Gruden finds safe haven in the booth

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Jon Gruden may have lost his desire to prowl the sidelines with a gnarly scowl – at least for the time being – but contrary to popular perception, the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Oakland Raiders coach turned Monday Night Football analyst hasn’t surrendered his sarcastic edge.

Including the playoffs, Gruden's Bucs went 60-57.
(Kim Klement/US Presswire)

Discussing the multiyear contract extension he signed earlier this week with ESPN, a deal which theoretically eliminated him as a viable candidate for 2010 coaching jobs in the NFL and college football, Gruden addressed the perception that he’s reticent to rip people in his current role.

“I’ll be honest with you – I’ve been criticized by some for being too positive, for loving everybody because I’m trying to get this job or that job,” Gruden said Thursday. “That’s a crock. I love the game, OK – and I’m enthusiastic because of it. There are positives about everybody, and I try to find them.

“There’s a lot of negativity out there. Let’s face it – most articles you read are negative, and the same with most commentary. And I am truly sorry for not adding to the negativity and for seeing the bright side of the world here. Because, you know, I think negativity is what the world needs. They need some more guys to sit up there and ridicule the Cleveland Browns for four hours.”

During our half-hour phone conversation, which he conducted between playing a round of golf and attending his oldest son’s high school football game, Gruden sounded as relaxed, confident and upbeat as I’ve ever heard him – and with good reason. Ten months after his somewhat shocking dismissal by the Buccaneers, a team he coached to its lone Super Bowl title, Gruden has the football world at his behest.

Despite what the aforementioned critics might suggest, he is killing it in the booth; his unpretentious and impassioned delivery is resonating with fans and (obviously) his employer. His coaching reputation has been largely restored – Tampa Bay’s 1-8 start under his former defensive backs coach, Raheem Morris, has rightfully driven home the reality that Gruden did a pretty decent job of propping up the Bucs the previous two seasons.

As a result, Gruden’s name has come up in conjunction with potential high-profile openings for numerous college and pro teams, and his response to those rumors – sitting back and expressing his happiness with broadcasting – will only enhance his appeal.

Gruden’s reaction to his firing should serve as a template for everyone in the coaching field. Clearly caught off guard by the move, Gruden was both humbled and self-deprecating in the aftermath. He was also driven to improve, something that will likely serve him well in his future coaching gigs.

The first thing he did was rent office space at the St. Pete Times Forum, dubbing his new enterprise the FFCA. “It stands for Fired Football Coaches Association,” Gruden said. “I spent a lot of time in there studying various aspects of the game, and I had a lot of guys come in – Jim Haslett, Rick Venturi, [Oregon coach] Chip Kelly, the Appalachian State coaches, [South Alabama offensive coordinator Greg] Gregory.

“We’d meet at six in the morning – I’d get there early and plan out the meeting, so I didn’t waste too much of their time – and spend all day studying the spread option or various other things. The college game is so much different right now than anything I’ve ever seen; what Tim Tebow is doing is really blowing my mind.”

Over the summer, when Gruden went to the Persian Gulf on a USO Tour with four other current and former coaches, he made a point of picking the brain of former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher. “I wanted to understand the Steelers’ 3-4 – specifically, the way they run it,” Gruden said. “I’m not an expert by any means, but I made some progress after talking to Bill. He was great.”

If all of this makes Gruden sound suspiciously like a man who can’t wait to coach again, the 46-year-old pleads guilty. As much as he’s enjoying luxuries like spending time with his wife and their three sons and sleeping an average of four-to-five hours a night – for Gruden, scarily, that’s what amounts to “sleeping in” – it doesn’t sound likely that he’ll try to emulate another popular ex-Raiders coach, John Madden, and spend the rest of his working days as a broadcaster.

For that reason, it seems logical to conclude that some of the coaches he debriefs in ESPN’s pre-broadcast production meetings are a tad less forthcoming than they otherwise might be. Why give away strategic nuances or other inside information to a man who might soon try to use it against you from the opposite sidelines?

“I haven’t sensed any of that,” Gruden insisted. “Most of the people just make fun of me. Andy Reid was all over me; [Bill] Belichick got on my case. When they see me on game day, they’re like, ‘Nice suit. Is that a real tie?’ ”

I asked Gruden if, back when he was coaching, he felt a need to maintain some level of secrecy during production meetings.

“When I was with the Raiders, I had about four or five people accompanying me, I guess to make sure I said the right things,” Gruden said, laughing. “Or, probably, to make sure I didn’t say too much. In Tampa, I lost the entourage. But in general, I always tried to be as informative as possible. I didn’t answer every question, but you tried to be as professional and courteous as you could.”

