NAPA, Calif. – As Jon Gruden exited the Oakland Raiders’ practice field Thursday, he did it beaming. He’d spent the morning coaching his team alongside two presumptive first-ballot Hall of Fame visitors – quarterback Peyton Manning and cornerback Charles Woodson – and then headed to meetings with a stash of gold under his left arm.
“Two of Bill Walsh’s playbooks from 1985,” Gruden said to a visitor Thursday, nodding to his precious cargo. “How about that?”
As snapshots go, it was a fairly accurate depiction of Gruden’s no-apologies return to the NFL, a second act that has drawn some criticisms over his embrace of a seemingly bygone era of football. Whether it’s his love of fullbacks, his veteran-laden roster, or his general lack of enthusiasm toward analytics-driven decisions, Gruden has gotten no shortage of finger-wagging disdain from doubters. And even Thursday might have drawn some tongue-clucking as well, whether it was from Gruden hosting Manning and Woodson or simply delighting in the pair of 33-year-old playbooks delivered to him by Walsh’s family.
“I’ve been accused of liking veteran players and I could give a rat’s ass,” Gruden said of his critics. “These guys have so much [knowledge]. We were with Peyton an hour or so this morning already. Seven o’clock he walks in. He just has so much relative feedback and so much clout and so much meaning when he talks. I want these guys around here.”
Gruden paused for a microsecond, seemingly to emphasize a subtle sneer.
“And we’ve got more coming, too.”
Gruden’s defense: ‘What the hell were we supposed to do?’
It was hard to find fault in a visit from Manning or Woodson. Not with the gravitas, respect and elite pedigree both bring to the table. But the Walsh playbooks from 1985? If it’s anything like the smattering of media skewering that took place after Gruden was showing decades-old highlights to his players, someone will see it as a sign of antiquated pursuits.
If nothing else, Gruden’s return to the NFL has been a cocktail of debate about whether he can rise again in this era of football. Is he the Gruden who took over a sagging franchise in 1998 and revitalized it? Is he the Gruden who pushed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers over the championship hump? Or is he the coach who struggled to develop a quarterback in the wake of a 2003 Super Bowl, then gradually got erased from “genius” conversation. Is he Dick Vermeil, poised to recapture championship greatness after a long and distinguished broadcasting career? Or will his second act be a pale comparison to his first – a la Joe Gibbs, who led the Washington Redskins to three Super Bowls and then came back to NFL coaching after an 11-year break, only to find that the game had largely moved beyond him.
These are the pressing questions that have continued to wash over Gruden inside a never-ending media spin cycle. But they’re not exactly new, either. The same voices that doubted he could ever be a successful NFL coach again are also the same voices that gasped at his monster contract. They have nitpicked the veteran additions to his roster. They have questioned whether some members of his coaching staff are simply retreads showcasing how Gruden is reaching backward into an archaic era.
Gruden offers no apologies for anything, of course. He’s cognizant of perception, and knows the questions that are circling him.
“We weren’t very good [last season],” Gruden said. “We didn’t have a lot of guys on our team. We had to fill roster spots. We needed guys to come in and play immediately. We only had nine or 10 draft picks. Sean Smith was gone. David Amerson was gone. Reggie Nelson was a free agent. NaVorro Bowman was a free agent. We didn’t have a right tackle. Donald Penn was our left tackle and he was hurt. What the hell were we supposed to do? We had to get players. You’re not going to get nine guys that are going to come in and start Year 1 from the draft. I’m not going to sit here and justify what we did.”
“I’ll take my staff against anybody’s,” Gruden continued. “I don’t think Rich Bisaccia left the Dallas Cowboys, or Greg Olson left the Rams or Tom Cable and Edgar Bennett joined me just for the hell of it. They want to come here and get this train on the track. We haven’t been very good. We’ve had one winning team in 15 years.”
A spirited defense of Gruden’s methods
To be fair, there’s some motivation from an underlying mission that Gruden has, too. When he signed his deal this offseason, there was no talk of a two-year plan or a three-year plan or the long-extinct five-year plan. The reality is Gruden wants to win now – which isn’t far-fetched, considering the AFC West isn’t exactly the most stable division in football. So he looks around and sees a team that could be stabilized by some veterans who will be prepared for their work in 2018 and who can help set the standard and culture he’s looking for.
Which is also partly why he has been showing players cut-ups of players from decades ago. He wants his roster connecting with the game’s history. He wants his Raiders to connect with the roots of the plays in his offensive system. And he wants them aware of who came before them and what it takes to truly invest in being an NFL player.
From the outside, that can sound a little rah-rah or gimmicky. But when Gruden explains why he’s done it, the method makes sense.
“You’re trying to be credible,” he said “I’m not just going to walk in here and have a play that’s drawn up and say, ‘Here. Run this and run that.’ … You say, ‘This is Joe Montana running it in 1988. This is Rich Gannon running it in 1998. This is Drew Brees running it in 2008, goddammit. Here’s Andrew Luck or whoever running it last year. It’s been run for 40 years. Now we’re going to run it better than all these guys, because we’re going to fix the backside.’ I think the players like it.”
“Plus,” Gruden added, “there are a couple guys on my team [who see] a video of Art Shell blocking, and nobody knows who the hell he ever was. And these are guys on my team. I show Jack Tatum running across the field and smashing some dude. And they have no idea who Jack Tatum was. So I said, ‘Hey, we’re going to stop the train here a little bit and have a little education on who came before you. Have a little healthy respect for that.’”
Ultimately, the wins and losses will determine how transformative his methods have been. But his effort isn’t lost on his players. As tight end Jared Cook put it, he’s been playing in variations of West Coast systems for much of his 10-year career, and only now is he learning the genesis of some plays.
“It’s crazy that in my 10 years in the league, it’s my first time getting [the history] behind the plays [and scheme],” Cook said. “You don’t get it a lot and that’s what you need. … You don’t find coaches that do that often and that’s probably why some people perceive it as weird.”
And the critics of Gruden’s methods?
“There’s always a hater out there rooting for you to fail,” Cook said. “That’s why we’ve got the guys we’ve got in this building. It’s like, [expletive] the outside. And [expletive] what everybody outside of us thinks. We know what we’ve got here in the building. We know the talent that we’ve put together on this team. So [expletive] what everybody else has got to say about it. I’m pretty sure Coach Gruden feels the same way.”
Gruden might not put it in those salty terms (or perhaps he would, given enough time), but that’s a common attitude inside the building. And maybe that alone shows that Gruden is accomplishing two things right now: He’s reconnecting the Raiders to an aggressive insolence that seems to be a part of this team’s historical DNA; and in the process, he’s connecting the roster to himself. All the while, drawing his players closer to an old-school mentality and respect that will either deliver the franchise back to the mountain top, or be the ultimate undoing of its defiant head coach.
More from Yahoo Sports:
• EA Sports apologizes for editing out Colin Kaepernick’s name in ‘Madden’
• WWE’s Kane wins mayoral election in Tennessee
• Dan Wetzel: Loyalty may be Urban Meyer’s undoing at Ohio State
• Terez Paylor: Keeping Big Ben happy is top task for Steelers’ new coordinator