with a handful of former Buccaneers, their skepticism of Gruden derives from a sort of hard-to-digest middle ground in his personality. He is neither cold and distant enough to be Belichickian, nor warm and engaging enough to be Pete Carroll.
Players like to know where they stand with a coach, and a few ex-Bucs mentioned the difficulty they had getting such a read from Gruden, who won a Super Bowl in Tampa during his first season but went 45-51, with two playoff appearances and no postseason wins, over his final six years.
Players admired his drive or determination, but when asked about his shortcomings, they mentioned several characteristics:
• His use of the media as a tool to pressure or motivate a player, or change the narrative about him.
• His tendency at times to bash a player who was not present at a meeting and then later speak warmly to that player on the field or in the hallway. Simms said this showed observers “the flaw in the human side of Jon Gruden.”
• His failure to properly empower some of his most important players, despite preferring to stock his team with veterans rather than develop rookies.
• His penchant, some said, for overloading his offense with concepts during preparation, then pulling back on the reins on Sunday.
“It was a situation where it worked for some guys and it didn’t work for some guys,” Joey Galloway, a receiver in Tampa from 2004 to ’08, said of Gruden’s approach. “I liked his energy. I thought it was a genuine energy, and a lot of guys feed off that.”
When asked if the divide between players who liked the head coach and those who didn’t was similar in the five other stops he made in his career, Galloway said: “It happens in a lot of locker rooms, but maybe the gap was wider [in Tampa] between guys who liked him and guys who didn’t.”
Gruden’s manic energy and brilliant schematic mind had definite appeal, and may have helped keep other issues from surfacing. Jeff Garcia, who played quarterback for Gruden in 2007 and 2008, said the coach’s Rolodex of explosive offensive sets forced many opposing defenses to present a vanilla zone front on game day, simplifying looks the quarterback had at the line. Garcia says if he coached collegiately or professionally he’d draw on some of Gruden’s theories.
It was his handling of the emotional aspect of coaching, and perhaps a lack of an eye for chemistry, that underlay some of the difficulties. Lack of camaraderie or emotional and physical support from teammates can make a season feel like an eternity. “That quarterback room in 2008 was probably the most uncomfortable quarterback room I’ve ever been a part of in my entire career,” Garcia said of a season in which he was benched for Brian Griese without warning after a loss in the opener, only to reclaim the job in October. “The mix of personalities didn’t blend, and there wasn’t any support for whoever the starter was at the time.”
So what man are the Raiders getting in 2018?
His reunion with the Davis family in Oakland was treated with all the oversaturation and hype of a new Walmart-exclusive U2 album. The problem is that Oakland’s fan base is accustomed to a persona that has been largely bolstered across ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” and “Quarterback Camp” platforms. Is that who Gruden is now, who he has always been, or who he imagined he would be if he ever got another chance to coach?
That depends on whom you ask.
“In my experience, I always felt like he was a stand-up guy,” said former Bucs defensive end Stylez White, one of Gruden’s best pass rushers in 2007 and 2008. “Maybe some of his ways people didn’t agree with it, but his ways worked. You can’t make everybody happy, and what he thought was best for the team was what he did.”
White added: “He’s fair. He loves you when you’re doing well, and he’s on top of you when you’re not. You’re going to get what you give. Sometimes he comes across as he wants the love, he wants to be a players’ coach, and I think he is, but there’s a fine line.”
Wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson had a rocky relationship with Gruden when the two were together in Tampa in 2002 and 2003. Johnson was a star on the Super Bowl-winning team in ’02, but by the following season he had fallen out with the coach and was deactivated by the Bucs for the final six games of ’03. “It’s a good thing when you know who you’re dealing with,” Johnson said of Gruden. “He’s a football coach, and most football coaches play a game [with players] because they know they have to. The successful ones, in my opinion, stay true to who they are and their true values.”
When asked who Gruden was trying to be, Johnson said: “I don’t know who, but I could certainly tell it wasn’t as genuine as the media wanted it to be. And I get the media and what they buy into, and I believe that Jon is a good football coach. But I think because of the media and the way they portray things, they make you think he has all the answers.”
Johnson’s case was extreme. His version of the end in Tampa Bay differs from Gruden’s, and was also contradicted by some teammates, including in a book by fellow Buccaneer Warren Sapp. Still, in Oakland, Gruden will have his share of undeniable stars with big personalities. He will have the burden of living up to a 10-year, $100 million contract, and the expectations of a coach who, through his career as a broadcaster, has reached the level of infallible industry guru for so many avid fans watching on television.
He’ll need to change, but that doesn’t mean he won’t rely on old habits, too. The Raiders have already loaded up on veteran talent, signing a 33-year-old Jordy Nelson to be the No. 2 wideout and 35-year-old linebacker Derrick Johnson to call the defense. Since rejoining the Raiders, Gruden has pined for the days of the fullback (Mike Alstott, where are you?), playfully trashed analytics and seemingly constructed an offense that will boom or bust long before the team leaves California for Las Vegas.
And maybe out of all his contradictions will come something beautiful. Gruden has surprised his players and contemporaries before. He has pushed a swaggering, Jack Sparrow image long enough that we’re all salivating for the next act.
In observing his former coach over the last few years, Chris Simms has noticed signs that make him optimistic for the latest version of Jon Gruden, NFL coach. Maybe the man can change—or at least realize he has to be more than a persona, to his players at least.
“I feel like there’s a little more personal side to him now,” Simms said. “In the old days, Jon used to just wait for his turn to talk. Now, he listens.”
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