Can Jon Gruden revive the Raiders again? Answering questions on his return

ByBill Barnwell ESPN logo
Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The football gods called Jon Gruden back. After nearly a decade at ESPN calling games on Monday Night Football, Gruden is making his return to football and to the Oakland Raiders. The 54-year-old coach rejoins the organization nearly 17 years to the day after his last game in charge of the team, which came in the infamous "Tuck Rule" game. To put things in context, that was the first of Tom Brady's 25 playoff victories as a pro. It has been a minute.

Of course, the story isn't just that Gruden is returning. It's about Gruden returning to the Raiders, an organization that would have laughed at the idea of firing Jack Del Rio at this time last year. Perhaps even more so, it's about that contract. Amid reports that Gruden would receive an ownership stake in the team, the former Raiders and Buccaneers coach settled on a 10-year, $100 million dealthat represents the richest contract in the history ofNFL coaches.

Depending on how you want to measure things, Gruden just became the highest-paid member of the NFL community, short ofcommissioner Roger Goodell. There are 11 players who can boast nine-figure contracts, but none of those players have their money fully guaranteed, which is standard for head-coaching contracts. The only people in the league with more job security than "Chucky" right now are the team owners.

The Raiders fundamentally changed the head-coaching market with this offer. Was it the right idea? Is Gruden likely to lead the Raiders back to the postseason? Or is it a desperate move from an owner attempting to placate a fan base that is about to lose its team to Las Vegas? Let's answer some of the key questions in light of Gruden's move out of the booth:

Are the Raiders lunatics for offering Gruden $100 million?

Depends on how you look at it. In terms of length, while college coaches such as Charlie Weis and Kirk Ferentz have signed 10-year contracts in years past, there's not really a precedent for this sort of deal in the NFL. Coaching contracts aren't public record, but the longest deal I'm aware of is the six-year contract Kyle Shanahan signed to work alongside John Lynch inSan Franciscolast year.

The Raiders could be stuck absorbing an enormous bill if the contract is fully guaranteed and Gruden doesn't work out, given that they would be unlikely to benefit from an offset. Gruden probably wouldn't be in a rush to take another job if he doesn't crack it in Oakland, and even if he did, hewouldn't be in line to get $10 million again. The Raiders didn't appear to be negotiating against any other teams, so it seems they probably could have gotten away with giving Gruden a six-year deal and insulated themselves from an extra $40 million in entirely downside risk. If Gruden succeeds, the Raiders will surely just rip up this deal after a few years and give him a new extension anyway.

By salary, though, $10 million isn't outlandish by a long shot. Bill Belichick's contract is under wraps, but ESPN's Chris Mortensen has suggested Belichick makes more than $10 million per season. Nick Saban took home $11.1 million at Alabama in 2017. You'll note that they're both the coaches of the reigning champions at their respective levels. This is the market for high-end coaches.

If anything, though, those leaders -- and the majority of truly great coaches -- are underpaid at the NFL level, and Gruden is one of the reasons we know this to be true. Back in 2012, I wrote about Jim Harbaugh and how he was underpaid in making $5 million per year as coach of the 49ers. There's no way to perfectly gauge what a coach is worth, but one piece of evidence we have is how much coaches have cost to acquire via trade.

There are two notable head-coaching trades from the past 25 years of football.

TheNew York Jetstraded Belichick for something close to the 12th pick in the draft in 2000, after you account for the value of the various draft selections sent each way. The Jets had little leverage in the deal, given that Belichick was essentially holding the team hostage in an attempt to move to New England.

On the other hand, Raiders owner Al Davis held significant leverage when he agreed to trade Gruden to the Buccaneers before the 2002 season. The Buccaneers sent the Raiders two first-round picks, two second-round picks and $8 million as a transfer fee to acquire Gruden, who then promptly led the Buccaneers to a Super Bowl win over the Raiders in his first year at the helm. You suspect the Glazer family has bankrolled worse purchases during its time owning sports teams.

