Grading the Jon Gruden hire
I love following the coaching carousel and making judgments about the good/bad hires that follow. In an exercise like that, you always want to wait until the main positions are filled (including offensive and defensive coordinators) because they’re also key to determining how well a whole staff may function together.
Fortunately for us, the Oakland Raiders jumped quickly to (reportedly) fill all three posts, which would allow us to make these grades and determinations. Here are mine, but feel free to add your own below.
Head Coach: Jon Gruden, ESPN/hooters personality
The official contract numbers have been speculated on but not announced yet; however, we have reason to believe that this contract may be for $10+ million a year, and maybe even a 10-year total.
Personally, I have no problem with the idea of paying a head coach $10 million in salary. If the Chicago Bears feel like Mike Glennon‘s services were worth $14 million to them this season, then obviously a great head coach deserves at least that much and more.
So then, the question becomes: is Jon Gruden a great head coach? Is he stilla great head coach? Was he ever? Let’s consider all those factors.
Back before he was a national name, Jon Gruden was the boy wonder of the NFL. He inherited an Oakland Raiders team that had been 4-12 in 1997, and immediately vaulted them up to 8-8. Two seasons later, they were 12-4 and in the thick of the AFC race. The system that he built helped carry the Raiders to the Super Bowl after he left (only to get thrashed by his new Bucs team in that game.)
Gruden got traded to Tampa Bay in one of the highest profile coaching moves in my lifetime. That gamble paid immediate dividends as the team won the Super Bowl in his first season. However, it’s hard to give Gruden the lion’s share of the credit for the Super Bowl win. The team had been led by a dominant defense, with several Pro Bowl caliber players across all three levels (Simeon Rice, Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, Ronde Barber, John Lynch). Their system was the work of Tony Dungy/Monte Kiffin, and had been in place before Gruden arrived.
In fact, Gruden’s days in Tampa yielded diminishing returns. The Bucs went 45-51 after that first season, leading to Gruden’s dismissal. He’s been in the ESPN broadcast booth ever since then (all the way back in 2008), which would represent one of the longest sabbaticals of all-time. Clearly, Mark Davis and company don’t expect him to miss a beat jumping back in.
Depending on how back you want to take it, Jon Gruden comes from that Bill Walsh / Mike Holmgren school of traditional West Coast offense that’s proven beneficial to his quarterbacks. Veteran Rich Gannon was not a MVP candidate by the time he landed in Oakland; he was a journeyman who had never thrown more than 13 touchdowns passes in any season in his career. Gruden’s system geared towards his strengths and made him an MVP candidate (and eventual winner.)
Gruden has also proven to have a good nose for assistants/staffers, which is an underappreciated part of the job. Among the coaches that got their feet wet on Gruden’s staff include his brother Jay, Mike Tomlin (primarily a Dungy disciple), John Morton (now a rising star as the Jets’ OC), both Jags’ coordinators Nathaniel Hackett and Todd Wash, and Rams’ stud o-line coach Aaron Kromer.
Even as a younger coach, Jon Gruden commanded respect and demonstrated leadership traits. Now that Jon Gruden is “Jon Gruden,” a bigger star than ever, he should have no trouble garnering the attention of that locker room. There’s going to be a honeymoon period in Oakland/Vegas; perhaps not 10 years (!) of honeymoon, but a honeymoon nonetheless.
As mentioned, Jon Gruden’s Tampa Bay teams slowly wilted and faded from relevance with him at the helm. There are a few reasons for this, and perhaps a few legitimate excuses that Gruden can cite. The fact that the team traded valuable picks for him ended up biting them in some ways, costing them potential future starters.
Among the factors that Gruden can claim more fault for was a seeming failure to develop a young franchise QB. His only success in the NFL came with veterans. When Rich Gannon was on Gruden’s Oakland team, he was 34-36 years old. When Brad Johnson won the Super Bowl for Gruden, he was 34. Gruden’s struggled to find and develop a new QB in his coaching career.
In his defense, Gruden’s only taken a few limited chances at that. The highest draft pick he ever spent on a QB was a 3rd rounder on Chris Simms, who ended up having an ugly spleen tear that limited his playing career. The other young signal callers that Gruden selected (Bruce Gradkowski, Josh Johnson) came with late 5th/6th round picks. It’s not a shock that they never developed into studs. In a way, you sort of appreciate that the mediocre QBs that Gruden put on his roster (Gradkowski, Josh Johnson, Luke McCown) are all pro’s pros who ended up lasting quite a while in the NFL. Gruden clearly has a “type” when it comes to QBs: he wants heady QBs with accuracy and some mobility; he’s never drafted a big raw ball of clay with a cannon arm. In Derek Carr, he may have the best of all worlds; a smart QB with the physical tools to match.
