FAB 3. What Needs To Happen With Gruden Version 2.0
If former Bucs head coach Jon Gruden is going to coach again in Tampa Bay – or anywhere – he’ll need to be a better version of himself to have success in his second go around in the NFL as a head coach. Despite winning a Super Bowl, three division titles in Tampa Bay and winning more games in Bucs history than anyone else, Gruden got fired after a seven-year stint with the organization.
I know the real reasons as to why Gruden got fired and how it all went down and will share that story at a later date. But one of several factors was that there were some Bucs players that had grown disenchanted with Gruden’s demanding ways.
“I think the biggest fault that Gruden had the first time was his ability to handle people – the people skills,” said former Bucs defensive tackle and current ESPN college football analyst Anthony “Booger” McFarland. “I think his people skills were very poor on his first run here in Tampa. As age has beset us, and we’ve gotten older and more mature – I know I have, and I’m pretty sure he has – I think he’s learned how to deal with people. If you look at some of the things he’s doing with Monday Night Football and the production meetings that he runs, he gets the crew fired up. I think his people skills have gotten better. I’ve been on record before saying that if he gets another job that he’ll do very well at it because his people skills have improved. Jon has always been able to coach football and he can X’s and O’s you to death. He’s one of the best I’ve ever seen. The only thing lacking in the first go-round after we won a championship was that his people skills never quite developed.”
Gruden had his favorites, such as defensive tackle Warren Sapp, cornerback Ronde Barber, linebacker Derrick Brooks, wide receiver Joe Jurevicius, safety John Lynch and running back Michael Pittman among others during his time in Tampa Bay. And there were some players that weren’t always in Gruden’s good graces for one reason or another, including fullback Mike Alstott, wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, offensive tackle Kenyatta Walker, quarterback Chris Simms and others.
But McFarland isn’t necessarily talking about Gruden having favorites or players in his doghouse.
“Every coach has that,” McFarland said. “What I’m talking about is his ability to convey the same message to everyone. Every coach has guys they’re fond of and guys they are not. It’s human nature. Jon is no different. When I say people skills it’s laying out expectations to individuals and realizing individuals are going to handle them differently because we’re all different people. Then deal with those individuals on a recurring basis. Just because you say something one time doesn’t mean you’re not going to have to be able to continue to cultivate his team. It’s the ability to relate to people every single day. I think those skills were a little poor. From what I’ve seen, he’s gotten worlds better at that, and I think he’ll be very successful the next time.”
On August 2 at his press conference, Gruden acknowledged that he didn’t do a great job of getting to know the players and expressed some remorse.
“I was never buddy-buddy with these guys and I regret that,” Gruden said. “I wish I was a little more player-friendly. I didn’t go golfing with them. I regret that in some ways. I hope they remember me as providing competition, playing the best players and doing what was right for the team at all times. I hope that’s what I’m remembered for the most.”
Former Bucs tight end and current ESPN college football analyst Anthony Becht isn’t sure if Gruden would necessarily find success the second time around.
“I don’t know,” Becht said. “There’s definitely some interesting buzz about him coming back. I don’t know if I’m jumping on it yet, but it’s out there for sure. I’ve definitely heard about it from your site for sure. I’ve spoken to Jon. He’s in the TV business, but he’s studying and staying in the game. As more years go by he’s not been around it as much. Part of the whole situation too is spanning the relationship with players and growing that part. I always thought that was hit or miss with him when he was a coach. Some guys embraced him, and some guys were disenchanted with him. This is now a younger league and being in tune with the style and everything that goes with the coaching world these days. Being that he’s been out so long and been in broadcasting, the coaching and the philosophy stuff will never change for him, but the engagement with the players will be important.
“It’s hard for me to speculate because it hasn’t actually happened yet. For me to say what it would be like? I don’t know. I don’t know how well it would work with Jon coming back. He’s a smart dude and he’s got a Super Bowl under his belt. But it’s a tough deal. It’s a different time. It’s interesting from a cache standpoint because he has a big name, but I don’t know if it’s something that immediately flies and automatically you’re a contender. It’s tough to win games in the league. He would have to make sure he has enough pieces in the pie. He doesn’t want to come back and lose. I know there are a lot of boxes that need to be checked just from talking with him in the past. There are some pieces in Tampa that are place. I don’t know if all of them are there, but it definitely is intriguing to think about.”
Brad Johnson, Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl-winning quarterback, thinks Gruden being out of the game for so long could help his people skills.
“I really don’t want to get into the Buccaneers thing with you, but I’ll get into the Jon thing,” Johnson said. “Jon loves football, and it’s obvious. His whole career and life and everything he’s been through. The last nine years has probably been good timing for him. Everyone has his own journey. He got to spend more time with his family and his kids. He got to coach some high school football. He got to go around the country and learn a lot of football. He learned high school football. He learned spread offense. He learned Wildcat offense. He talked to all these coaches, and he saw the media side of it. He’s had his own TV show and his own Monday night TV show. It’s pretty remarkable.
