A few days before the 2009 draft, a room full of assorted NFL Network employees met for a production meeting in New York.
There was much to discuss, but it wasn’t long before Mike Mayock and Jon Gruden were doing all the talking.
Mayock had been a draft analyst for the network since 2003. Gruden had just hit the open market after being fired as coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The two first met in Philadelphia in the mid-1990s, when Gruden was offensive coordinator of the Eagles and Mayock was working in commercial real estate but beginning a transition to broadcasting. They began communicating often about anything and everything to do with football.
But it wasn’t until they were paired on the 2009 draft telecast that Gruden and Mayock discovered how much alike they were.
“It was pretty much just Jon and I doing the talking,” Mayock said. “It was funny. They’re asking us questions, and we’d segue into all kinds of things. I’d say something, and then he’d play off it. I felt an energy. There were 40 people in the room but just two of us talking ball.”
Yet Gruden and Mayock weren’t all talked out. When Mayock returned to his hotel room, his phone rang.
“It was Jon. He said, ‘You think we could go find a place to have a beer and a burger?’” Mayock said.
The two met in the lobby and over cheeseburgers and cold beer began to break down a sport that has been the love of their lives other than their own families.
“We see the world similarly,” Gruden said.
Their similarities have given the Raiders a cohesive front-office team, with Maycock the general manager and Gruden the coach with say-so over personnel decisions.
Both were born into football families. Gruden’s father, Jim, spent his life in football, coaching in high school, college and the NFL until moving into personnel. He was working as a scout with the 49ers and helped Jon get an entry level position in the NFL.
Mayock’s father, Mike Sr., played football at Villanova and was a football coach for 40 years. Mayock describes his father as a strong, silent disciplinarian who told players the truth.
When Mayock played four seasons of football at the Haverford School in Pennsylvania, he was coached by his father, who never cut his son a break.
“I probably ran more sprints than anyone in the history of the program,” Mayock said.
Mayock went on to play at Boston College and, like his father, was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers, although knee troubles forced him out of football.
Both made the most of their early positions in pro football. One of Gruden’s responsibilities as a go-fer for the 49ers was to help Steve Young learn the playbook as he competed with Joe Montana.
Mayock, who was cut by the Steelers, joined the New York Giants in 1982 and as a rookie was given the job of making sure Lawrence Taylor was awake for meetings.
The world, according to Gruden and Mayock, has a 100-yard field and 53-man rosters. It values size, speed, intelligence and above all else a love for football. The topics open for discussion are endless, even over beers and burgers.
“We were getting deeper and deeper into philosophies and team-building, and I swear, it’s like we’re checking each other out, trying to figure out what we believe in, what we don’t believe in,” Mayock said.
Gruden’s time with the NFL Network was brief, as he was hired by ESPN to do “Monday Night Football.” But the two kept in touch. A future collaboration was never discussed, as Mayock’s draft expertise dominated the NFL Network’s coverage to the point where he’d had opportunities with NFL teams to work in personnel departments.
Mayock’s work caught the eye of late Raiders owner Al Davis, who flew him in for an interview. Davis’ interviews were lengthy and draining, as he attempted to extract as much information as possible in addition to learning about the person he was interrogating.
“I spent 10 hours in a room with Al Davis by myself,” Mayock said. “We just bounced from topic to topic. The guy’s memory for football people and events was off the charts, and you had to be on top of your game for 10 straight hours, which is exhausting.”
Mayock wasn’t hired, but last December he heard again from the Raiders, who were looking for a replacement for Reggie McKenzie. Mayock met the club in Kansas City, where the Raiders were finishing the regular season against the Chiefs.
Like the NFL Network production meeting, there were other people in the room, but most of the talking was done by Gruden and Mayock.
Gruden, who’d had his own interviews with Al Davis, employed a similar tactic. He tried to keep Mayock off-balance. After exchanging pleasantries, Gruden opened a folder, looked at it, and fired off his first question:
“Mike, you’re 60 years old, born on Aug. 14, 1958. You’re an old dude. Why do you want to do this?
“Jon, you were born Aug. 17, five years later. You’re not that young.”
They both laughed, then proceeded to cover a myriad of issues and philosophies about talent, team-building and what makes winning football.
“Even though there were several people in the room, for the most part it was Jon and I going back and forth,” Mayock said. “I think he was trying to drill down philosophically and see if we were a fit.”
“We have a very similar big picture and a very similar tiny picture what the criteria of each individual player is we’re looking for,” Gruden said.
While known as borderline obsessive when it comes to film and preparation, even Gruden is impressed with Mayock’s passion for the sport.
“He’s just a high-energy guy. He beats to a different drum,” Gruden said. “He loves to study tape. He loves to have one-on-one interaction with coaches and players. He’ll study anything – Canadian Football League film, the league that played this spring. He just loves it.”