Gruden has yet to work a game involving either of his former franchises, neither of which he left on ideal terms. After leading the Raiders to the 2000 AFC championship game and an ’01 divisional-round defeat to the Patriots in the infamous “Snow Bowl,” Gruden, who had a year left on his well-below-market contract, was traded to the Bucs for two first-round NFL draft picks, two second-round picks and $8 million. The steep price was justified the following season as Gruden led Tampa Bay to its first NFL championship, embarrassing the Raiders in the Super Bowl.

Given his choppy endings with both franchises, Gruden’s presence could create some awkward moments if and when he has to broadcast a game featuring the Bucs or Raiders. “I’m sure it’ll be weird,” he conceded.

Though Gruden says he has tried his best to “disappear” from the Bucs’ orbit, he occasionally communicates with some former assistants and players and says he still genuinely roots for the home team.

“There’s a lot of negativity out there. Let’s face it – most articles you read are negative, and the same with most commentary. And I am truly sorry for not adding to the negativity and for seeing the bright side of the world here.”
 
– Jon Gruden

“I want them to do well,” he says. “I’ve got a lot of friends there, and I’ve got a lot of blood spilled. My kids stood on the sidelines every game for seven years, and they don’t really understand the business part of it – and they’re sort of confused. But we’ve still got the Cadillac Williams jerseys and the Bucs hats and they still root for ‘em, too.”

In the aftermath of Gruden’s departure, several of his former Tampa players made some particularly harsh comments about him. Most brutally, ex-defensive end Simeon Rice(notes) called Gruden a “scumbag.”

Gruden did his best to shake off the criticism, but it clearly stung.

“There were a lot of nice comments from players, too, but they don’t print those,” he said. “I know Jeff Garcia(notes) played better for me the last two years than he’s playing now. I know Michael Clayton(notes) was more productive when I was there. We made Simeon Rice the highest-paid defensive player in football history and put a nine-story picture of him on the side of the stadium, so obviously we had a high opinion of him.

“Unfortunately I had to bench him. I had to bench Jeff Garcia because of his performance. Ultimately, it’s not just about your relationship with every player – you have to make decisions based on the whole nucleus of the organization. Your job as a coach in this league is to win games, and if you don’t, you’re gone. I take great pride in trying to create an environment for doing just that.”

For now, Gruden is taking mental notes that he hopes will help him down the road, and trying “to get a lot better [as a broadcaster], because I have to.” And while he doesn’t seem conflicted – “I’m at a point in my life where I just need to back off,” he insisted – he hasn’t completely neglected his prowling, scowling side.

“I coached my 12-year-old son, Michael, in flag football last spring,” Gruden said. “We didn’t win the championship, but we got to the championship game. We were called the Underdawgs, and we had a chance to pull a miraculous upset but lost, 21-14. I blame my defensive coordinator.”

That would be former Bucs general manager and Raiders front-office executive Bruce Allen, who was fired in Tampa along with Gruden last January. Given that Bruce’s father, George, had a Hall of Fame coaching career for the Rams and Redskins, that’s some serious pedigree on the Underdawgs’ sidelines.

And how was the experience for Michael Gruden? “He’s my quarterback,” Jon said. “He’s kind of a Doug Flutie type – not the tallest kid, but he can throw it. He played well. He’s got to play better this year, though. We’ve got to get back to the championship game – and win it.”

If Michael doesn’t, let’s just hope his dad resists the temptation to go negative.

TAKE IT TO THE ATM

Energized by interim coach Perry Fewell, the Buffalo Bills will have a strong first quarter in Jacksonville – and then get taken down by the Jaguars. … Led by Calvin Johnson(notes), the Lions will defeat the Browns in a game that officially stamps Cleveland as the NFL’s most awful team. … Vince Young(notes) will have another happy homecoming as the Titans defeat the Houston Texans for their fourth consecutive victory.

PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …

Denver, where I can see the showdown for first place in the AFC West between two teams seemingly passing one another in glass elevators. While watching the ascending Chargers battle the plummeting Broncos, my eyes will be a bit bleary – thanks to some business to which I must attend in that little breadbox of a stadium in Palo Alto, Calif., on Saturday, and what I hope is an extended celebration thereafter with a lot of people in blue and gold. Yeah, it’s like that.

LIES, LIES, LIES

1. When my alarm clock sounds early Sunday morning before I catch that flight to Denver, I will be in a mood that falls somewhere in between ecstatic and embittered (based upon the outcome of a certain athletic contest).

