Jon Gruden puts his impeccable legacy at risk in hyped return to the Raiders
Gruden is facing impossible expectations in his return, but even he's not fazed by the pressure
ALAMEDA, Calif. -- In a makeshift coronation hall squeezed between rows of weight machines at the Raiders' team facility, Jon Gruden resurrected his coaching career. In the process, he put his impeccable legacy up against impossible expectations.
On Tuesday, the Oakland Raiders re-introduced Gruden as their new head coach and quite possibly, the savior they've been searching for ever since they booted him out the door all those years ago. His welcoming felt more like a crowning ceremony than a standard press conference, even if it took place in the middle of a weight room across the street from the airport on a gloomy, overcast day in Oakland. Field turf placed over the floor served as the red carpet while Charles Woodson, Rich Gannon, and countless other ex-Raiders functioned as Gruden's apostles.
Take it from Raiders owner Mark Davis, who called Tuesday both the best day of his life and his biggest dream come true.
"This is a big effing deal," he said moments before Gruden took the stage alongside Davis and general manager Reggie McKenzie.
It certainly felt that way. Theatrics aside -- a hype video got the show going -- Tuesday served as an opportunity for Gruden to re-introduce himself to a world that has grown to see him as more of an idea of a coach and less of an actual coach.
This shouldn't come as a shock, but Jon Gruden is still Jon Gruden. He's still a football guy in the truest sense of the term.
"The reality is, I haven't changed much at all since 1998. I really haven't," he said. "I'm not a real deep philosophical person. I've always loved football. I've wanted to come back. I've prepared to come back. I'm ready to roll. I'm just ready to go. I'm at a point in my life where I need another challenge. I know I have a lot to prove. And I'm eager to prove that I can do it."
During his 30-minute Q&A session with reporters, Gruden hit on all the required topics. He confirmed that he's hired Greg Olson as his offensive coordinator, Paul Guenther as his defensive coordinator, and Rich Bisaccia as his special teams coordinator. He revealed that he'll be the one calling the plays. He addressed Derek Carr's potential and Marshawn Lynch's future (unknown at this point). He found time to sneak in a reference to the tuck-rule game (spoiler alert: he still thinks Tom Brady fumbled). At one point, he even called himself insane.
The question that went unanswered is about Gruden himself. It's the most important one, but it can't be answered at an introductory press conference eight months before he actually returns to an NFL sideline with a play-sheet in hand. No, this question will be answered years down the line, perhaps when Gruden's visor reads "Las Vegas."
Can Jon Gruden the coach live up to Jon Gruden the legend?
The legend says that from 1998-2001, Gruden went 38-26 (.594) with the Raiders despite being the youngest head-coaching hire in NFL history at the time. And when the Raiders decided that they'd be better off trading him to Tampa Bay for two first-round picks, two second-round picks, and $8 million, he proved them wrong by whipping them 48-21 in the Super Bowl. He served as the scout-team quarterback as the Buccaneers prepped for that game, imitating the quarterback he used to coach and the quarterback the Buccaneers would pick off five times in that game. He whooped and hollered his way down the sideline after each subsequent interception as he cemented his place in the history books. For the Raiders, trading him away marked the beginning of their descent into a black hole of misery.
The legend often stops there. It skips over the years when Gruden led a mediocre-at-best Buccaneers team and got fired after his record dropped to 57-55 (.509) in Tampa Bay. In the decade since he's roamed an NFL sideline, those years are hardly ever discussed. Each and every offseason, his name was floated as someone's savior. At some point along the way, the legend of Gruden outgrew Gruden himself. Davis wanted that legend so badly, he chased him for six years and-- terms that Gruden declined to confirm, by the way.
"I don't have a guarantee to be alive for 10 years," Gruden said before issuing a ridiculous statement about not knowing the terms of his own contract.
Step back for a moment and acknowledge the entire ridiculous nature of this situation. The Raiders just willingly handed a 10-year, $100 million contract to a coach who hasn't been in the NFL since 2008, a coach who stepped away from coaching with a .540 career winning percentage, someone who founded the "Fired Football Coaches Association" during his time away, a former commentator who gave out an award called the "Gruden Grinder," and a coach whose reputation far exceeds his actual accomplishments.
Was Gruden a successful NFL coach? Absolutely. Coaches are judged by Super Bowls, and Gruden got his. There weren't any flukes about it either -- no goal-line picks or helmet catches necessary. Just a pure and utter beatdown.
But is he someone who was successful enough to warrant a 10-year, $100 million commitment? Absolutely not. Outside of Bill Belichick or bringing Vince Lombardi back from the dead, no coach is.
You certainly can't knock the Raiders for being timid. They're shooting their shot, logic and money be damned, and they've got the coach they've wanted. Competent coaches are hard to find, so the Raiders hired the one that everybody already knew about, but couldn't lure out of the broadcasting booth. Until the Raiders did.
