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The NFL Today: Arkansas, Tennessee want Jon Gruden

Former Buccaneers and Raiders coach Jon Gruden has been one of the most coveted coaching candidates since leaving the game for the broadcast booth after the 2008 season, and has been approached by multiple NFL owners and universities in recent years, with Arkansas and Tennessee of the SEC ranking as the latest to covet him.

Both universities want Gruden, sources said, as they try to get back to being powers in the challenging SEC. The Razorbacks are prepared to make their next coach the highest-paid in the SEC, according to sources close to the program, and budget will not be an issue. The program, which has plummeted in the wake of the Bobby Petrino scandal (the Razorbacks dropped to 4-7 and out of the bowl picture on Saturday), is prepared to be part of a bidding war for Gruden, 49, sources said.

Tennessee's program has also fallen, with the now Derek Dooley-less team needing a win against Kentucky next week to avoid an 0-8 finish in the SEC, and Browns owner Jimmy Haslam -- a billionaire booster for the Volunteers, whose brother, Bill, just happens to be the governor of Tennessee -- has told several people that he loves Gruden and believes he would be a great fit at the school. Haslam would also have interest in Gruden for his NFL team, but Gruden has resisted overtures from the Browns in the past and it's very, very unlikely he has any interest in the job now, according to sources. Gruden's wife Cindy went to Tennessee, and Gruden would be an incredibly popular choice among Vols alumni and boosters, sources said.

League sources said Gruden has made calls identifying possible staff members with his focus seeming more on the college game, asking questions of those potential staffers about recruiting and issues that do not relate to pro football. Numerous sources who have talked to him in recent weeks came away with the impression that Gruden was more serious about return to coaching now than at any time since he was fired by the Bucs after the 2008 season, although it still would have to be a perfect situation to lure him from his current job at ESPN, where he is well compensated and gets to have a fairly normal family life. While coaching in the NFL, Gruden was notorious for his maniacal approach to coaching, in a nearly round-the-clock fashion. Gruden was 95-81 in 10 seasons with five playoff appearances as head coach of the Raiders and Bucs (1998-2008) but did not win a playoff game after leading Tampa Bay to the Super Bowl after the 2002 season.

College football could provide more lifestyle balance than the pro game, as well as a new challenge for Gruden, who last coached in college in 1991 as the wide receivers coach at Pitt. Gruden has been spending significant time studying Chip Kelly's Oregon spread offense, sources said, which is perfectly suited for college but remains a question mark in terms of its translation to the NFL. Several sources said Gruden would strongly consider Redskins secondary coach Raheem Morris as his defensive coordinator. Morris coached in Tampa under Gruden and succeeded him as head coach before being fired after 2011. Morris, who had a stint as the defensive coordinator at Kansas State, is viewed as a strong recruiter. However, sources said Morris is more likely to focus on possible NFL opportunities at this point in his career.

In the end, Gruden could go through the entire process and stay where he is in the broadcast booth. But the hunt for his services is on, and it will include multiple options in the NFL and NCAA.

Possible NCAA sanctions influencing Kelly's flirtations with NFL

Saturday's upset loss to Stanford not withstanding, Oregon coach Chip Kelly and his innovative offense have the Ducks in the national championship picture and Kelly being considered for NFL openings. He nearly made the jump last year, then pulled away from the Tampa Bay job at the 11th hour, but is again expected to be pursued by NFL teams. A looming NCAA investigation into the Oregon program could be a contributing factor in Kelly going through with the NFL move this time around.

The NCAA has been conducting a lengthy investigation into possible payments to intermediaries with ties to recruits. And while the governing body has announced no timetable for any decisions, according to sources with knowledge of the situation, the sanctions could be severe and a decision could be coming after the season. In recent months, the NCAA has conducted interviews lasting six hours or more with “recruiting services” personnel connected to the program, and NFL executives see the situation as being similar to when Pete Carroll left USC to head to the Seahawks in 2010. Carroll bolted to Seattle with sanctions looming, and months later USC was hit with a two-year bowl ban and scholarship reductions that have plagued the program throughout Lane Kiffin's tenure. Carroll had interviewed for NFL jobs in previous years, most notably with the Dolphins and 49ers, only to remain in the college ranks, but finally left for Seattle at a time when the NCAA was getting close to leveling discipline against the program.

