Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden struggles on return to the sideline

America at Large: TV broadcaster signed with former club for most lucrative contract ever but has lost eight of first nine football games


Moments after the Oakland Raiders conceded a touchdown to trail the San Francisco 49ers 31-3 last Thursday night, head coach Jon Gruden was caught on camera getting into it with his own defensive co-ordinator Paul Guenther. Not for the first time this campaign, a befuddled Gruden could be seen on the sidelines during yet another loss shouting, “What the f**k was that play?” Although he later dismissed the contretemps as merely two friends “jawing”, when you have eight defeats from nine games, and are in the first season of a ten-year $100m contract, every argument comes freighted with greater significance.

While Guenther is presiding over a defence that may yet go down in NFL history for most yards conceded per play (6.75 at last count), this may also have something to do with Gruden trading Khalil Mack, the Raiders’ best defender, before the opening game last September. Their shortcomings at the other end of the field can also be laid at the boss’s door following his subsequent decision to offload star wide receiver Amari Cooper. He may well claim to be clearing salary cap space and amassing future draft picks as part of his grand masterplan but right now, the coach formerly known as Chucky is not making this job look like child’s play.

It was his antic sideline demeanour, as much as his distinctive thatch of blonde hair, that earned Gruden that nickname during the era when the exuberant wunderkind became the then youngest coach ever to win a Super Bowl back in 2003. In the second act of his sporting life, he brought that same energy and excitability to television where an abiding passion for the game oozed through his pores every time he got in front of the cameras to analyse a play. His over-zealous schtick wasn’t to everybody’s liking but even his critics had to admit he brought encyclopedic knowledge of what teams were doing, affording him the ability to explain moves with bizarre names like “Spider 2 Y Banana”.

Last January, the Raiders finally persuaded him to put down the microphone and return to the club where he cut his teeth as a head coach, the size of the deal an indication of how far they had to go to get him to give up his plum gig on the telly. The gaudy numbers involved (only all-conquering Bill Belichick currently earns more per annum) also demonstrated the club’s desperation to be a serious competitive outfit ahead of a 2020 relocation to Las Vegas. A romantic and nostalgic appointment, it garnered huge headlines even as some naysayers questioned whether the Raiders might be over paying for the myth of Gruden rather than the reality.

In what other industry would a company go to those lengths to hire somebody a decade away from the coal face and nearly twice as long removed from his pomp? Notwithstanding how much the NFL evolves on an annual basis, Gruden walked away from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the end of the 2008 campaign, following six seasons in which they’d reached the playoffs just twice, and finished with an overall losing record. Sure, leading them to victory at Super Bowl XXXVII dwarfed all that, except many reckon that triumph was, ahem, rather fortuitous and kind of a devalued currency.

The Buccaneers trashed a Raiders’ team he’d just left, repeatedly sacking and intercepting Rich Gannon, a quarterback who he’d worked so intimately with that he knew his every tendency and inclination. Still, it was common enough for players and pundits in those days to describe Gruden as the best play-caller in the league and to laud his extraordinary work ethic. Part of his legend was that he awoke each day at 3.17am, sat down at his desk by 4 and never left the training ground before 7pm.

None of that stuff is providing much comfort to the long-suffering citizens of Raiders’ nation right now, one of the local newspapers describing his appointment the other day as “a catastrophic mistake”. Gruden came in promising to win a Super Bowl before the lucrative move to the Nevada desert. As ludicrous and far-fetched as that now sounds, and, even as he stubbornly insists to the media that players from other teams are constantly contacting him to express a desire to move to Oakland, there are more and more stories about him losing the locker room (you can count the number of Raiders not trying on certain plays) and the trust of his current squad.

If those are the kind of troubling yarns sure to make free agent stars think twice about signing up to be part of a reconstruction project that already looks doomed, Raiders’ owner Mark Davis is banking on Gruden working his magic in the annual draft of college talent. That confidence may also be misplaced because during his years on television, Gruden gained a reputation for consistently over-estimating the professional prospects of the brightest young players. Witness his emphatic prognostications that Johnny Manziel (now with the Montreal Alouettes), Christian Hackenberg (just released by his fifth team this year) and Tim Tebow (currently playing minor league baseball) were quarterbacks destined to become NFL stars.

“If I can’t get it done,” said Gruden, “I’m not going to take their money.”

A quote from last summer that explains why the clock is ticking on the most lucrative long-term coaching contract in NFL history.

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