Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Defending Jon Gruden And His Monster Deal

“Is he worth it?” That’s the question that’s been asked countless times on talk radio, the blogosphere and in articles just like this one since it became clear that Jon Gruden would be named the next Oakland Raiders head coach and details of his 10-year, $100 million contract were released.

Let me answer that for you right now; yes, he is worth it.

Gruden, in his 11-year career as a head coach, compiled a 100-85 overall record, a 5-4 playoff mark and won a Super Bowl title in the 2002-03 season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In those 11 years, Gruden’s team posted losing seasons three times and two of them were in back-to-back years. His final two years in Tampa Bay were winning years, both 9-7 finishes. The Bucs made the playoffs in 2007 but missed them in 2008. Tampa Bay decided to make a change and hasn’t had a winning season or playoff appearance since.

The criticism of Gruden is that he “won the Super Bowl with Tony Dungy’s team.” You could argue that, but it’s no secret that the team Gruden beat in the Super Bowl was his old team, one he built into an AFC Champion. The truth is, if the “Tuck Rule” had been ruled a fumble in the 2001-02 playoffs, which it obviously was, then the Raiders would have likely been playing in their second Super Bowl in a decade and Gruden would have never been traded away for a big bag of cash and slew of draft picks.

Here’s where I handwave that all away. Gruden inherited a near talentless Raiders squad from fired head coach Joe Bugel in 1998. They’d gone 4-12. Gruden’s first season, with most of that same roster, was 8-8. Chucky was able to bring in a newer set of folks in his second year, still finishing 8-8, but with Rich Gannon at quarterback replacing Jeff George (that’s right, Jeff George), the team was obviously on the upswing.

The dam broke in 2000 when Gruden’s Raiders got to the NFC Championship game, only to lose to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens. The “Tuck Rule” game against the New England Patriots happened the very next season and Gruden was shipped to Florida.

The Bucs that Gruden inherited from Dungy were coming off a 9-7 season and a loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Wild Card game. In fact, the Buccanners had made it to the playoffs four of the previous five years and twice had been one-and-done. It was a team on the decline and Dungy was seen as a guy who couldn’t get them over the hump. It’s odd now, considering how lionized Dungy is, that he had that reputation, but it’s one he never got rid of until his Indianapolis Colts team led by Peyton Manning defeated the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI five years later.

Gruden took that Tampa team on the downswing and got it a title. The wheels that were already falling off when he arrived finally rattled away from the axle and into the ditch. Gruden was forced to rebuild the team on the fly, with ownership and a fanbase that had no patience for it. He had the Buccaneers back in the playoffs with as 10-6 record with Brian Griese, Luke McCown and Chris Simms as his quarterbacks.

With that group of scrubs, it wasn’t sustainable and Gruden experienced his third and final losing season in 2006. It was back to the playoffs in 2007 with Jeff Garcia at quarterback as the team won the NFC South and hosted a playoff game.

In 2008, Gruden brought in the trifecta at QB to, again, try to get the team to the promised land; Garcia, Griese and McCown. They ended with a 9-7 record, but owner Malcolm Glazer decided a change was in order.

Tampa Bay has two winning seasons since with no playoff appearances. So it obviously worked out.

Everything Gruden accomplished in Tampa Bay and Oakland, he did with sub par quarterbacks. Let’s just rehash the list of starters he had to deal with in his 11 years.

Jeff George

Rich Gannon

Brad Johnson

Brian Griese

Chris Simms

Luke McCown

Jeff Garcia

Bruce Gradkowski

Tim Rattay

Rob Johnson

Shaun King

Donald Hollas

Wade Wilson

It’s important to note that Wade Wilson, when he started three games for Gruden in 1998, was 39 years old. Don’t let your old Tecmo Bowl memories fool you. This is a list of garbage quarterbacks with a couple of decent, high-end back ups like Johnson and Gannon mixed in. Gruden never, as a head coach, boasted a franchise quarterback.

At the same time, his teams were always too good to draft one high. Tampa Bay did whiff on not picking Aaron Rodgers in 2005, but plenty of teams can claim that albatross.

There’s no question that this current Raiders roster will be the best Gruden has ever taken onto the field. Derek Carr will be the first, true franchise quarterback Gruden will get to coach since he was an assistant with the Green Bay Packers in the Brett Favre years.

If you’re a Raiders fan, how excited should you be? Well, I would say very excited. The AFC West in 2018 is Oakland’s for the taking. With the Kansas City Chiefs waffling on keeping Alex Smith, Vance Joseph and his cavelcade of shitty quarterbacks still with the Denver Broncos and Anthony Lynn hogtying Philip Rivers and the Los Angeles Chargers, I see a 12-win season, easy.

Once you get in the playoffs, it’s all about if you can beat the Pittsburgh Steelers and/or the New England Patriots, but that’s going to be true no matter who coaches the team. Oakland (and, you know, eventually Las Vegas) has a much better chance to get to the big dance with Gruden at the helm.

What about his contract? Should you worry? If he wins, no. There’s no coaching salary cap so teams can pay guys whatever they want. Where fans should be concerned is in the case of a firing and buyout. Gruden’s payoff would be monstrous. A team like the Tennessee Titans might use that buyout price tag as an excuse to hire a mediocre to bad head coach to follow in his footsteps just to save some money. They might, for instance, look at the money they still owed Ken Whisenhunt and decide to keep Mike Mularkey as their full time (and inexpensive) head coach and waste two years of their franchise’s precious talent. Yeah, that would be a nightmare.

So, yeah, worry about that. But only a little. Gruden is going to kill it. You’ll see.

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About Adam Greene

Adam Greene is a writer and photographer based out of East Tennessee. His work has appeared in USA Today, the Associated Press, the Chicago Cubs Vineline Magazine, and many other publications.

About Adam Greene

Adam Greene is a writer and photographer based out of East Tennessee. His work has appeared in USA Today, the Associated Press, the Chicago Cubs Vineline Magazine, and many other publications.

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