In the short term, the move has reinvigorated a passionate fanbase, with the cluster of sign-wielding fans stationed outside the team facility on Tuesday morning serving as evidence. Gruden did his part on Tuesday. His energy is contagious. The excitement that he's bringing to a formerly prestigious, currently dormant franchise is palpable. During the presser, he kept on repeating different versions of (and I'm paraphrasing here) "I can't wait to stop talking here, lock the doors, and then get to work." And it genuinely did feel like Gruden couldn't wait to lock himself inside the facility with his coaching staff and players so he can finally begin coaching again.
You also can't blame Gruden for taking the Raiders up on their offer. Nobody turns down that kind of contract. As Gruden indicated, he's still a football guy who likes calling plays. He can't do that from the broadcasting booth.
"I'm all in," he said. "I only live one time. This is something I feel deeply, strongly about."
But Gruden and the Raiders are now tasked with fulfilling impossible expectations. Even if Gruden experiences modest success in his return, he won't ever live up to his ludicrous contract unless he wins championships -- plural. And it's not like he's inheriting a Super Bowl-caliber roster. The Raiders have problems, and Gruden needs to fix them in a hurry.
The pressure that this entire situation brings -- Gruden doesn't just have to win Super Bowls, he also needs to oversee a move to Las Vegas -- should be unbearable. And maybe it will become unbearable. But for now, Gruden seems like the one coach on the planet who's happy to have that pressure weighing down on him. In that sense, he's the perfect man for the job.
"I know there's a big bullseye on my chest," Gruden said. "I worked for Al Davis in 1998. That was pressure. I was 34 years old. I've dealt with pressure before. I really don't feel pressure."
Gruden needs to begin by fixing Carr, who regressed in his fourth season after signing a record-breaking contract in June. In 2017, he averaged 6.8 yards per attempt, threw 22 touchdowns and 13 picks, and posted an 86.4 passer rating. According to Pro Football Focus, Carr accumulated a 40.8 passer rating under pressure. Only three quarterbacks -- Brett Hundley, Trevor Siemian, and DeShone Kizer -- were worse. Carr still boasts loads of potential, but he's a project. It's up to Gruden to develop him.
"I think he's got huge upside," Gruden said after specifically naming Carr's arm talent, athleticism, and "natural leadership skills."
Gruden also needs to fix a defense that features one of the league's top sack masters in Khalil Mack but is an overall catastrophe, having finished no better than 20th in points allowed for the past decade-plus. An influx of talent is needed.
Along the way, Gruden will need to prove that the NFL hasn't passed him by. Even after getting fired, he famously kept his alarm set early, before sunrise, so he could be at his desk by 4 a.m. to cram in enough film study during his 12-hour workday. He confirmed on Tuesday that his schedule remains unchanged. But he's still been a step removed from a game that's drastically altered in recent years, from the frequent use of zone-reads and run-pass options to the rules that dictate the game.
"I have a lot to prove, there's no question," Gruden said. "I haven't coached since 2008. I haven't won a game since 2008."
"I haven't lost any either," he quickly added. "So, just want to keep that in perspective."
But perspective goes out the window when a 10-year, $100 million contract is involved. Truth be told, it disappeared years ago as the legend of Gruden began being told. And Gruden shouldn't expect perspective to suddenly reappear now.
Fair or not, realistic expectations aren't going to exist during Gruden's second coming. But with overwhelming odds come an even bigger opportunity. Because if Gruden can pull this off -- if Gruden can lead the Raiders out of the dark times that have haunted them ever since that Super Bowl loss to Gruden himself -- he'll cement his legacy as a Raiders and coaching legend. No head coach in NFL history as ever won a Super Bowl with two different franchises. Gruden can become the first. Furthermore, if Gruden can win one before the team departs Oakland, he'll go down as an Oakland -- not just a Raiders -- icon.
As Gruden's press conference carried on indoors, airplanes above Oakland International Airport just across the street roared in the backdrop, serving as yet another reminder that the Raiders will soon be hopping onto their own plane to abandon Oakland. Gruden dodged questions about the move to Las Vegas, telling reporters that Davis could answer questions about the relocation, but he didn't hide his love for the city of Oakland.
"A big reason I'm here is my passion for the city of Oakland and this franchise," Gruden said. "People in the Black Hole, if you're out there listening, I can't wait to see you guys."
For now, the feeling is mutual. For the feeling to last, he needs to meet expectations, no matter how lofty they are. If he succeeds, Gruden will become a legend. But if he fails, Gruden will be known as the Raiders' $100 million mistake -- a coach who wasn't as good as the legends said. In the end, it comes down to something difficult but simple, an idea that Gruden is no doubt familiar with.
Just win, baby.
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