Eagles Wake-Up Call: The Jon Gruden Argument

Jeffrey Lurie’s statement made it clear.

“There is no certain formula here,” he said, when asked if the Eagles were open to hiring a college coach. “Everything is on the table. There are some outstanding college coaches out there and some outstanding coordinators out there. There are outstanding coaches that used to coach in the National Football League out there. [We’ll leave] no stone unturned, and we’re open to it all.”

As of this morning, it’s been two weeks since the Eagles fired Andy Reid and Lurie made those comments. He has stayed true to his words (for the most part). He’s looked at college coaches (Chip Kelly, Bill O’Brien, Brian Kelly). He’s looked at coordinators (Gus Bradley, Mike McCoyJay Gruden). And he’s looked at previous head coaches (Brian Billick, Lovie Smith, Mike Nolan).

With every new day, it seems like a new name surfaces. But through it all, one has been missing: Jon Gruden.

This is not about finding someone fiery or appeasing the sports-talk calling masses. It’s about leaving no stone unturned, as Lurie put it. So let’s review the key points and questions on both sides of the Gruden argument, one-by-one:

Is Gruden’s resume really that impressive?

Everyone discusses the Tampa years, but Gruden’s first shot as a head coach came in Oakland. He inherited a team that had gone 11-21 the previous two seasons. Gruden had a pair of 8-8 years and then turned the Raiders into a playoff team. They went 12-4 and 10-6 in 2000 and 2001, making the playoffs both years. In the 11 seasons since Gruden left, the Raiders have had a winning record once. That was in 2002, the year after he departed.

And then there’s Tampa. An overall 57-55 record with the Bucs is not all that impressive. It’s true that Gruden inherited a team that had made the playoffs the previous three seasons. But Tampa had also experienced first-round exits in back-to-back years. In 2002, with Gruden, they won the Super Bowl. He had a lot of Tony Dungy’s players, but as this article explains, there were some changes made to the roster that year. Gruden’s Tampa teams finished with a winning record in four of seven seasons and made the postseason three times.

What went wrong during the end of his tenure there?

If I’m an owner, this is one of the first questions I pose to Gruden, and also one that I do a lot of my own homework on. After the Super Bowl season, Gruden’s teams missed out on the postseason in four of six years. During his final season in Tampa, the Bucs closed out the season on a four-game losing streak and finished 9-7 after starting out 9-3.

Things got ugly. Simeon Rice called Gruden a “scumbag.” Wide receiver Michael Clayton called him a turncoat. Assistant coaches had some not-so-nice things to say about Gruden and his ego. And so, he was shown the door.

Gruden never developed a young quarterback.

This is true to a point. Then again, unless I missed something, the guys he was working with didn’t exactly go on to bigger and better things – like Pro Bowls and Super Bowls – when Gruden was out of the picture. I mean, we’re talking about Brian Griese, Chris Simms and Bruce Gradkowski here.

On the other hand, Gruden helped Rich Gannon (95.5 QB rating in 2001 at the age of 36), Brad Johnson (22 TDs, 6 INTs at the age of 34 during the Super Bowl year) and Jeff Garcia (92.2 QB rating in 2007-2008 at the age of 37) to some very productive years.

What about his personnel decisions?

This is an important one. How much control are you willing to give Gruden, given his track record? How much say would he demand? Those are questions a team like the Eagles would have to ask itself. It’s true that Gruden wasn’t responsible for building Tampa’s Super Bowl team. But the Bucs had just one pick in the first two rounds in Gruden’s first two seasons there. In other words, building his own core for the long-term was challenging.

Does Gruden want to coach? Why aren’t the Eagles talking to him?

On the final day of the regular season, reports surfaced that Gruden and the Eagles could be a realistic match, but nothing ever materialized (publicly, anyway). Ron Jaworski, a friend of Gruden’s, indicated last week that Gruden could be interested in the Eagles, but the team hasn’t reached out to him. Mike Mayock and Dick Vermeil, two well-connected members of the NFL community, recently called for the Eagles to go after Gruden too.