2. As a gesture of remorse to Ralph Wilson for his middle-fingered salute to Bills fans, Titans owner Bud Adams agreed to fly to Buffalo on Tuesday to give Dick Jauron the, uh, hook.

3. There is a better nickname for new Raiders starting quarterback Bruce Gradkowski(notes) than the one my friend Vittorio Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle (a.k.a. The Fantasy Man) bestowed upon the then-Bucs rookie three years ago.

WORLD’S SIMPLEST POOL

The Vikings’ 27-10 victory over the Lions sent me rolling into Week 11, and for the first time it occurs to me that I could actually pull off a perfect season. (I’m sure the ’72 Dolphins will be thrilled.) I should probably start studying the schedule and plotting out which teams I should take when in order to give me the largest set of options in December. Nah, I’ll just stick with the week-to-week survival approach that has gotten me this far, and that means I’ll go with the Cowboys, coming home after a humbling outing in Green Bay, to rip the Redskins, who are feeling way too good about themselves after upsetting the Broncos. Yeah, I know, it’s a rivalry game – don’t get me started on those this week – but the ‘Boys are the superior side, and I can’t see them messing it up. (Off limits: Patriots, Redskins, Ravens, Texans, Eagles, Packers, Colts, Bears, Falcons, Vikings.)

MY BUDDIES’ ANNOYING FANTASY ADVENTURE

So have I mentioned recently that UCSB women’s basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb, acting on my advice, took Chris Johnson with the No. 2 overall pick of her fantasy draft and got laughed at? Yep – and I’m going to keep bringing it up every chance I get, because Every Coach’s Dream carried Gottlieb’s otherwise underperforming Harsh Reality to a six-point victory over KAO. Johnson had 35 of the 79 points for Harsh Reality (6-4), with the Titans’ defense providing another 19.

The rest of the team will have to step it up this week against the Hurricanes (6-4), who feature Philip Rivers(notes), DeAngelo Williams(notes), Thomas Jones(notes), Sidney Rice(notes), Mike Sims-Walker(notes), Carolina’s Steve Smith, Dustin Keller(notes), Lawrence Tynes(notes) and the Steelers’ defense. To counter that loaded lineup, Gottlieb and I took a home run swing and inserted Antonio Bryant(notes) into the flex position. We also decided to play Greg Olsen(notes) (vs. the Eagles, who struggled against Antonio Gates(notes) last week) over Vernon Davis(notes) (at Green Bay) and the newly acquired Cardinals’ defense (at St. Louis). Rather than sacrifice the Titans’ D, which came up big for us last week but faces the prolific Texans, Gottlieb decided to waive backup quarterback Chad Henne(notes), meaning it’s Carson Palmer(notes) or bust. If Chad Ochocinco(notes), Marion Barber(notes) and Greg Jennings(notes) (finally!) could step up their respective games, that would also be helpful.

As for my buddy Malibu’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath – well, they’re beyond help. After last-place Sabbath fell to 2-8 with a 23-point defeat to Divers, Malibu insisted I start helping his son, A-Man, whose team, Man Up Willis U. …, is alone in first place with an 8-2 record. That, and the fact that A-Man is a Cal freshman, constitutes the good news. The bad news: Less than three weeks after losing star tight end Owen Daniels(notes) to a season-ending knee injury, Man Up was stung Wednesday by running back Ronnie Brown’s(notes) trip to the IR list. That means Laurence Maroney(notes) will start opposite Johnson (who else?) at running back for this week’s matchup against Varmint Poontang (have I mentioned that this is a classy league?), getting the nod over Willis McGahee(notes), for whom the team was named two years ago.

What to do? What to do? For the short term, I advised A-Man to go after Atlanta’s Jason Snelling(notes), who’ll have a chance to shine with Michael Turner(notes) out. For the playoff drive, I told him to consider Fred Jackson(notes), Jamal Lewis(notes) and Michael Bush(notes) as viable options. He’s also looking to upgrade at tight end, where Todd Heap(notes) isn’t doing much as Daniels’ replacement. Other than that, his lineup (Donovan McNabb(notes), Eli Manning(notes), Johnson, Randy Moss(notes), Chad Ochocinco, Bryant, Falcons’ defense, Nate Kaeding(notes)) looks solid to me.

What does Y! Sports guru Brad Evans think of all this noise?

Silver should change his name to soothsayer. His preseason prognostication of Captain Quick (Johnson) scoring 13 touchdowns, though in doubt earlier this season, appears golden. Every Coach’s Dream has become Every Fantasy Opponent’s Nightmare. Since Week 6 he’s averaged an alien 6.8 yards per carry and 189.6 total yards per game. Apparently, he’s also knocked off Lendale White(notes), scoring six touchdowns. Though another 284-total yard, three-score performance is unlikely in his second square dance with Houston, he will certainly keep Harsh Reality in serious championship contention this week and beyond.

