Former Bucs Coach Gruden Returns to Oakland

Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden, right, and owner Mark Davis answer questions during an NFL football press conference Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018, in Alameda, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

A big ceremony marked Gruden’s return from Monday Night Football

After years of speculation about potentially coming out of the broadcast booth and returning to the sideline, Jon Gruden has finally left Monday Night Football in order to take the open head coaching job with the Oakland Raiders.

The hiring was celebrated in Oakland as the return of a conquering hero.  Raiders legends peppered the crowd on Tuesday as the football coach was re-introduced to the first organization to give him a head coaching position.

The deal laid out in front of the former Buccaneers coach is staggering.  Gruden is signed for ten years.  He is slated to make one hundred million dollars.  That is unprecedented in the NFL.  It was also likely necessary to land Gruden, who had been on a lucrative deal with ESPN to announce MNF.  His contract at ESPN already put him ahead of most current NFL head coaches.

After a disappointing year for the Raiders, expectations are extremely high for Gruden.  Gruden will inherit a talented team that in 2016 looked like Super Bowl contenders until quarterback Derek Carr went down with an injury.  Carr will be healthy in 2018, and with a coach coming in with a strong reputation the Raiders are likely to generate a lot of preseason buzz.

That might be the best reason for the Raiders bringing Gruden in.  The coach has proven to be good with high expectations and high pressure.  Bucs fans know this well.  After all, the trade that brought Jon Gruden to Tampa is as big a layout as just about any trade in recent memory.  Franchise quarterbacks get traded for less than the Buccaneers gave up to land Jon Gruden, a package including but not limited to two first round draft picks.  They were also coming off three straight playoff appearances, featuring a defense loaded with Hall of Fame caliber talent.

Gruden thrived in that environment, happy to come in with his big personality and take the spotlight.  His devotion to game film, where he famously arrived at work before 4:00 AM just to watch film and plan how he’s going to attack an opponent, is a skillset uniquely suited to a team with the primary pieces already in place.

That is not a knock on the coach, though in the debate among Bucs fans will always rage on regarding whether Jon Gruden was a driving force in that championship season of 2002 or if he was along for the ride with a pre-built team.  There aren’t many coaches in football who can walk into a team, no matter how well put together, and immediately pick up where his predecessor left off.  This is one of many reasons you don’t see a lot of good football teams fire their coaches.  That Gruden has proven capable of doing so makes him a good candidate for a high-pressure job.

Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden, center, poses for photographs next to owner Mark Davis, left, and general manager Reggie McKenzie answers questions during an NFL football press conference Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018, in Alameda, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

As this is a Florida website that spends a lot of time covering the Buccaneers, I imagine fans reading this might be suggesting that there are some weaknesses to go along with Jon Gruden’s considerable coaching strengths.

Most notably, Gruden’s ego ended up being problematic for the Buccaneers.  During the 2003 season, tension arose between Gruden and Rich McKay, the general manager largely credited with putting the Buccaneers’ championship team together.  Only McKay and Gruden can truly speak to their relationship, but by the end of the 2003 season, Rich McKay was out as Buccaneers GM and the franchise was in the process of hiring Jon Gruden’s longtime friend Bruce Allen.

Allen did a terrible job as the Tampa Bay GM, failing to retain key players like John Lynch while bringing in draftees that never panned out such as Chris Simms, Dexter Jackson (the wide receiver, not the Super Bowl XXXVII MVP safety), and Bruce Gradkowski.  The Buccaneers’ personnel decisions became worse and worse over time, until both Allen and Gruden were fired together after the 2008 season.

To his credit, Gruden may have learned his lesson.  Reggie McKenzie, current general manager of the Raiders, turned down an opportunity to interview with the Green Bay Packers to stay in Oakland, and all indications suggest that McKenzie and Gruden will be working together, rather than Gruden bringing in a friend such as Allen or Michael Lombardi to pick the players instead.

That still leaves a few questions, most notably surrounding defense.  In his first stint with the Raiders, Gruden inherited a defensive coordinator given to him by Al Davis.  In Tampa, Gruden inherited legendary defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, and a pre-built defense that is still mentioned among the very best in the history of the league.

Gruden’s DC in Oakland will be Paul Guenther, formerly the coordinator in Cincinnati under the unfireable Marvin Lewis.  Guenther’s defense will not be like the zone-based, light-blitzing schemes of Kiffin in Tampa Bay.  It will be a defense that Gruden has never worked with before, and the amount of input he’ll have on the unit is unclear.

