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NFL determined Jon Gruden’s Christmas Eve consensus with Raiders wasn’t an “offer”


Oakland Raiders new head coach Jon Gruden speaks during a news conference at Oakland Raiders headquarters on January 9, 2018 in Alameda, California. Jon Gruden has returned to the Oakland Raiders after leaving the team in 2001.

Justin Sullivan

The NFL has said that the Raiders didn’t violate the Rooney Rule in connection with the hiring of coach Jon Gruden. That’s the easy part; the hard part is reconciling the league’s conclusion with things owner Mark Davis publicly said.

Elaborating on Friday’s announcement of a finding of compliance, the league providing the following quote to PFT via email on Saturday: “The club conducted bona fide interviews with minority candidates as part of its search process. The Rooney Rule requires NFL clubs consider at least one minority candidate for the head coach position as part of the hiring process before extending an offer to any coach. We concluded that happened in this case.”

The quote, standing alone, was eye-opening. Davis essentially admitted on January 9 that he had a deal with Gruden before firing Del Rio, and that Del Rio wouldn’t have been fired if Gruden wasn’t “all-in.”

So how can teams essentially line up the next coach without running afoul of the Rooney Rule? Apparently, it’s the absence of formality that saved the Raiders -- and that creates the template for all other franchises moving forward.

As a source with knowledge of the situation explained it to PFT, the league determined via its investigation that the Christmas Eve discussion between Davis and Gruden did not amount to a contract offer, given the absence of lawyers or agents and/or the discussion or negotiation of a formal offer.

Of course, this cries out for further investigation as to what happened in the ensuing days, before Del Rio was fired. If, after all, Del Rio were fired before Gruden were essentially hired, the leverage would have swung dramatically to Gruden. Surely, Davis realized the risks of letting the bird in the hand go without knowing with certainty that he’d be capturing the two in the bush.

It appears that the investigation focused only on ruling out that a done deal happened as of Christmas Eve (despite what Davis said) and not on determining whether an informal handshake became something more official before Del Rio received a pink slip. Which provides a clear Rooney Rule avoidances roadmap to any other team: It’s OK to pick the next coach before firing the current one, it’s OK to make sure he wants to be the next coach, and it’s OK to discuss the terms in the absence of lawyers or contractual formalities. Then, after all winking and nodding has ended, it’s OK to fire the current coach, interview at least one minority candidate, and make the informal arrangement with the pre-selected coach final and official.

And thus the NFL will continue to have it both ways when it comes to the Rooney Rule, proudly waving a flag of diversity and inclusion while privately allowing teams to navigate around the letter and spirit of the rule at will. Frankly, it would be better to have no Rooney Rule at all than to have one that isn’t real.