Sources: Jon Gruden a focal point in L.A. Rams' coaching search

NFL columnist
Yahoo Sports US

The Los Angeles Rams are moving toward a meeting with ESPN analyst Jon Gruden about the team’s head coaching vacancy, multiple sources with knowledge of the Rams’ coaching search have told Yahoo Sports. The sources indicated Gruden has become a focal point on the Rams’ list of candidates, but that other candidates could also come into play – notably Stanford Cardinal head coach David Shaw and New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton.

It’s not known whether Shaw or Payton have any level of interest in the Rams job, but multiple sources said Gruden would be inclined to listen if the Rams were willing to grant him full personnel authority. One source said such a concession would be a “must” for Gruden to even consider taking a meeting with franchise leadership in the coming days. The Rams will consider granting personnel authority to at least some of the candidates in their search and that Gruden is among that group, a source told Yahoo Sports.

Gruden, Shaw and Payton are three names that continue to fit the theme of the early list of Rams candidates who would make a big splash in the market. The team also had initial interest in Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and University of Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh but both quickly brushed off consideration for the opening. If Shaw is interested, the Rams could quickly set a meeting with his representatives. Seeking Payton would be more complicated, as he signed a five-year contract extension with the Saints last offseason and the Rams would first need to reach some level of agreement on potential draft-pick compensation with New Orleans.

A meeting with Gruden would be far less burdensome, particularly considering there is already some high-level familiarity with the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Oakland Raiders coach. Rams chief operating officer Kevin Demoff previously spent four years with the Buccaneers from 2005-09, overlapping with the final four years of Gruden’s tenure as head coach of the Buccaneers. During that time, Demoff was a senior assistant to then-general manager Bruce Allen. Essentially, he had a front-row seat to see how Gruden ran his coaching staff and interacted with the personnel department.  That experience is believed to be elevating Gruden on the list – along with Gruden’s high profile.

Those who have spent time with Gruden say he has continued to believe he could again coach at a championship level in the NFL, particularly with rule changes that have given more leeway to offenses in recent years. But they’ve also said he has viewed his options for a return very selectively and largely predicated on a team’s quarterback situation. In that respect, Gruden’s belief in Jared Goff would be key.

It’s notable that he gushed about Goff in one of his “QB Camp” features on ESPN and also in some other interviews. While such public praise is taken with a grain of salt in many corners of the NFL, one source close to Gruden said he has also privately expressed that he believes Goff is a franchise quarterback.

Jon Gruden last coached in the NFL in 2008. (AP)
Jon Gruden last coached in the NFL in 2008. (AP)

“He does believe in him – that’s not just for TV,” one source familiar with Gruden said. “He thinks [Goff] has the stuff to be a franchise quarterback. I don’t know if Jon would have traded the farm to get him, but he sees him as a guy that was worthy of building a team around him. He sees leadership and star power there.”

Interestingly, those are two traits the Rams might value most in Gruden, too. Not just that he has been to a pair of Super Bowls and won a ring, but also because he has the type of high profile that will resonate with the Rams’ fan base. For financial reasons, that is expected to play a factor in the next head coaching hire.

While other names have been raised in the Rams’ search, sources have told Yahoo Sports there is a business component that will also factor – specifically, the plan of Rams owner Stan Kroenke to sell hundreds of millions of dollars in personal seat licenses for the new Inglewood stadium. The Rams are expected to begin that effort in force in early 2017 – not exactly an ideal launching point with the Los Angeles fan base already seeming to have grown frustrated with the team.

That pending PSL sale campaign is believed to have played at least some part in Jeff Fisher being fired during the season – allowing the franchise additional time to target coaches who will have the gravitas to once again energize the base. One source was adamant about the bottom line of Kroenke’s ledger, stating that the Rams owner is wary of running into some of the problems experienced by the San Francisco 49ers after their massive PSL sales for Levi’s Stadium. Since selling millions of dollars in PSL’s for Levi’s, the 49ers have faced an onslaught of anger from fans unhappy with the team’s plummet since the stadium opened in 2014.

Marketed as “stadium building licenses”, the 49ers essentially sold out the 68,500-seat stadium to the Bay Area fan base using pricey one-time seat premiums that ranged from $2,000 to $80,000 per seat. Fans and corporations effectively paid the one-time fee to have the option to then purchase their seats each season. The 49ers even marketed the fee as an investment opportunity, basically with a theory that the seats themselves were an investment capable of increasing in value and then being sold or transferred down the line at a profit.

At the time, the approach was seen as a smart, aggressive move to finance part of a stadium that spiraled in cost. And it worked so well that a sizable contingent of 49ers fans who couldn’t afford the entire fee were allowed to finance the purchase with the team over a period of as many as 10 years. In a way, it was something like a car loan but for NFL tickets.

Three seasons later, there have been growing complaints from those PSL purchasers who have seen the 49ers struggle significantly and the investment aspect of the seat purchases seem misguided. Worse yet for the team, there have been reports of fans defaulting on the financing for the tickets – something that was enough of a concern that members of the Santa Clara Stadium Authority have had a dialogue with the 49ers about the default rate. The 49ers have insisted the default rate on the financing has been low, but there is no way to know the exact figure without the team releasing closely guarded financial details.

All of this is food for thought for the Rams, who may be in a more significant bind than the 49ers. Not only does the Los Angeles franchise have to worry about selling the PSLs in the first place, it also has to worry about keeping fans who finance the deals from defaulting if the team isn’t competitive.

Make no mistake, all of this is in play right now. It’s not just a search for the best possible football coach for the Rams, it also appears to be the search for the most sellable coach, too. With a 4-10 team that is dealing with poor publicity and at least a partial retooling ahead, that is pointing the franchise into the direction of big names. And for now, focusing the gaze on Gruden, whose profile may be bigger now than ever before.

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