When the 2009 season concludes, it will be eight seasons since Jon Gruden was head coach of the Raiders.
That’s twice as long as he was coach of the Raiders.
Yet the topic of his potential return is never far from the minds of a significant segment of Raiders fans, in part because none of his successors has lasted more than two years since Al Davis traded Gruden to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a long-ago spent $8 million and some draft picks that never amounted to much.
The possibility of Gruden returning is probably the most asked question every week during on-line chats. I usually brush most of them off with a quick “no,” or never post the question at all and move on to something else.
It’s rare when a week goes by where I don’t receive e-mails about Gruden coming back to the team where he first became a head coach in 1998.
When Gruden and Bruce Allen were fired in Tampa Bay last Jan. 16, this blog shut down for a few hours, and I’m convinced it had to do with excess traffic. Could have been something else, I suppose, but it was a heck of a coincidence.
I’m guessing the Raiders got their share of e-mails and phone calls as well, because by Jan. 18, John Herrera was telling reporters “We’ve been down that road” and that any talk about bringing Gruden back was reckless speculation.
Coach Tom Cable is in a tenuous position with the club acknowledging it will take a serious look at ESPN allegations regarding his his history of violence toward women, which comes on the heels of the Randy Hanson affair.
Those issues, accompanied by a 2-6 record from a team Davis proclaimed to be “pretty good” two days before the season started, have the Gruden wishful thinking rumor mill churning again.
I said during Tuesday’s chat I’d give a more detailed explanation as to why I don’t see Gruden coming back since the bye week afforded some time with just two days of practice, so here goes.
For all the talk of Gruden leaving because of Al’s ego, or Gruden wanting to get away from Al, or Gruden requesting Tampa to be closer to his family, the reasons for his departure were contractual.
The two sides were working on a contract extension in 2001. Even when Gruden’s agent, Bob LaMonte, was making his return sound dire, Allen, an important middle man in the Davis-Gruden alliance, always thought a deal would get done.
Very late in the season, Gruden thought he had a deal. The extension was for three years, averaging around $3 million per season. In it, Gruden had control of the 53-man roster and the ability to pick his own coaching staff. He was fine with Davis running the draft and free agency, where he would have input but not the final say. But his two main issues were picking his own team, and picking his own coaches.
When Gruden and LaMonte met at a restaurant not far from the club facility and opened the envelope containing the contract, the provisions regarding control of the 53-man roster and picking the coaches had been removed. Much of the money had been pushed to the last season.
If this was a negotiating ploy by the Raiders to get Gruden to take less, it backfired. At that point he was intent on coaching his last season and looking for another job.
Gruden loved coaching the Raiders. Loved the fans, the tradition. He was proud of having taken the mess he inherited from Joe Bugel and making it special again. He used to tell Rich Gannon, “If we can turn this place around and win a championship here, it will be our legacy.”
Working with Davis is no picnic, but as we sat in a hotel room that served as his office at the Bucs Orlando, Fla., training camp in 2004, Gruden said, “I thought we were doing OK. We made it work.”
One former Raiders assistant told me that when Davis would make a request that Gruden didn’t agree with, he would have a film cut-up made detailing his reasons. Davis would see that his idea had been seriously considered and back off _ in large part because the Raiders under Gruden’s watch were wildly successful by today’s Raiders standards.
With that as a backdrop, what do you think are the chances that Gruden would come to work for the Raiders without control of the 53-man roster and the coaching staff? Especially when he can probably get it someplace else.
And what do you think are the chances that he’d come to work even for the $3 million that was offered in 2004 _ considerably more than any Raiders coach has been paid since then? Especially when he can probably get it someplace else.
And what are the chances that Davis would grant control of the 53-man roster as well as complete control of the coaching staff?
And what are the chances that Davis would pay Gruden what he’d receive from owners with deeper pockets on the open market?
Gruden isn’t the only part of the equation.
One of the reasons the Davis-Gruden collaboration worked in Oakland was because of Allen. As single-minded as Davis is about what he believes in, Gruden is equally as driven and determined. He can be impatient and after a period of time can wear on even his most loyal friends and assistants.
Allen was the perfect buffer between Davis and Gruden. One former assistant coach described Allen as the person who made it all work, because without him, the owner and coach would have never co-existed comfortably.
Allen came to the Raiders in part because his father, the late George Allen, was an iconoclastic football lifer like Davis. Bruce Allen, like Davis, was a head coach at a young age, a young GM for his father in the USFL, and later became an agent. But Allen held coaches in reverence, having been raised by one, while Davis was more about players than coaches.
Trading Gruden was just fundamentally the wrong thing to do in Allen’s mind, and it was really no surprise when he opted to join Gruden in Tampa.
If Gruden were to return to the Raiders, the spike in interest would be off the charts. The success Gruden built in the form of two division championships and setting the table for a third, is reason enough for a lot of fans to long for the closest thing to the good old days that exist since the Raiders returned to Oakland in 1995.
How can that happen?
Davis admits his mistake and Gruden returns with control of the 53-man roster, control of his coaching staff, and a salary considerably more than any Raiders coach has ever been paid.
Allen returns to manage the salary cap run the day-to-day operations, mostly at Gruden’s behest.
Other members of the support staff who left the Raiders for the Bucs, and closely aligned with Gruden and Allen, also return.
Davis takes a back seat and lets someone else do the heavy lifting to rebuild his tattered franchise, available for advice, support and perspective but letting his coach and senior executive do their jobs.
If you think all those things can happen, dream on.
Hey, the Raiders came back to Oakland in 1995 after 13 years in Los Angeles. What’s another miracle 15 years later?