Think about that haul: It's the sort of deal you only see when teams acquire young franchise quarterbacks with years of team control available. It's the sort of trade you would see from a team moving up to grab a quarterback with the first overall pick. The Rams sent two first-round picks, two second-round picks and two third-round picks to the Titans for the first overall pick and fourth- and sixth-round selections as part of the Jared Goff deal.

On a veteran level, forget Jimmy Garoppolo; we're looking at a deal similar to what the Broncos got for Jay Cutler in 2009, back when Cutler was 25 and coming off a Pro Bowl season in Denver. The Bears sent two first-round picks, a third-round selection and Kyle Orton to acquire their quarterback of the future. Perhaps the Gruden trade is an outlier, but I'd be skeptical. What do you think the Browns would be willing to pay to snatch away Sean McVay from the Rams right now? What would the Giants be willing to deal for Belichick?

Those rookie quarterbacks can't negotiate contracts because they're on rookie-scale deals (which is one of the main reasons why teams value them so highly), but we know that Cutler received a two-year extension at what was then upper-echelon quarterback money several months after the trade. Cutler's deal in 2009 guaranteed him $20 million and paid him an average of just over $10 million per year, despite having three years left on his rookie deal. It also came when the league's salary cap was at $123 million. Next year, when Gruden's deal begins, the cap is likely to settle somewhere around $176 million, or 43 percent higher.

The current going rate for an above-average quarterback's contract extension -- let alone a guy hitting the free market -- is around $25 million per year. Andrew Luck picked up $75 million over the first three years of his new deal. Derek Carr's five-year extension is for $125 million. Matthew Stafford exploited his leverage to top those deals and make $29 million per year over the first three seasons of his extension with the Lions. And none of those quarterbacks is even a top-tier perennial MVP candidate.

It's logical to infer that top-tier coaches -- who can't get injured, remember -- are worth something in the $20 million range on an annual basis. With that in mind, paying Gruden $10 million per year is hardly out of line. Again, I'd take issue with the length of the contract as reported, but if Gruden is a very good coach, the Raiders will be getting a bargain.

Is Gruden a great coach?

[Long pause] Maybe?

Gruden's career record is 95-81 (.540) with one Super Bowl victory over 11 seasons. Not bad, but keep in mind that Brian Billick's career record is 80-64 (.556) with one Super Bowl victory in nine seasons, and nobody was beating down Billick's door with nine-figure contract offers. Judging coaches isn't that simple, but there's also some truth to the idea that we might have fonder memories of Gruden than his record suggests.

Let's separate his two professional stops. In Oakland, Gruden took over a Raiders team that was five years removed from its last playoff appearance and had won just 11 of its previous 38 games under Mike White and Joe Bugel. The Raiders had a franchise quarterback in Jeff George, but Gruden inherited a defense that ranked 29th out of 30 teams in defensive DVOA. Davis had interviewed Gruden and reportedly planned on interviewing Belichick before hiring Bugel in 1997. But after a 4-12 season, Davis fired Bugel and went back to Gruden, who had been the Eagles' offensive coordinator under Ray Rhodes.

Gruden got only seven games out of George, who struggled with a groin injury and didn't fit Gruden's West Coast scheme, leaving the coach to start the combo of Donald Hollas and Wade Wilson for nine contests. The Raiders posted 8-8 records in 1998 and 1999, but Gruden found his quarterback in the meantime. The Raiders dumped George after 1998 in favor of Rich Gannon, who started for the Vikings from 1990 to 1992 and then spent three years as a backup before serving as the more successful half of a quarterback controversy alongside Elvis Grbac in Kansas City for two seasons. The Chiefs settled on Grbac and allowed the 34-year-old Gannon to hit free agency, where he signed with the Raiders.

