It was close to midnight on April 26, 2003 when Tampa Bay General Manager Rich McKay and top personnel man Tim Ruskell took a deep breath from what they felt was a successful first day of the NFL Draft.
The Buccaneers didn’t have a first-round pick. That had been traded more than a year before in the deal to get coach Jon Gruden, who proceeded to lead Tampa Bay to the Super Bowl title exactly three months prior to draft day. All in all, it was a great trade.
But McKay and Ruskell felt some sense of accomplishment when they managed to nab Texas quarterback Chris Simms with the final pick of the third round. It was the last pick of the draft’s opening day. Simms was considered an excellent talent who some people thought could have gone as high as the first round.
The Bucs had just won the title with 34-year-old journeyman Brad Johnson, so getting Simms seemed like a coup. Simms could spend a year or two learning under Johnson and Gruden and then take over as the starter.
The combined vision of McKay and Ruskell then came to loud stop as Gruden charged into McKay’s office, shouting his displeasure over the pick. “Don’t you ever take a quarterback without asking me first,” Gruden screamed at McKay and Ruskell. Not surprisingly, the two men left the organization by the end of the 2003 season and Simms never developed into the player expected.
All of that is worth keeping in mind as Oakland/Las Vegas Raider fans consider what they have just gotten with the return of Gruden to the silver-and-black. Armed with a 10-year, $100 million contract, is Gruden the same driven man who took the Raiders so close to a title in 2000 and 2001 and then took Tampa Bay over the top in 2002?
Or is he an overbearing caricature of himself who couldn’t find a way to rebuild the Buccaneers after their one title? In six years after that magical season, the Bucs were 45-51 under Gruden, made the playoffs twice and lost each time in their first playoff game.
Likewise, despite a reputation developed from his years of interviewing young quarterbacks in advance of the draft, Gruden has never developed a young quarterback. In fact, those who know him well wonder whether he’s allergic to any quarterback under age 30.
For now, Gruden has Raiders fans excited, which is exactly what the organization desperately needs as it prepares to sell high-end tickets for the new stadium in Las Vegas, where the team is scheduled to be playing in 2020. Gruden may be the biggest thing to hit the strip since Sinatra and his buddies in the Rat Pack made the town cool in the 1960s.
The problem is that Gruden hasn’t coached in nine years. The question is not whether he has forgotten anything about the game. The question is about whether he has the edge it takes to be great and, more importantly, the self-control to keep the team from being splintered?
“Jon hasn’t had to work 80 hours a week for an entire season for a long time,” said an NFL source who knows Gruden well. “That TV life is nice. You get paid millions to talk about a game and sleep in your own bed most nights. That’s a good gig.”
As that source pointed out, the TV life has melted the desire of others, such as former Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher, who now talks about how nice his life has become. Jimmy Johnson tried to return from the studio to the sideline and burned out in less than four years with Miami.
Another NFL source made a bigger point about Gruden and his supposed “itch” to return to the sideline.”
“If he was itching that badly, why didn’t he scratch it before?” the source said, rhetorically. “Either you want to compete or you don’t. Just because you get paid $10 million a year doesn’t flip that switch. To me, he liked his life a lot. Who wouldn’t? You get paid to do ads for beer and chicken wings, it’s a pretty good life.”
Presumably, Gruden won’t have time to be a pitchman for Corona or Hooter’s anymore. He’ll be hitting the turf too much with the Raiders. That said, beer and wings are a lot easier to sell than winning games in the NFL.