So now we know what it costs to reconnect with the elusive one who got away: $100 million. That is the reported value of Jon Gruden’s 10-year contract to return to coaching and to the Oakland (for now) Raiders, the team that traded him 16 years ago on an Al Davis whim. In this case, absence makes the wallet grow fatter.
It should be noted that Gruden didn’t just sign the most lucrative coaching deal in American professional sports history. He also became the nation’s newest indispensable coach, a most rare achievement. Whenever a sports figure changes the financial game with a record contract, our instinct is to debate worth, and our slack-jawed conclusion tends to be, “Ain’t nobody worth that!” But there’s no question that, for the volatile profession of pro and major-college coaching, the Raiders’ monster commitment to Gruden is a significant — perhaps even seminal — moment.
Is Gruden, who hasn’t coached a game in nine years, worth the money? It’s a question better asked to Raiders owner Mark Davis, who was intent on atoning for his late father’s impulsive decision to trade Gruden to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2002. A year later, Gruden led the Bucs to a 48-21 Super Bowl victory over the Raiders. The revisionist thought is that Gruden, who posted a 38-26 record and won two playoff games in Oakland from 1998 to 2001, could have achieved sustained success if he had stayed with the Raiders.
“Raider Nation, this is a big effin’ deal,” Davis said as he introduced Gruden on Tuesday.
How much was it worth to Davis just to invite a bunch of people to a news conference and say those words? $10 million? $25 million?
Whatever the amount, it’s worth more to Gruden’s disposable profession. This January, six NFL jobs came open. Five of those coaches were fired; Bruce Arians retired in Arizona. One of the fired coaches, Jim Caldwell, had a 36-28 record with the Detroit Lions that is quite close to the mark of Gruden glory that made Davis so nostalgic. Do you know what three winning seasons and two postseason appearances in four years should make you in Detroit? A legend. But the Lions want someone new, and because they’re the Lions, new is almost certain to perform way worse than Caldwell.
These days, when you see six coaching openings in the NFL, you think, “That’s it?” There were a half-dozen other coaches on the hot seat. When no NBA coaches were fired at the end of last season, it felt odd (but in a joyful way, I’m sure). Then the 2017-18 season began, and two coaches were canned before December. Sadly, it felt normal.
Job performance doesn’t even factor into some coaching firings now. It has become acceptable simply to explain, “We need a new voice.” It really means, “We need a new gimmick to inspire hope.” It has become understood that good coaches — not just the bad ones — have short expiration dates.
Now Gruden returns to this toxic atmosphere for the first time since the Bucs fired him. But this time, Gruden has an owner who celebrates nabbing him after “six years of chasing.”
“My biggest dream come true,” Davis said.
Davis might not be the most ambitious dreamer.
But that’s a wonderful thing for Gruden. And if he succeeds, it will be wonderful for most all coaches. Yes, Gruden needs to prove that he still has it. But he’s just 54 years old, and the game hasn’t changed too much. As a television personality, he has tracked football’s evolution, and he should have a plan for adjusting to rule changes and maximizing the limited time he will have with players now.
If Gruden learned from his failures at the end of his tenure in Tampa, he will be fine. His coaching wasn’t the problem. The biggest factor was that he didn’t work with Rich McKay, and after McKay left the organization, Gruden lobbied for Bruce Allen. The combination of Allen and Gruden on personnel decisions was a disaster. This time, Gruden will be working with Raiders General Manager Reggie McKenzie, who is a much more accomplished talent evaluator. If they can work together, the Raiders will thrive.
“How long I stay here will be determined by how well we play,” Gruden said Tuesday.
Well, yes and no. It’s more accurate to say that a long Gruden stay has been predetermined by how well he is paid. Davis won’t be firing Gruden anytime soon, not with all the money he now owes him. The coach has a runway. He can finish building the Raiders, who already have a decent roster with some nice top-end talent, without panicking. He is now on an exclusive list of coaches impervious to premature judgment, right alongside championship-collecting gems such as Nick Saban, Gregg Popovich and Mike Krzyzewski.
That trio has combined for 16 championships. Gruden is a proven winner, but he’s different because he capitalized on being perceived as unattainable. Nine years ago, he was a well-regarded coach. Since then, he has acquired a mythical level of greatness. He turned into the impossible date, and his reported $6.5 million ESPN salary made it only easier for him to reject suitors.
But this is a job that he had to take. Why? Because this was a job that was taken from him 16 years ago. For coaches, it always comes back to security. Gruden wanted to remain the Raiders coach when he was traded, but Al Davis wasn’t sure about signing him long term. Then Tampa Bay agreed to trade two first-round picks, two second-rounders and $8 million to get Gruden.
After that ridiculous deal, Gruden finished Tony Dungy’s work and won a Super Bowl in his first season with the Bucs. What will he do now that a team has committed $100 million to him?
Maybe it won’t be as dramatic this time. Maybe Gruden will do a good, strategic job and build a Raiders team that can win for a long time and have multiple legitimate chances at a championship.
Gruden will receive the patience to do it right. His contract demands it. He just doesn’t have to live up to being Mark Davis’s dream hire. He has to do his part to make it reasonable for coaches to have their biggest dream come true: job security.
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