The ensuing three seasons were the most consistently effective campaigns of the careers of both Gannon and Gruden. Gannon made the Pro Bowl in each of his three years under Gruden, although he saved his best season for 2002, after Gruden left for Tampa. Gannon stayed healthy and started every game. The stability helped the Raiders to go 30-18 over that three-year stretch, while averaging 26.4 points per game, placing them second behind "The Greatest Show on Turf" Rams.

In the playoffs, the Raiders weren't quite as successful. The 2000 team ran into one of the greatest defenses in league history in the AFC Championship Game and lost 16-3 to the Ravens at home as six-point favorites. Baltimore's Shannon Sharpe turned an innocuous third-and-18 slant from his own 4-yard line into a 96-yard touchdown, and Gannon threw two picks before leaving with a shoulder injury.

A year later, the Raiders were up 13-10 in the divisional round and appeared to have strip sacked Tom Brady to seal up a win in New England, but the Tuck Rule gave the Patriots new life, and Adam Vinatieri hit an improbable 45-yard field goal in the snow to push the game into overtime. There, the Patriots won the toss and launched a 15-play drive -- which included a fourth-and-4 conversion -- before Vinatieri hit a 23-yarder to knock the Raiders out of the playoffs.

Gruden had turned down the Ohio State job after the 2000 season, and with a year left on his contract, the Raiders were between a rock and a hard place. They feared a scenario in which the Buccaneers, who had just fired Tony Dungy, would trade a boatload of picks to the 49ers for then-coach Steve Mariucci, before hiring Gruden once his contract expired. The Bucs got permission to interview Mariucci, but when they couldn't come to terms, Tampa turned to Gruden, and the Raiders bit.

Did the Buccaneers win their Super Bowl because they hired Gruden?

I don't think there's much evidence that this is the case, as Adam Harstad pointed out on Twitter. Gruden took over a Bucs team that had gone to the playoffs in four of the previous five seasons under Dungy. Gruden overhauled the offense, bringing in seven new starters around quarterback Brad Johnson. Take a look at the numbers, though, and tell me which element of the Bucs' season improved more between 2001 and 2002:

At best, the Bucs were marginally better on offense by raw statistics (after removing touchdowns scored by their defense). DVOA pegs them as notably worse, in part because they were placed in such advantageous positions by one of the best defenses in league history. Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin hung around after Dungy was fired and oversaw an incredible campaign from a unit whose 11 starters -- only two of whom were new faces -- missed a combined seven games because of injury.

Kiffin's defense then forced 13 takeaways and scored four touchdowns in three games en route to a Super Bowl victory. The Bucs benefited from facing Gruden's former team in a game in which the Raiders allegedly neglected to change their playcalls from the terms they used under Gruden, a story which seems extremely unlikely. Give Gruden's offense credit for holding up their end of the bargain, but the idea that the Bucs only got over the top by replacing Dungy with a superior offensive mind doesn't jibe with reality.

What about the rest of Gruden's tenure with the Bucs?

Gruden's work was consistently good, but the results were erratic and marked by wild swings in what amounts to luck, given Tampa Bay's performance in one-score games.

Basically, Gruden fielded a solid team in four of his six seasons at the helm, getting everything from 4-12 to 11-5 as results. You might chalk up that 4-12 2006 campaign to Tampa Bay losing starting quarterback Chris Simms to a season-ending spleen injury after three games, which forced the Bucs to turn to Tim Rattay and rookie Bruce Gradkowski; but Simms also threw seven picks and posted a passer rating of 46.3 in his three winless starts before the injury. That 2006 team just wasn't very good.

Nobody should doubt Gruden's acumen, but the Bucs never really produced a great offense during his time in Tampa. The Buccaneers ranked no higher than 13th in DVOA and were usually around league average. They had a 29th-place finish during that 2006 season and otherwise placed between 17th and 22nd in each of Gruden's five other seasons in charge.

