By DERON SNYDER
Jon Gruden’s legend is built primarily on Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl team 15 years ago.
That’s an awfully long shelf life.
He left the Bucs after the 2008 season and slid into the Monday Night Football booth, where his quirky personality and professional shtick have made him a star. He also brings his persona to NFL draft coverage via “Jon Gruden’s QB Camp,” a popular ESPN show in which top prospects go one-on-one with “Chucky.”
As far as brands, he’s an A-plus.
As far as coaching, it’s fair to question how he earned his high grade.
Gruden arrived in Tampa Bay in 2002, two years after I moved to Florida and began regularly covering the Buccaneers. There wasn’t much to work with offensively when Gruden got there. Starting quarterback Brad Johnson – fresh off his two seasons in Washington – had thrown 13 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in 2001. The Bucs ranked 15th in passing yards and 30th in rushing yards.
But Tony Dungy, who led Tampa Bay from laughingstock to contender in six years as coach, left a championship-caliber defense that was Top-10 in several categories. Hall-of-Famers Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp anchored the front seven. Potential Hall-of-Famers Ronde Barber and John Lynch roamed the secondary.
Longtime defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin was a holdover on Gruden’s staff, as was up-and-coming defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin. In 2002, the unit approached all-time great status. Tampa Bay led the league in points against, yielding a paltry 12.3 per game, and allowed the fewest yards, just 253 on average.
Gruden rode that defense to a 12-4 season, coaxing just enough out of Johnson and an offense that remained below average. Tampa Bay yielded a measly 16 points in two playoff victories en route to the Super Bowl. Once there, the defense recorded three pick-6s and routed the Raiders – Gruden’s team a year prior.
No one can ever take away that Lombardi Trophy. The Bucs had stalled in the five previous seasons – which included a trip to the NFC championship among four playoff berths – and Gruden got them over the hump, not Dungy.
However, giving Dungy a portion of the credit is only fair.
You can haggle over his share, but you can’t deny his contribution in laying the foundation.
You also can’t deny this: Gruden was 45-51 over the remainder of his time in Tampa, including 0-2 in the playoffs. Overall, counting his 38-26 record with Oakland, he’s 95-81, for a winning percentage (.540) that’s worse than Chuck Pagano’s (552).
So, yes, Gruden’s standing as an amazing coaching whiz does seem a tad bit over-inflated.
He always displayed a sharp offensive mind, a trait he shares with his brother who coaches Washington. His fiery nature is great for rousing fans, sponsors and partners, even if some players think it’s overboard. His name has been mentioned annually during firing/hiring season in the NFL and college, and many believe he’ll be successful in his return.
I just don’t understand the certainty.
At the same time, I don’t blame Oakland for deciding he’s the guy it wants. The determination to land Gruden without considering other candidates possibly violates the Rooney Rule, designed to ensure that minorities get a shot at coach and GM openings. At least there’s no charade.
Some folks argue that candidates should decline interviews with a team that’s merely following procedure and has every intention of hiring someone else. Other folks say interviewing for top jobs is always worthwhile, for the experience and chance to make an impression that eventually leads to another gig.
“I always thought the spirit of the rule was to get people to slow down the process – not just to consider minority candidates, but to slow down and consider everybody,” Dungy told Sports Illustrated Tuesday.
“But … I would rather everything be above board. If you’re going to hire Jon Gruden, you made up your mind and it’s everything but signed, sealed and delivered, then, you know, you should just move forward.”
Gruden insisted Wednesday that it’s not a done deal. “They’re still, I believe, going through the interview process,” he said on ESPN Radio’s Golic & Wingo Show, adding “there’s a good chance” he’d accept an offer.
“I’m excited about where I am in terms of studying the game and preparing to come back and coach,” he said.
It looks like Raiders owner Mark Davis, who reportedly has pursued Gruden for several years, will finally get his man, 17 seasons after the franchise traded him to Tampa Bay.
It’s good to be Gruden.