The ten years of rust will be hard to ignore.  Gruden was one of the younger coaches in the league when he left Tampa Bay.  Now that he’s returning to the NFL, he’ll find that Rams coach Sean McVay was barely in high school when Gruden was lifting his Lombardi Trophy.  He’ll face coaches and coordinators younger than he is, including the man in Mike Tomlin who replaced Gruden as the youngest Super Bowl winning coach in history.  While those careers have blossomed, Gruden has been in the broadcast booth trying his best not to call Sean McDonough “Mike.”

Gruden goes back to the Raiders despite being at the center of an odd controversy.  In 2013, ten years after Super Bowl XXXVII and while Warren Sapp was being considered for Hall of Fame induction, longtime Raiders wide receiver Tim Brown said publicly that he believed that Bill Callahan “sabotaged” the Raiders’ chances in the game out of respect for Jon Gruden.

Because Brown is himself now in the Hall of Fame, and because he was a great Raider, many Raiders fans believe Brown’s accusations and believe that they are enough to cast a pall on the Buccaneers’ only Super Bowl victory.

Jon Gruden never came out and condemned Tim Brown for what seemed like some sour grapes at an unfortunate time.  Perhaps it could be said that Gruden was taking the high road, not wishing to dignify a dismissive conspiracy theory that diminishes the accomplishments of his 2002 team.

Why did Gruden never point out that this low blow was, in fact, a low blow aimed at diminishing a title?  Perhaps because Jon Gruden was trained in football controversy in a unique way.

Gruden got his first head coaching job because Al Davis gave it to him.  Davis, of course, is many things to the NFL even long after he’s been gone.  It is not an exaggeration to say the modern NFL was in many ways modeled on Davis’ whims.  That includes the league’s penchant for controversy.

A funny thing happened when Jon Gruden worked with Al Davis, though:  The “crypt keeper” who had supposedly lost his touch was, when Gruden was in town, once again the owner of a proud football team with the biggest possible goals.  Gruden also managed to coach Warren Sapp for a short time without a meltdown coming into the equation.

Gruden, like Raider legend John Madden before him, admired Al Davis and enjoyed working alongside the man.  In Al’s absence, the team is owned by son Mark Davis, who has not been the controversial figure his father was but has at times been perceived to be out of his depths as an owner.

This is another reason Gruden was a good fit for the Raiders.  The presence of a well-known, well-liked coach can help an owner like Davis find his footing, and find a voice separate from that of his legendary father.

The Raiders’ offseason work is not even remotely finished.

The presence of Derek Carr solidifies the most important and hardest-to-find position on the field.  Khalil Mack provides an anchor for the defensive unit, and an impressive one at that, racking up 10.5 sacks in the 2017 season.  Young wideout Amari Cooper will be a key piece of the offense moving forward.

Outside of those three, there is a lot to be done.  It is unlikely that the Raiders can hit their ceiling with Michael Crabtree as the featured wide receiver, and Crabtree led the Raiders in touchdowns last season.

At running back, the Raiders feature Marshawn Lynch.  Lynch had come out of retirement to play for his hometown team, and it’s unclear whether he will be back for 2018.  Whether he is or not, Oakland will need a running back to take some important carries next season.

Soon, the Raiders will move to Las Vegas.  This could happen as quickly as 2019, meaning that this next season could potentially be the Raiders’ last in their original home.

There is a lot that fits well about the Raiders and Las Vegas.  The silver and black playing home games in the Silver State, the outlaw reputation of the Raiders moving to Sin City, the bright lights and big controversies of the NFL going to a city glazed in neon, all of it makes perfect sense.

Jon Gruden only intensifies that feeling.  Many NFL coaches aren’t out-in-front kind of personalities, but Gruden has always been that.  He is not afraid to reveal his full self in the public eye.  This will be necessary when the Raiders complete their move.

All in all, the Raiders need the man people call “Chucky” to take a difficult task in Oakland and make it look like child’s play.

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Tim Williams has been covering sports since his days as a student at Northeastern University covering events such as the Beanpot. In the thirteen years since, he has covered college hockey, the NFL, Major League Baseball, the PGA Tour, and the National Hockey League. A native of the Tampa Bay area, Tim has returned home after living much of his life in the northeast, including sixteen years in the Boston area. These days the Managing Editor of Sports Talk Florida can be found on Florida's golf courses when he's not working.