There is always the possibility that Nike tycoon and Oregon benefactor Phil Knight digs even deeper into his pockets to keep Kelly in the face of potential sanctions and controversy. But as we creep closer to the end of the season, possible suitors have become more convinced that Kelly is prepared to do more than just flirt with NFL teams this winter.

No new negotiations between Payton and Saints, but expected to start soon

The Saints and suspended head coach Sean Payton have not begun new talks about a contract since the NFL rejected the original three-year deal agreed upon by Payton and the team, but those talks are expected to resume shortly, according to league sources.

New Orleans badly wants to retain the Super Bowl-winning coach, and Payton is prepared to negotiate a new deal with them after the NFL objected to a clause in the prior extension that would allow Payton to leave the Saints if general manager Mickey Loomis was fired or suspended. The Saints received word from the league recently that, despite Payton's suspension -- which forbids contact between the coach and the team -- they could in fact negotiate a new deal for him. However, Payton's camp has to yet to receive such written instructions from the NFL and remains hesitant to begin such talks without receiving explicit direct communication from the league that Payton can disobey the terms of his suspension in this manner and negotiate with the team.

Sources pointed out that Loomis' own recent return from his suspension, the league just giving the Saints the formal OK to talk to Payton last week, and with the Thanksgiving holiday looming, there has not been an opportunity to engage in substantive talks yet. Those talks are expected to begin soon, however, with both sides and the NFL hoping the Saints and Payton can conclude this matter without anymore need for league intervention. Ultimately, the issue of Payton's contract status for 2013 still could come back to the commissioner, should the sides be unable to work out a deal.

Roethlisberger to return for Week 13 Steelers-Ravens showdown?

Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger has been ruled out for Sunday night's big game with the division-leading Ravens due to shoulder and rib injuries. And although Roethlisberger has talked about his rib problem possibly being life-threatening, the medical concern is the shoulder, according to sources with knowledge of the situation.

Roethlisberger, who has a history of publicly embellishing injuries (broken toes/torn rotator cuff), seems to thrive in these situations. And while he does have a shoulder sprain that could very well keep him out of next week's game against Cleveland, it is quite possible he'll be back for Week 13's rematch with the Ravens in Baltimore. His ribs are being monitored by doctors, who have also expressed that the true concern for further injury or aggravation is his shoulder. The star quarterback is week-to-week at this point. According to league sources, if Roethlisberger legitimately had a life-threatening rib issue, coach Mike Tomlin would have spoken to that this week, the team would have ruled him out indefinitely and also would have made such an announcement well before Wednesday.

In the past, Roethlisberger has seemed to use these medical situations as motivation to raise his game even higher (though he did struggle mightily a few years back when coming back too quickly from an ankle sprain). His teammates believe he will be a force again come December, when he gets back on the field.

Ben Roethlisberger could be back by what figures to be an important showdown with the Ravens on Dec. 2. (US Presswire)

The Steelers will have tailback Rashard Mendenhall back for Sunday night's game, and he will start according to a source with knowledge of the situation. Reserves Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman are also both scheduled to be active should Mendenhall not be able to carry a regular load due to all the time that he has missed. Also, though Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu will miss a sixth straight game with his muscle strain, he is getting closer to a return. The team expects Polamalu back by the rematch with Baltimore, sources said.

Routt missed curfew to see fiancee'

Chiefs cornerback Stanford Routt, a key free-agent signing before the season, was released unexpectedly on Nov. 5. As previously reported, Routt was released at least in part due to a curfew violation before their game in San Diego on Nov. 1.

Routt broke curfew in order to check on his fiancee, who recently underwent surgery, sources said, but otherwise was not a problem off the field there. Routt was having a rough first season in Kansas City. And with the team struggling and embattled head coach Romeo Crennel looking to shake things up, Routt was waived.

Routt visited the Lions on Friday and was up front with team officials about breaking the curfew and the circumstances of his release by the Chiefs, according to a source with knowledge of his visit. Miami was among other teams to express interest, but no contracts have materialized yet.

Routt signed a huge contract with Oakland before the lockout but was let go by the Raiders after the 2011 season as the team's new front office tried to work through a severe salary cap issue.

Routt received $5 million guaranteed in his contract with Kansas City, with much higher salaries and bonuses due starting in 2013. That played a large role in why he went unclaimed after being released. In an otherwise rough season, he did pick off a pass that helped clinch the Chiefs' only win of the season to date, against the Saints in Week 3.

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