Coach Gottlieb’s clash with the Hurricanes will be an epic battle. Both teams feature a couple of spectacular and not-so-spectacular matchups. Inevitably, this contest will be decided by the X-factors, particularly Bryant and Olsen. If the Tampa receiver can dodge the medical cart, he has a real shot of posting shocking numbers against a New Orleans defense minus starting corners Jabari Greer(notes) and Tracy Porter(notes). Olsen should also inflict heavy damage on the Eagles. Philly has allowed the second-most fantasy points to tight ends this year. The He-Man clone (The resemblance is uncanny) will flash the “Power of Grayskull.”

As for Malibu junior, due to the tragic loss of Brown and Daniels, he may need to hire Elmer Fudd to stave off the rascally Varmint Poontang. If the famed Looney Tune is unavailable, Snelling is the appropriate play. With Jerious Norwood(notes) a long shot to suit up against the Giants, the Atlanta grinder could easily rack 80-90 total yards and a score versus a N.Y. defense that has surrendered eight TDs to rushers in its last five.

Meanwhile, Jackson is an excellent long-term buy. Skeletor’s (Dick Jauron) dismissal should lead to more reps. Perry Fewell is adamant about including more Wildcat packages featuring the versatile rusher. Buffalo’s Week 14 matchup at K.C. could produce many fruits.

LET’S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …

Barbara and Larry Goyette, my awesome in-laws, who will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary Saturday. The proud products of the University of California system (Barbara went to Cal, Larry to that sister school in L.A.) were married on Big Game Saturday five decades ago – and the Golden Bears prevailed, 20-17. I’m also toasting the eldest of their 15 grandchildren, my niece Gabrielle Goyette, a softball standout and great kid who last weekend committed to play at the University of Pacific beginning in 2010.

DISPATCHES FROM THE LAIR OF THE BEAR

I now take you to the inner sanctum of God’s University, where there is a single-minded focus on Axe-retention that must come to fruition Saturday. So allow me to turn things over to Cal sophomore kicker David Seawright – and be sure to check out Part I of my triumphant return to the nation’s greatest student newspaper, with Part II coming on game day.

It’s Big Game week, and in a town commonly called “Bezerkeley,” this week is particularly wild.

It all began with Saturday’s down-to-the-wire victory over Arizona, made possible by a bizarre play by Wildcats quarterback Nick Foles which turned third-and-3 within field-goal range into fourth-and-17, pushing them into four-down territory when down by two.

This week’s opponent, Stanford, announced on Monday that Tiger Woods would serve as the team’s honorary captain. I personally witnessed Tiger’s greatness walking the 2008 U.S. Open’s 19-hole playoff with Rocco Mediate.

I have no qualms about trotting out our own university-affiliated prestige in response. It turns out, however, that a team can’t have 65 honorary captains (one for each of our Nobel laureates, compared to the Farm’s 51, for those of you keeping score at home).

On Tuesday, Cal’s greatest and most vocal supporter (my esteemed host) returned to his humble beginnings at the world’s finest student newspaper and offered Stanford hate of epic proportions.

On Wednesday, the Cal student body, in typical Berkeley fashion, kicked off a three-day, school-wide strike in response to expansive budget cuts, although I have my suspicions about the true intent of the demonstration.

Cal’s Greek Theater, which hosted the Dalai Lama last spring, will be set ablaze with fiery emotion (and a bonfire) on Friday as the students rally to retain the Axe, as we have six of the last seven years.

As I join my teammates in pregame preparations in Palo Alto, my colleagues at the Daily Californian will face off with our inferior counterparts at the Stanford Daily in a flag football showdown called the Ink Bowl.

Since the writers from Leland Stanford Junior College are likely to uphold the tradition of things (like grades, for example) being handed to them, I not only expect the Daily Cal to trounce them in our traditional manner – last time we lost I was 13 years old – but also fully acknowledge that we could cover the event more thoroughly due to our superior journalistic talents.

And on Saturday evening, to top it all of, we will kick off the 112th Big Game at Stanford Stadium in a clash between two teams fresh off emotional victories.

After a particularly big week, the Big Game will surely exemplify hard fought football in such a way to live up to its name.

I just hope it doesn’t come down to something like this.

OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE

Does any superstar in one sport get less respect from people in another sport than LeBron James from the NFL? First the Cavs’ Reason For Existence allegedly got dissed by Braylon Edwards(notes) before the ex-Browns receiver had a reported altercation with one of King James’ friends. Then, in the wake of the Browns’ embarrassing 16-0 defeat to the Ravens on Monday Night Football, reporters began throwing out the possibility of James joining the team around the locker room, probably because the strain of covering such a dysfunctional organization has caused them to lose grip with reality. Coach Eric Mangini and quarterback Brady Quinn(notes) bit and pined for James’ presence, but nose tackle Shaun Rogers(notes) wasn’t having that. “A great athlete?” Rogers asked. “Yes. A football player? No. Yeah LeBron, I said it. It’s a punishing game. I just don’t think you can step off the basketball court after not going through this year in and year out and just play football. From that standpoint, I just don’t think it’s possible. You have to weather and condition your body to take this punishment.” Later, Saints tight end Jeremy Shockey(notes) chimed in via Twitter: “everyone trust me Lebron James could not play in the NFL! espn is crazy to even think he could even make a practice squad. [He has] a 4.9 40 time.”

That sound you hear in the background is King James and his posse laughing their bling-covered bodies off. Let’s see, walk away from being one of the two best players in a sport that doesn’t routinely debilitate people, with more than a decade’s worth of guaranteed contracts at maximum millions awaiting you? No. Do this so you can join the worst team in football and get laid out by bitter opponents out to prove how devoid of toughness you are? Hell no. It’s not even worth discussing on a slow news day. Then again, if this were happening to Michael Jordan in his prime, don’t you think MJ might’ve said “Screw it” and showed up at the Bears’ facility ready to strap it on?

YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK

Dock Ellis & The LSD No-No

ROLLIN’ WITH THE ROYALS

In my world, as you might have gathered by now, there is only one game on Saturday – but I’ll do my duty and tell you about the one the Reading Football Club is hosting at Madejski Stadium. The Royals, who currently sit under the relegation line in the Football League Championship table, face fifth-place Blackpool, and getting their first home victory in nine tries this season will be a stiff test. The surprising Tangerines (how great is that nickname, and is this their official fight song?) are undefeated in their last five games and are harboring the same kind of promotion dreams the Royals did a year ago. And for those of you who might be wondering, I’d trade an infinite amount of Reading defeats for one favorable result at Stanford Stadium.

LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK

When Cal travels across the Bay to face bitter rival Stanford on Saturday in the 112th Big Game, the Golden Bears will face a daunting challenge. The 14th-ranked Cardinal, coming off a ridiculously impressive 55-21 victory at USC, is a 7½-point favorite, and with good reason: Jim Harbaugh’s team is playing the best football in the Pac-10, by far, and sensational senior running back Toby Gerhart has emerged as a bona fide Heisman candidate. Meanwhile, Cal’s star halfback and Best player, dude by the name of Jahvid, won’t even be in uniform. And now we’ve learned that Tiger Woods – gasp – will be Stanford’s honorary captain It’s enough to make a devoted alum like myself shrivel up in the corner and cry – except, of course, that’s not what true blue Bear Backers do. We show up loud, proud and unbowed, win the party and exert every ounce of intensity we’ve got to try to spur our team to greater heights. I’ll be proud to be among them on Saturday, and I hope we do a lot of postgame singing), to the extent that we still have voices. In the meantime, here’s Golden Bear Nation’s call to arms, to the tune of Muse’s “Uprising.”

California is a mess
A scary injury to Mr. Best
They think we’ll take drugs that make us all see trails
Instead of marching to The Farm with our lunch pails
(So come on)

The Eucalyptus grove’s our scene
Another season gone by with futile Rose Bowl dreams
It’s Oregon – with Stanfurd comin’ right behind
And Tiger uh standin’ smugly on their sideline
(So come on)

They will not force us
They won’t take The Axe from us
They will not outscore us
We will be victorious
(So come on)

Ever-annoying train whistle
A dweebish student section that’s got no soul
And Tiger – where were you all those years we kicked your ass?
And now you can take your captainship and kiss our Axe
(So come on)

Rise up and take the power back
We’re gonna regulate and talk some smack
You know that mascot is a total clown
We have to piss on that effin’ Tree and chop it down
(So come on)

They will not force us
They won’t take The Axe from us
They will not outscore us
We will be victorious
(So come on)

They will abhor us
We will be obnoxious
It shall be so glorious
We will be victorious
So come on!

Michael Silver covers the NFL for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Mogotxt, Twitter and Facebook. Also check out ridewithsilver.com. Send Michael a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Nov 20, 2009