Jon Gruden’s much anticipated and highly orchestrated return to the Raiders on Tuesday was a coronation, a welcome-back party, a reality TV spectacle, a production with all the glitz and glamor of, appropriately, a Las Vegas extravaganza.
As Gruden often preaches, practice makes perfect, so might as well get started. Two years from now, the show moves to the Strip.
But what a wild and crazy place this is going to be in the meantime. The one-time boy-wonder head coach comes back to the Raiders as a grown man, if a boyish-looking celebrity, enriched by a massive contract reportedly for 10 years and $100 million that comes with several hefty demands: invigorate a franchise, restore the legendary luster, rehabilitate the quarterback, give Oakland’s Raiders fans something to cheer about – say, a Super Bowl – on the way out the door.
Raiders owner Mark Davis, whose father Al Davis hired a 34-year-old Gruden in 1998 and traded him to Tampa Bay four years later, spoke of a new beginning and acknowledged that father and son didn’t always see the game the same way. The younger Davis said he began envisioning Tuesday’s “re-introduction” almost immediately after his father died in 2011.
“Six years ago,” Davis said, “we were trying to get a stadium built in Oakland and I wanted Jon Gruden to run the Raiders franchise with (general manager) Reggie McKenzie.”
Asked if Gruden’s presence might have been a difference maker in the failed efforts of the Raiders, city of Oakland and Alameda County to secure a private-public partnership for construction of a new stadium, Davis paused, hedged. “Ah. Ifs, ands and buts,” he replied. “I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s hard to say. But he loves it here and part of coming back was because he loves Oakland.”
Gruden, who leaves a successful career as one of the NFL’s premier television analysts and returns to coaching after a decadelong absence, characterized his decision as both simple and mysterious, and listed deciding factors from his head and his heart. His affection for the Raiders and the Bay Area. A desire to finish the job he began in 1998. The challenge of changing out of suits and ties and into sweats and T-shirts.
“Mark came to me a few weeks ago and asked me if I had any interest in coaching,” Gruden said, “and with the support of my family, I said, ‘Yes, I do!’ I feel this is what I want to do. This is the organization I want to be a part of. I’m all-in. I only live one time. I really don’t have a solid explanation other than that.”
There is a lot to be said for being wanted. Davis’ prolonged and private wooing transitioned into an impassioned family affair in recent weeks. The coach nicknamed “Chucky” because of his ferocious facial expressions still commands a crowd. The Raiders’ state-of-the-art performance facility Tuesday was filled to capacity with an estimated 100 media members, dozens of team officials and 50 or so former Raiders in attendance, among them Jim Plunkett, Ted Hendricks, Charles Woodson, Jim Otto, James Lofton, Tim Brown, Howie Long and Rich Gannon.
When Gruden emerged from behind the black curtains and walked to the podium, he was accompanied by some good-natured cheering and woofing from his fans.
“He is a unique guy,” said Gannon, after the formal session. “Just the energy in the building this morning. I sat in his office and it was like déjà vu all over again. The same office. The same corner. The same view. I’m excited he’s back.”
Gruden, of course, is not exactly walking into a bare cupboard. The Raiders are not without talent, though they certainly had their issues this season, including Jack Del Rio’s strange decision to fire offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave after Derek Carr’s breakout 2016; the ongoing struggles under defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr., who was replaced at midseason; the inability to force turnovers; an inordinate number of drops by the receivers; and the back injury Carr suffered against Denver.
Though the four-year veteran sat out only one game, he hardly resembled the player who a year earlier emerged as an MVP candidate.
Of all Gruden’s pending tasks, helping Carr recapture his previous form is priority No. 1. The hope is that Gruden can replicate the success he achieved with Gannon, a journeyman quarterback who developed into a three-time Pro Bowl selection and first-team All-Pro choice during their time together from 1999-2001. In 2002, the year Gruden’s Buccaneers defeated the Raiders in the Super Bowl – Gannon was the league MVP, AFC Player of the Year and NFL passing leader.
“I had never had someone that really believed in me enough to hand me the keys to the car,” Gannon said. “As much as I liked playing in Kansas City and Minnesota, no one ever made that commitment to me. I think he had to convince Al (Davis) to make that decision and move away from Jeff George. I wasn’t even a full-time starter in Kansas City, but he really believed in me. He was so influential in my career and all the success I’ve had. I think he’ll be great for Derek.”
Gannon, who is expected to meet with Gruden about becoming quarterbacks coach, met with Carr at the practice facility before the news conference and offered his thoughts.
“Derek already is a good player, but he can be a Hall of Famer if he will just go to work,” Gannon said. “I don’t care how hard he worked before. He’s going to have to change his work habits. His arm talent is right up there some of the best. He’s a smart, cerebral guy. He is mentally tough. He’ll play hurt and he has really good feet, though that’s the one area that needs work: the lower half of his body. You look at Aaron Rodgers, players who can maneuver, escapability, extend plays, generate explosive plays. And be more demanding of his teammates. I don’t think that’s natural for him. But, look, they’ve had one winning season since I left. That tells you plenty of work needs to be done and it starts at the quarterback position.”
True, but on Tuesday it started with a new head coach whose availability and interest prompted Mark Davis to fire Del Rio minutes after the season finale. Had Gruden rebuffed his overtures, the owner revealed, he would have retained Del Rio and encouraged him to shake up his staff.
“I have a lot to prove,” admitted Gruden, who has a 95-81 career coaching record. “But I want to win. How long I stay will be determined by how well we’re playing.”
In other words, even with a $100 million contract, nothing is guaranteed.