A fair riposte might be to point out that the quarterbacks Gruden was working with weren't exactly world-beaters. Gruden benched Johnson during the 2004 season for backup Brian Griese and Simms, who the Bucs chose in the third round of the 2003 draft. Simms and Griese split time the following season, with Simms taking over before the spleen injury turned things over to Gradkowski and Rattay.

The best quarterback Gruden had during his time in Tampa was veteran Jeff Garcia, who came over at age 37 and made the Pro Bowl after 13 starts with Gruden in 2007. (Luke McCown took the other three starts.) Then Garcia missed five games with assorted injuries and turned things over to the returning Griese, who filled in as a starter in September and again in November during his second stint with the team.

Through injuries and tinkering, the Buccaneers never settled on a quarterback. Seven different quarterbacks started for the Bucs during Gruden's final five seasons in charge, and after the 2003 season, not a single Tampa Bay passer started more than 13 games in a row without being benched or getting injured.

Does Gruden deserve credit for keeping his offenses afloat with mediocre talent under center? Or should he be blamed for the team's instability under center by both failing to lure a talented passer to Tampa and failing to draft and develop a quarterback of the future? If his quarterbacks couldn't stay healthy, was Gruden picking the wrong passers or struggling to build an offense capable of protecting his signal-callers?

How was Gruden as a personnel evaluator?

Not great, but that fortunately shouldn't be an issue, given that Reggie McKenzie is sticking around as Oakland general manager. Gruden was reunited with former Raiders colleague Bruce Allen in the Tampa Bay front office after the 2003 season and gained what the St. Petersburg Times called de facto control of all personnel decisions.

It's fair to note how Gruden was hamstrung by cap woes immediately after the Super Bowl victory, which led the Bucs to release John Lynch and part ways with Warren Sapp after the 2003 season, while the organization was missing the draft picks it had sent to Oakland to acquire Gruden. Even given those constraints, though, Gruden's drafts weren't very impressive. His first four drafts from 2004 to 2007 produced just one Pro Bowler, guard Davin Joseph. Size-speed freaks such as Jeremy Trueblood, Sabby Piscitelli and Maurice Stovall were shaped like superstars but never turned into useful players.

Joseph was Gruden's most successful first-round pick. Wideout Michael Clayton had one of the best rookie seasons in league history -- 80 catches, 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns -- and then never topped 500 yards again. Gruden fell in love with halfback Cadillac Williams at the Senior Bowl and took the Auburn back with the fifth overall pick in the 2005 draft, but Williams had been an injury-prone back in school and topped 1,000 yards once as a pro while averaging 3.8 yards per carry. Gaines Adams, the fourth overall pick in 2007, showed promise in racking up 12.5 sacks over two seasons, but the Bucs gave up on him after Gruden left and traded him to the Bears, where he played 10 games before tragically dying of cardiac arrest.

The 2008 draft was better, as Gruden used a first-round pick on Aqib Talib and nabbed lineman Jeremy Zuttah in the third round, but Gruden wasn't aroundfor long to watch them grow. The Bucs started the 2008 season 9-3 and subsequently capitulated, losing each of their final four games. Gruden's former employers snuck into the playoffs at his expense, with the Eagles blowing out the Cowboys 44-6 to win the 6-seed.

After six years without a single playoff win, the Glazers got impatient. They fired a "blindsided" Gruden and turned things over to Raheem Morris. The Bucs have gone 50-94 since, posting six campaigns of double-digit losses in nine years. They have yet to make it back to the postseason since firing Gruden in January 2009 and haven't won a playoff game since that Super Bowl victory following the 2002 season.

Can a head coach succeed after spending this much time out of football?

History tells us it's entirely possible. Gruden will join the Raiders in 2018 after having spent nine years away from the league. Since 1970, I can find seven head coaches who left an NFL head-coaching job and waited nine or more seasons before getting another shot with a top job in the league. Five of those coaches -- Pete Carroll, Chan Gailey, Ted Marchibroda, Jack Pardee and Art Shell -- coached at the college level, in another professional league or as an assistant during their absences. They don't really match up with Gruden.

