Sixteen years ago, before they hired Jon Gruden, the Oakland Raiders got a frigid dose of reality from the agent of the little-known, teenage-looking coach.
“Nobody’s lining up for this job,” said agent Bob LaMonte, essentially delivering an ice-bucket challenge over the head of legendary Raiders owner Al Davis.
While others tiptoed, LaMonte stomped through the smoldering rubble of Joe Bugel’s 4-12 season and said: “The Raiders aren’t one year away from the Super Bowl, they’re four games away from zero wins.”
We all know the story from there. Gruden got the job, brought the Raiders to the brink of an AFC title, got traded to Tampa Bay, and, in a made-for-Hollywood twist, led the Buccaneers to a Super Bowl victory over his old team.
Is it any wonder that Mark Davis, who took over after his father’s death in 2011, wants Gruden back? That’s the buzz in NFL circles, that Gruden is Davis’ white-whale obsession.
On Tuesday, after the Raiders named Tony Sparano interim coach in place of the just-fired Dennis Allen, Davis was asked about Gruden.
"He may reach out to me, I may reach out to him -- I may reach out to anybody,” Davis said. “I’m not going to talk about future coaches.”
The notion of Gruden returning to coaching is a little like speculation about [insert disgruntled team here] relocating to Los Angeles, in that they both come up every year, usually as part of some convoluted scenario, and so far have amounted to nothing.
Back in 2001, John Madden, the most revered coach in Raiders history, explained to me what attracted Al Davis to Gruden in the first place.
“I think Al and Jon were the same guy,” Madden said. “Al Davis was a young guy that always had ideas, worked long hours. He was always thinking football; that was all he had in his life. He was a coach at a young age and an offensive guy. What Al Davis was in ’63 is what Jon Gruden was in ’95.”
Do these winless Raiders have any chance of luring the Gruden of 2014 back into the game?
It’s possible, but it’s a longshot.
First of all, they’d have to roll up the Brinks truck. People close to Gruden say he’s been approached by as many as two dozen teams, both college and pro, since joining ESPN five years ago. He’s been enormously successful as a broadcaster and commercial pitchman, reaping millions of dollars per year, and even has a football game under development for a smartphone.
In that sense, he’s Madden 2.0, more a corporation than a cottage industry. And he’s a football freak. He sits in his Tampa office, ensconced in wall-to-wall video, and studies blitzes, red-zone cut-ups and the latest and greatest college schemes. He knows prospects as well or better than any draft guru out there, and his “Gruden’s QB Camp” show has given him special insight on the top quarterbacks in the game.
What’s more, his Monday job has gotten him in the door of every NFL franchise, and in many ways he’s auditioning before two NFL team owners each week. No resume required.
Here’s betting the Raiders would need to cough up at least $8 million-$10 million per year to get a sniff from Gruden, the next step up from current bank-breaking coaches such as Pete Carroll, Andy Reid and Sean Payton, believed to be in the $7 million-$8 million range.
Naturally, Gruden couldn’t have a meddlesome owner. Mark Davis doesn’t tinker the way his dad did, but Gruden almost certainly would demand full control.
There’s a good chance General Manager Reggie McKenzie will go the way of Allen, anyway, but Davis would certainly clear the deck for Gruden. (If Gruden were to come back – and that’s a huge “if” – he could bring back Rich Gannon to be his personnel guy. Gannon, a former NFL most-valuable-player quarterback, has impeccable credentials with Raiders Nation.)
Then, there’s something the Raiders can’t guarantee at this point: franchise stability.
Are they staying in Oakland? Are they trying to move to L.A.? Do they have the juice to get a stadium built anywhere?
The Raiders might be in worse shape revenue-wise than they’ve been on the field. They need someone to rescue the brand and right the ship. That someone could be Gruden, who would instantly invigorate the fan base and re-spark interest in sponsors. But Gruden isn’t going to take a job and move his wife across the country if he doesn’t know where the team’s going to be playing in a couple years. So Gruden can fix it, yet he probably wouldn’t come unless it’s fixed. That’s a catch-22 that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet.
All that said, there’s part of this Raiders job that’s more appealing than the one Gruden landed in 1998. First, the team has a young quarterback in rookie Derek Carr who could be legit. It’s going to get a high draft pick again. It has room to maneuver under the salary cap. The AFC West is tough, but Denver and San Diego both have quarterbacks in the twilight of their careers (the Broncos’ Peyton Manning more so than the Chargers’ Philip Rivers).
Also, there is a possibility the Raiders could wind up back in the nation’s No. 2 market.
Then again, that NFL-to-L.A. talk is like the Gruden-to-the-NFL stuff.
And everybody knows how that ends.