There have been an even 100 coaching regimes in the National Football League since Jon Gruden was fired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – nine seasons, many of them dominated by one team and one coach.
Yep. Them, and Him. The Patriots, and The Belichick.
But if Gruden really is the next Oakland Raiders coach – if Mark Davis can pay him enough money and non-voting stock and give him enough power to reassemble what he helped create 15 years ago – he will have a very difficult act to follow.
Himself. Worse, the idealized version of himself.
You see, Gruden at 54 is not the same as Jon Gruden at 45. Nobody is. When he left coaching at the behest of Malcolm Glazer's billionaire shoe, he was expected to be part of the NFL’s retread wheel. He was a hero for having battled Al Davis, then besting him In Super Bowl XXXVII, and his subsequent years in Tampa were essentially glossed over by his expressive face, his gift for public imagery and a largely fruitless search for a quarterback after Brad Johnson.
He found what seemed to be pressure-free bliss in the television booth, playing at quarterback whispering, listening to flirtations from a series of college teams and in general being remembered for his glory days in Oakland, his one Super Bowl and being the current generation’s version of John Madden.
In short, Gruden creates short-term excitement. But that was the reason the Raiders hired Jack Del Rio, and the truth is that, over time, deeds trump words. And the Raiders don’t have a lot of time if the deadline is giving Oakland a going-away parade.
If Gruden is heading back to the trenches, it is for a much different team in fairly bizarre circumstances, working for the son of the father with whom he played swords and shields. He has a quarterback whose confidence in himself and his teammates must be rebuilt (and, in truth, vice versa), a defense in ongoing tatters, a fan base doubly disillusioned and the spotty history of coaches who have sat out a long time between gigs.
Joe Gibbs went 12 years between jobs in Washington and went 30-34 the second time. Dick Vermeil burned himself out, went boothside for 15 years, and then came back to St. Louis for two building years, a Super Bowl in the third, another year off and then four up-and-down seasons in Kansas City. Pete Carroll went back to college for 11 years after flaming out in New York and Boston and then recreated his aura in Seattle. Art Shell was brought back by a desperate Al Davis after 12 years in Los Angeles for one disastrous year in Oakland.
But they don’t represent a large enough sample size to make any conclusions about Gruden The Raider. He would inherit an intriguing but disappointing offense, a defense that has few weapons and much filler, and a front office of his own construction (he’s not coming for less; working in television and being devoted to Mark Davis hasn’t enfeebled him).
And to win Oakland over, he would have to turn all of this around in two years. The move to Las Vegas which wasn’t mentioned much in 2016 when the team won 12 games has moved to the forefront of dissatisfaction after winning six. Raider fans have been largely misused in the 23 years back in the Bay Area, and Gruden is the one agreed-upon bright spot.
But if Gruden does finish the work in three years rather than two, these fans will remember that the victory they thought could be theirs a year ago will belong to someone else, much as the people of Quebec City were wounded by the Stanley Cup won by the Colorado Avalanche the year after they left Canada.
In sum, this lost season was a dagger for Del Rio but maybe a fragmentation grenade for Mark Davis’ hopes of leaving Oakland a hero. If he even cares about that any more.