Two other coaches, though, took similar absences to that of Gruden.

One was Dick Vermeil, who left coaching altogether after posting a 54-47 mark with the Eagles. Vermeil came back after 15 years out of the game, and following two dismal seasons with the Rams, he won the Super Bowl with St. Louis in 1999. Vermeil then immediately retired, only to come back again in 2001 with Kansas City, where he went 44-36 over five seasons with the Chiefs.

The other coach is Joe Gibbs, who won three Super Bowls in 12 seasons with Washington before retiring in 1992 to operate his NASCAR team. Gibbs came back after a 12-year absence and spent four years in charge of the Redskins, going 30-34 while leading his team to two playoff appearances in four seasons. Those aren't stunning numbers, but consider that Gibbs is the only coach to win a playoff game during the 18-season reign of owner Daniel Snyder, with Washington's seven other coaches combining for only two postseason berths.

Nobody knows how Gruden will perform, and it's obviously an extremely limited sample, but there are certainly examples of NFL coaches leaving the profession and enjoying success after returning.

What will Gruden's offense look like?

This might be the most fascinating question to answer, and it's still seemingly up in the air. Gruden was a West Coast offense disciple who grew up coaching under and alongside Mike Holmgren and Andy Reid. As we've seen with Reid, though, coaches can change; Kansas City's offense in 2017 incorporated everything from traditional West Coast concepts to option elements that Reid borrowed from college teams.

It would be foolish to expect Gruden to pull his 2007 playbook out of mothballs and dust it off. Gruden has had a decade to observe the game and its schematic development from afar, which might be an advantage, in contrast to coaches who have had to spend their seasons devising game plans around their own talent or scouting opposing teams. Hehas already suggested that the offense we'll see in 2018 won't look like the one we used to see, noting in a Gruden's QB Camp video that his offense would never huddle if he came back into the league.

Ted Nguyen of The Athletic did an excellent job of detailing how Gruden might meld West Coast concepts with the things he has seen over the past decade and the Raiders' personnel. Gruden is not likely to turn his offense into some hyper-modern hybrid attack, like Lincoln Riley did at Oklahoma, but he'll steal concepts and apply them to his own. Some might be behind the scenes; as Nguyen suggests in his piece, Gruden might simplify the terminology of his scheme and build the concept names around easy-to-remember people, as McVay has done in Los Angeles.

Gruden is likely going to rebuild a running game that collapsed in 2017 when offensive coordinator Todd Downing recast the Raiders' scheme around the outside zone, which didn't fit Oakland's personnel. The Raiders ran just 70 play-action passes, tying them for the second-fewest attempts in the league. Gruden's favorite play, famously, is a play-action pass, Spider 2 Y Banana. The play-fakes are going to be back in this offense in 2018.

Will Gruden get along with Derek Carr?

I lied: This is the most fascinating question to answer. Look at the track record I mentioned earlier and you'll see that Gruden's two Pro Bowl quarterbacks were guys he acquired when they were 34 (Gannon) and 37 (Garcia). Gruden himself pointed out in 2009 that the only young guy he ever got to work with was Chris Simms, but that ignores Gradkowski and the reality that Gruden could have drafted a quarterback and chose not to.

It would be foolish to say that Gruden can't develop a young quarterback, but we haven't seen him do it as a head coach. The Raiders also thought Carr was a finished product this time last year, but there were reasons to think that Carr might take a step backward in 2017. Carr's interception rate rose, his receivers were wildly inconsistent, and Oakland's offensive line wasn't at the same level as its dominant 2016 group. The Raiders looked lost on offense when the Eagles basically tried to hand them a win on Christmas night.

