Sorry Jack, Chucky’s back.
Back in 1998, then Raiders renegade owner, the late Al Davis, made a bold head coaching move. He fired coach Joe Bugel after a terrible 4-12 season, the Raiders worst season since 1987, in favor of a young, fiery, unknown commodity by the name of Jon Gruden. Gruden was a hit with the Raider Nation, embodying the eccentric fan base to a T. The fans showed their adoration for the coach by bestowing him the nickname of “Chucky”, the killer doll and horror icon from the Child’s Play franchise.
Gruden’s tenure with the Raiders was immensely successful, posting a 38-26 record in 4 seasons as the Raiders head coach, and guiding them to the AFC Championship game in 2000. His stint with the Raiders came to an abrupt end, however, when Raiders lost in controversial fashion in what is now known as “The Tuck Rule Game” against the New England Patriots. Gruden lost a power struggle with owner Al Davis, the same man who had hired him to lead the Raiders to the promised land. He was traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a king’s ransom, including Tampa Bay’s 2002 and 2003 first round draft picks, their 2002 and 2004 second round draft picks, and $8 million in cash.
Gruden made Davis pay for his move, as the Buccaneers blew out the Raiders the next season in Super Bowl XXXVII 48-21. Gruden’s next six seasons as head coach of the Bucs weren’t nearly as successful, posting a 45-51 record, appearing in the playoffs twice, and no playoff victories. He was fired at the end of the 2008 season after a season ending loss, which knocked Tampa out of the playoffs, to the same Raiders that had traded him away six years earlier. Ironic.
It didn’t take long for Gruden to land on his feet, as he was soon announced as the color commentator for ESPN’s flagship sporting event, Monday Night Football, and remained in that role for nine years. Gruden’s star power emerged even more during this time, as he was not only praised for his commentary inside the booth, but began hosting rookie QBs ahead of the NFL Draft in “Gruden’s QB Camp.” He starred in commercials for Corona and Hooters as well, and seemed like a man who was comfortable living his life without the stresses and pressures of coaching in the NFL. But the 3:17 a.m. wake-up calls and itch to coach again never left Chucky, and teams, both in the NFL and the NCAA, seemingly pursued him every offseason. But Jon didn’t feel the time was right to return. Until now.
Following a colossally disappointing 6-10 season for the Raiders, a season in which before it began many believed Oakland would appear in the Super Bowl, head coach Jack Del Rio was fired. The team’s star QB, Derek Carr, lost confidence. The offense under the guidance of first year offensive coordinator Todd Downing looked broken. The Raiders had massively underachieved. Before Del Rio could even announce he was fired, ESPN’s Adam Schefter and Chris Mortenson reported Jon Gruden was set to return to the Black Hole, where his head coaching career began. Nearly 10 days later, Jon Gruden was introduced as the new head coach of the Oakland Raiders.
“This is a big effing deal,” proclaimed Raiders owner Mark Davis at the introductory press conference. It absolutely is. Gruden’s contract is reportedly for 10 years and $100 million dollars. Mark Davis knew he had to make a splash and keep scorned Oakland Raider fans invested in the lame duck franchise for the next two years while they remained in Oakland before bolting to Las Vegas. The fate of the franchise depended on it.
It helps, however, Jon Gruden believes he has unfinished business with the Raiders, as he invoked horrific memories of his final game as a Raider, “The Tuck Rule” game. “(Tom) Brady fumbled that ball,” Gruden stated. He went on to say, “Yeah, there is unfinished business as a coach. I was traded, I was fired. I’ve missed the game terribly. But I’ve really missed the Raiders. And for my career to end on that night in New England? It still ticks me off. I’m just so thrilled to be back here.”
Jon’s love for the fanbase and the city of Oakland was also prevalent throughout the press conference. “A big reason why I’m here is my passion for the city of Oakland and this franchise. And the people in the Black Hole, if you’re out there listening. I can’t wait to see you guys, man. I really can’t.”, Gruden stated. While Gruden may have 100 million little reason as to why he’s back, it’s clear he wants to be a Raider again, and wants to deliver a winning football team to the city of Oakland before loading the moving trucks. So much of the love letter to Oakland in the wake of the Raiders’ move to Las Vegas has seemed like a PR strategy, as evidenced by the acquisition of retired RB Marshawn Lynch, a native of Oakland, last offseason. But Jon Gruden epitomizes the Raiders and the East Bay’s attitude, so his adoration for the city and the franchise seems genuine.
Gruden didn’t make any promises in regards to producing a winner on the field, however, stating “I’m gonna do everything I can, no guarantees, no promises, but I want to win.” The Raiders will have to find a way to repair their offense, and must greatly improve their defense as well. Gruden seems to have taken steps in those directions already, as he announced Rams QB coach Greg Olson and Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther will be the offensive and defensive coordinators respectively.
It’s not often former head coaches come back to the NFL and succeed, only Dick Vermeil won a Super Bowl with the then St. Louis Rams in 1999 after taking a hiatus from coaching. It’s not like the Raiders have had much success at bringing back old coaches either, as evidenced by Art Shell. After coaching the team from 1989 through 1994 during their Los Angeles days, Shell was re-hired to coach the team in 2006, yielding a disastrous 2-14 campaign, their worst in franchise history. History may not be on Gruden’s side, but the time was right to come back. “I just, in my heart feel this is the thing to do. This is what I want to do. This is the organization that I want to be a part of, and I’m all in.”, Gruden said.
Jon Gruden and the Raiders won the press conference. They’ve riled-up the Raider Nation and have them believing 2018 will be their year. They have reason to believe Gruden can guide the team back to championship contention despite his near decade-long absence from coaching. Win, lose, or tie, Jon Gruden will be a member of the Raider Nation forever, but only time will tell if Mark Davis’ desperate hire will pay dividends within the next 10 years. Much like at a high stakes poker table in a Las Vegas casino, Mark Davis is all-in on Jon Gruden.