No coach has ever won a Super Bowl with one team and gone on to hoist the Lombardi Trophy with a second team. But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Gruden’s only 49, and there’s at least a chance that he learned from his previous experiences and comes back improved. Ray Didinger explained this theory well on Daily News Live last week.

“He’s had the advantage of being out of it a little bit, but not too long,” Didinger said. “Four years is a good time to kind of catch your breath, re-charge, and when you’re around the game the way Jon’s around the game now as a broadcaster… he’s spent four years now traveling around the league, broadcasting games, spending time with every coaching staff, looking at tape, picking people’s brains. I’ve seen guys do this before. They get out of the game, are away from it a little bit, but continue to learn. And when they come back and get an opportunity to be a head coach again, they come back a better version of what they were. And I think Jon’s a smart enough guy that if he gets that opportunity, I think he’ll do that. …Whoever gets him next, I think, is going to get a very good coach.”

So, are the Eagles interested? There’s been little indication lately that they are. But remember, Lurie and company can be secretive when they choose to be. Admitting interest in Gruden and then hiring someone else would be a public-relations disaster. We didn’t find out about the O’Brien interview until after he already decided to stay at Penn State. We didn’t find out about Billick until several days after they met with him. And just recently, a report surfaced that they made a call or two about Bill Cowher.

If the Eagles looked into the Gruden possibility and decided against it, that’s OK. Maybe there are issues from when Gruden was the Eagles offensive coordinator back in the 90s. Maybe he’s making unreasonable contract demands. Maybe he wants full personnel control. Or maybe the story of how things fell apart in Tampa is even worse than we know. After all, it hasn’t been just the Eagles. No team has expressed interest publicly in Gruden this offseason. If Lurie and Howie Roseman did their homework and decided Gruden would be a bad fit, that’s fine.

But there’s always the possibility of another surprise candidate, especially if Lurie’s not smitten with any of his current remaining options.

Considering his comments at the beginning of the search and the nature of the process, Lurie would be making a mistake if he didn’t at least look into Gruden as an option somewhere along the line.

WHAT YOU MISSED

The Eagles have reportedly interviewed Billick. Tim’s got some details.

The Birds are in the mix for CFL and former USC defensive tackle Armon Armstead.

Now that Brian Kelly has decided to stay at Notre Dame, is the pressure on the Eagles?

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING

Brian Hamilton of the Chicago Tribune has some details on the Eagles’ pursuit of Brian Kelly:

In a phone conversation with the Tribune on Saturday, athletics director Jack Swarbrick laid out the timeline of the entire process: The Eagles first contacted Kelly, who had them contact Swarbrick, which they did the day after firing coach Andy Reid in late December.

Swarbrick asked that any conversations wait until after the BCS title game. Meanwhile, back in early December, Swarbrick had assured Kelly that a new deal was forthcoming.

… A league source said Kelly never received an offer from the Eagles. Which is logical, because the franchise had asked for a second meeting with Kelly to take place next week, if he desired it. No offer would have arrived before then.

It’s not directly Eagles-related, but Dan Le Batard has a must-read piece on Jason Taylor and the pain of playing in the NFL in The Miami Herald:

Dolphins legend Jason Taylor, for example, grew up right before our eyes, from a skinny Akron kid to a future Hall of Famer, his very public path out in front of those lights for 15 years. But take a look at what was happening in the dark. He was just a few blessed hours from having his leg amputated. He played games, plural, with a hidden and taped catheter running from his armpit to his heart. His calf was oozing blood for so many months, from September of one year to February of another, that he had to have the equivalent of a drain installed. This is a story of the private pain endured in pursuit of public glory, just one man’s broken body on a battlefield littered with thousands of them.

COMING UP

Jay Gruden is expected to interview with the Eagles today. We also have our last Birds 24/7 show on 97.5 The Fanatic from 6 to 7. Stop by Smith’s at 19th and Chestnut if you’re in the area.

Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at skapadia@phillymag.com.
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