We know just how much a good coach can impact a quarterback from what Goff accomplished with McVay this season, and it was simultaneously clear to see how Carr missed offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, who was allowed to leave as part of Downing's promotion. The West Coast attack is about timing, and Carr has been in a system designed to get the ball out quickly and reliably on time. Strip out screens and Carr took an average of just 2.34 seconds before throwing passes this year, the second-quickest rate in football. During his breakout 2016 season, Carr was eighth in the same category.

What happens, though, if Carr struggles? Will Gruden have the patience to spend multiple seasons -- or even a full season -- molding Carr into the franchise quarterback we saw in 2016? The Raiders have no obvious replacement for Carr on the roster, as their backups are EJ Manuel and 2016 fourth-rounder Connor Cook, who didn't show much in two games as an injury fill-in during the 2016 campaign.

Oakland could move on from Carr without destroying its cap as early as next season. Carr's five-year, $125 million deal could turn into a two-year, $47.7 million contract, with the Raiders posting $7.5 million in dead money onto their 2019 cap. I'm not suggesting that the Raiders should dump Carr or are even likely to part ways with the 26-year-old signal-caller, but if Gruden and Carr don't mix, McKenzie has the Raiders set with financial flexibility.

Can Gruden lead the Raiders back to the playoffs?

He can, but as was the case in Tampa, it's going to be more about the Oakland defense (which ranked 29th in DVOA this season) improving than it will be about the offense. Oakland's defense has held the Raiders back over the past couple of years, despite the presence of Khalil Mack. Oakland's 2016 draft might turn out to be a disaster; first-round pick Karl Joseph has struggled to stay healthy and was benched against the Eagles, while second-rounder Jihad Ward started the season injured and was a healthy scratch for most of the year. Third-rounder Shilique Calhoun was waived before the season and made it back to the Oakland practice squad before suiting up in nine games.

The 2017 draftees didn't offer much more during their rookie campaigns. Third-round pick Eddie Vanderdoes stepped right in at defensive tackle as a rookie and looked competent, but he was the exception. He then tore his ACL in Week 17. First-round pick Gareon Conley missed 14 games (shin), while second-rounder Obi Melifonwu missed 11 (knee, hip). Fifth-rounder Marquel Lee started at the frequently frustrating middle linebacker spot and struggled before eventually giving way to NaVorro Bowman. Despite the presence of Del Rio at the helm over the past three years, the Raiders simply haven't done a good job of drafting or developing young defensive talent, Mack aside.

Gruden's defensive coordinator hire, then, might be one of the most critical decisions he'll make over his first 12 months as Raiders coach. He decided on Paul Guenther, who coached on the same Cincinnati staff with Gruden's younger brother, Jay (now head coach of the Redskins), and served as the Bengals' defensive coordinator over the past four seasons. It's a promising hire, if only because Cincinnati has almost exclusively drafted and developed defensive talent over head coach Marvin Lewis' time there. You might also argue that Guenther inherited a defense that ranked fifth in DVOA under Mike Zimmer, only to see it drop to 17th over each of the past two seasons; but at least Guenther helped bring along guys such asCarl Lawson and Dre Kirkpatrick.

The AFC West is quickly becoming the league's most fascinating division heading into the 2018 season -- and one where the Chargers are unexpectedly becoming the model of stability as they keep around defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. The Broncos will likely make a change at quarterback this offseason and are likely to release players such asC.J. Anderson and Talib, cornerstones of their Super Bowl-winning team. The Chiefs lost offensive coordinator Matt Nagy to the Bears and will likely trade Alex Smith as part of a clear-out that also could include Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson.

The Raiders and Gruden, then, find themselves in a wide-open division. The 2017 Raiders and Del Rio's job might have been victims of 2016's success in close games, as Oakland's 8-1 mark in contests decided by seven points or less fell to 4-3 this season. Oakland is a team in unexpected transition both on and off the field. It's no surprise, perhaps, that the Raiders decided to turn to someone whose scowl might comfortingly remind them of past glory.

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