“It’s probably given him a different perspective on life and a different perspective about football. You know what? If he ever wants to come back … I remember when he did come to Tampa, the flags were flying, man. If he ever wants to come back to any team in the NFL more power to him. I don’t think he feels like it has to do it. I think it would be really something he would want to do. You never know with all of the rumors, though.”
Gruden admitted there would be some changes that he would have to adapt to since the last time he roamed the sidelines in 2008.
“You don’t have as much time with these guys in the offseason and the way training camps are run,” Gruden said. “During the season the practices are different, so you have to really install your offense differently. I think you’ve got to be smart about what you can do. There are a lot of new players on these teams. That’s the big change, and obviously the influx of up-tempo, no-huddle, college read-option offense is also the biggest change to me.”
Assembling the right staff could also prove to be difficult if Gruden comes back in 2018. A lot of his former assistants, such as offensive line coach and offensive coordinator Bill Callahan, defensive line coach Rod Marinelli and special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia and others are already employed elsewhere. Some like former offensive line coach and offensive coordinator Bill Muir and wide receivers coach Richard Mann are retired. Some of his younger offensive assistants like Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan and his brother, Jay, are now NFL head coaches.
“Not a lot of people realize how difficult that is,” Gruden said when talking about hiring his first staff in Tampa Bay after being acquired in a trade with Oakland. “All these coaches that get hired by the NFL, they think, people think, ‘Oh, this guy can bring his assistants.’ No. You can’t bring anybody. A lot of these guys are under contract. So you have to interview coaches – a lot of coaches. Sometimes you have to interview seven receivers coaches before you find the right one. Sometimes it might take a month to find the right offensive line coach.
“Fortunately we already had Bill Muir in place. I think Bill was here to work for another coach that didn’t want the job. When I came in I said, ‘Bill, do you know any offensive coordinators?’ He said no. I said, ‘Do you want to be the coordinator?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I’ll be the coordinator.’ It was tough. It was a challenge.”
Another challenge would be adapting to the on-field changes as they relate to schemes, personnel and plays. For a long time Gruden resisted using the shotgun and was the last head coach and play-caller to have a quarterback under center for every snap in a season back in 2002.
“The game has changed,” Johnson said. “Go back to the shotgun deal. You can’t find a quarterback that plays under center these days. Unless you go to a Wing T, you can’t find a quarterback – even in middle school – that plays under center. There are maybe only five college programs across the country that runs most of their plays under center. You want to talk about nickel, and there are some teams that maybe go four-wide on the first play of the game. They might be empty running no-huddle the first play of the game. It used to be as a quarterback that you would read only one side of the field. Now you’re reading the whole field. Then you started calling two plays in the huddle. Then you started doing audibles with the two plays in the huddle. Then you started doing dummy calls.
“Defenses have changed over the last 15 years, too. Defenses used to just line up. You can’t tell if it’s 11 guys or 15 guys over there with the way they move around. A lot of times you didn’t want to run three wide and four wide because of all the blitzes and your protection and you don’t want to deal with all of these exotic looks. Now you know how to deal with them. The game has changed a lot since he last coached.”
No matter the changes, Johnson said that Gruden has exhibited adaptability. His gig at ESPN has allowed him exposure to scores and scores of coaches and schemes and hundreds of new plays and formations.
“I was used to both the shotgun and taking snaps under center, but I had been predominantly under center my whole life,” Johnson said. “I went to Jon with a play called Trips Right 72 Trojan. I went to him and I had so much data on that play. It’s basically trips right with three guys running verticals, and it had an X drag and it had a back running a follow route behind the X drag. I fought him and I fought him hard on that. He ended up loving the play. It was unbelievable. It was one of our go-to plays as we went along. In my career I went 40-of-41 on this one particular play – Trips Right 72 Trojan. Somebody caught the ball every time. It was a simple play, but somebody always caught the ball.
“Lane Kiffin took that play to Southern Cal. Somebody took it to Ball State and this play went international. When I gave the play to Jon it was foreign to him at first. I wanted to go shotgun in two-minute drills, and I thought there were certain third down plays we could go shotgun in. Basically at that time he had never done it, and you get the reasons why. You’re scared of a bad snap, a snap that goes over the QB’s head. How can you put a run game involved with the passing game? It was something completely new to him and he wanted to match up his plays to a shotgun formation. Eventually he evolved to some shotgun after I left and he opened himself up like learning a new play like 72 Trojan. Now he’s had a chance to study shotgun and all sorts of new plays – the good and the bad. That’s what he’s done over the years, so if ever were to come back he’s going to be prepared.”