In my mind, the only true red flag for Jon Gruden’s return to coaching is the extended layoff. He hasn’t coached full time since 2008 — ages in professional circles. That amounts to a massive risk on the Raiders’ part, especially with the potential length of this contract.
Giving a massive contract to a coach who hasn’t been an actual coach in 10 years is undoubtedly a huge risk. It may not be worth that gamble (financially.) However, I still appreciate that gamble. Sitting back and staying content with Jack Del Rio (a good man, but mediocre coach) wasn’t going to take them to the next level, so they went out and took a huge swing instead. And in the process, they hauled in the big fish that many said may never be caught. grade: A –
Offensive Coordinator: Greg Olson, QB coach, L.A. Rams
When a head coach calls his own plays (as we expect for Jon Gruden) then there are a few routes he may go with his “offensive coordinator.” Jon Gruden had a lot of success in Oakland with Bill Callahan acting as a right-hand-man / run game specialist, so I thought that he may try the same approach here with the Raiders (with his old assistant Aaron Kromer, perhaps.)
Alternatively, he could have taken his brother Jay Gruden’s approach and hired a bright young apprentice (like Jay did with Sean McVay). Perhaps a respected big name like Gruden could have drawn in the top rising stars on the market like John Morton or John DeFilippo. Of course, there’s some danger there; if either Morton or DeFilippo landed on his staff, they’d almost certainly leave for a head coaching job if the team had any success.
Perhaps that concern is what led Gruden to his (reported) choice in Greg Olson, a coach who is not on anyone’s wish list for head coaches or hairstyles.
On the bright side, Olson has experience. Quite a bit of it. Primarily a QB coach, Olson has also served as an offensive coordinator before — FIVE times before. In a way, that’s a red flag to me. Olson has five OC stints — with the longest being a three year stretch in Tampa (that only overlapped with Gruden for one year in 2008). The other four times, he left after two years. That’s hardly a comforting resume.
Given Gruden’s offensive background, any choice in OC isn’t that concerning, but this pick isn’t all that exciting either. There were a few other names bandied about (like Morton) that would have felt like home runs. This feels like an attempt at a bunt single. It’s not especially inspired, but perhaps that’s Gruden’s intention. Perhaps he only wants a decent glorified QB coach who will stick around for awhile. grade: C+
Defensive Coordinator: Paul Guenther, DC, Cincinnati
While Greg Olson has been a coaching nomad, Paul Guenther arrives from a very steady home in Cincinnati where he’s been on the staff since 2005. (Sidenote after my research: I didn’t realize Guenther had previously been the head coach at Ursinus College before that. Side-sidenote: I didn’t realize there was a place called Ursinus College. Perhaps their Quidditch team is better than their football team.)
Guenther inherited his Bengals’ unit from Mike Zimmer and has largely kept the ship on track ever since. However, he’s not an especially inspiring choice to me either. His Bengals’ defenses have been “good” but not “great,” and perhaps more “average” than “good.” There’s nothing to suggest that he’s changing or even tweaked the scheme from Zimmer’s days; he’s simply holding down the fort.
And therein lies a concern for me. The Bengals’ defense is a 4-3 that relies quite a bit on size in the front seven. Their defensive ends are two of the biggest bookends in the league (Carlos Dunlap is 6’6″ 280 and Michael Johnson is 6’7″ 270). Their linebackers are on the bulkier side as well, with most of them tipping the scales at 240+ pounds. It’s not a particularly “modern” defense, and one that allows you to get exposed on mismatches in space over the middle. To illustrate, the Bengals’ defense this season allowed 840 receiving yards to opposing runners, the most in the NFL.
The Raiders may run a 4-3 right now, but there are reasons to believe they would have been better served converting to a 3-4 (a change that helped Denver take their D to the next level after Jack Del Rio left, incidentally.) In my mind, their signature star on defense — Khalil Mack — would be more dangerous roaming the field as an attacking edge linebacker rather than planting as a traditional DE: at 6’3″ 250, he may not have the size to hold up there. Given all that, a 3-4 coordinator (like Mike Pettine) would have been a more exciting hire to me.
That said, Guenther is a competent and experienced coordinator whom I can’t knock too much. In fact, Jon Gruden may know his reputation behind the scenes well after his brother Jay spent time in Cincinnati, which gives you some comfort. So overall, I’m giving this a grade: B although it’s totally possible/quite likely that he knows something that I don’t.
After all that, what would the combined grade be for this staff? I’m concerned about the length of the deal. I’m underwhelmed by the coordinators. (although special teams coach Rich Bisaccia is a fine hire that we didn’t have time to get to). That said, the head coach matters the most of all, so the excitement of Gruden’s return drags this grade up to a solid B+ overall.