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How will returned Raiders coach Jon Gruden fare in the modern NFL?

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Gruden returns to the Raiders’ sideline for the first time since 2001.
Illustration: Photo by: Eric Risberg / AP

In NFL lore, dominating the offseason conversation is typically seen as a precursor to underwhelming in the regular season. The Raiders don’t mind; they welcome the challenge. For the first time in more than a decade, the Raiders have spent the eight months since the 2017 season as a focal point in football circles. Like past offseason buzz teams, they signed a slew of big-named veteran free agents, including receiver Jordy Nelson, running back Doug Martin, linebacker Derrick Johnson and cornerback Leon Hall. They also traded away top defensive player Khalil Mack. But that’s not what’s kept them at the center of conversation all summer.

It’s all Jon Gruden. The Raiders achieved what countless other franchises failed to do over the past several years in luring the former Super Bowl-winning coach out of the Monday Night Football broadcast booth and back onto the sidelines. It only took $100 million over 10 years—the richest coaching contract in NFL history. Bringing back Gruden, who was instrumental in the Raiders’ last run of sustained success in the early 2000s, gives the franchise the type of splash it craves while preparing for a 2020 relocation to Las Vegas. But it also causes a ripple effect, increasing expectations to a level the franchise has rarely reached with only one winning season in the past 15 years—a level skeptics assert the 55-year-old Gruden is ill-fitted to realize.

Justifiably or not, 10 years away from coaching appears to have raised Gruden’s profile. It’s rarely remembered, or at least mentioned, that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers fired him in January, 2009 after he failed to win a playoff game for six-straight seasons following the 2002 Super Bowl victory. Gruden comes into the 2018 season with an overall NFL coaching record of 100-85, more than respectable but far from historically dominant. He also fostered all those wins in a different era.

Reinvention moves quickly in the NFL, and Gruden was at the forefront of offensive strategy when the late Al Davis handpicked him to coach the Raiders in 1998. He ran a modified version of the West Coast offense that was an enigma to the rest of the league. It’s not anymore. More efficient offensive approaches, including the spread and the read option, have cropped up in recent years, but Gruden hasn’t embraced them since rejoining the Raiders.

He set off alarm bells in February when he declared he wanted to “throw the game back to 1998,” and didn’t want to rely on “all the modern technology.” Gruden, who has a reputation as a fiery jokester, later downplayed some of those comments, but there appears to have been some truth to his message. The Raiders’ offense has looked somewhat primitive in the preseason, though it has performed well, and tight end Jared Cook has said Gruden has shown game film from, “like, 1976.” Gruden later said he has actually shared plays from as far back as 1964 to get certain messages across to his team.

None of this is necessarily problematic; it just goes to show that Gruden is going in a different direction than he did during his first stint. He’s no longer looking like an innovator—unless trading away a team’s best player is considered innovation. The Raiders’ move to unload Mack, the 2016 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, shortly before the regular season is certainly unusual. Gruden, and not general manager Reggie McKenzie, is heavily rumored to be the driving force behind Mack’s trade to the Chicago Bears. It would fit with his past modus operandi. Jeff Garcia, who played quarterback with the Buccaneers under Gruden, famously noted that the coach, “likes to date players, not marry them.” Trading Mack has subjected Gruden to perhaps the harshest criticism of his career.

Still, it’s hardly unprecedented for coaches to return to glory after prolonged absences from the NFL. Several have succeeded in a similar position, including two—current Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and former Rams coach Dick Vermeil—who each won a Super Bowl after more than a decade away. Gruden might need to join that group or at least come close for his second run with the Raiders to be considered a success. Every coach talks about winning a Super Bowl when taking a new job, but few are truly in a championship-or-bust proposition from the onset.

Gruden is different, and not just because of his massive contract. Few coaches in the modern NFL transcend their superstar players as the face of a franchise. That’s what Gruden is for the Raiders, and barring something wildly unforeseen, it’s a role he’ll maintain as the team transitions to Las Vegas.

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