What If. . . Jon Gruden Had Stayed
by Glenn Dickey
Apr 20, 2005

IN FEBRUARY, 2002, the Raiders and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers pulled off a stunning trade: In return for letting Jon Gruden out of the last year of his contract to go to Tampa Bay, the Raiders got first- and second-round picks in the 2002 draft, a first-round pick in 2003 and a second-round pick in 2004, as well as cash.

Before I analyze that move, let’s talk about what had happened before that.

In the 12-season period, 1986-97, before Gruden arrived, the Raiders had slumped badly from the franchise which had played in four Super Bowls and won three in the 1967-83 period. In that pre-Gruden period, they had been to the playoffs only three times, and as far as the AFC Championship game only once, in 1990 – and they had been thrashed, 51-3, by the Buffalo Bills. For those 12 seasons, their overall record was three games below .500.

Even those statistics don’t reflect how bad the situation had become. The Raiders had the league-wide reputation of having good talent but playing poorly because they were totally disorganized, which showed in their excessive penalties. They had turned the old athletic slogan, “When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going”, on its head. When the going got tough, the Raiders folded. In 1995, their first year back in Oakland, the Raiders started the season 8-2, but then lost their last six games, missing the playoffs again.

The wheels really fell off in 1997, Joe Bugel’s one year as coach, when the team went 4-12. Traditionally, successful Raiders coaches have been those who have been strong enough to stand up to owner Al Davis – which Davis himself respects – but Bugel made it clear that he would not be that type of coach when he lavished praise on Davis at the press conference announcing his hiring. He lost the respect of his players at that point, and the season that followed was a natural result.

Davis had interviewed Gruden and been impressed by his quick mind and strong personality before he decided to go with Bugel. After the 4-12 season, he fired Bugel and hired Gruden.

WITH GRUDEN in charge, the atmosphere around the team changed immediately. There was no finger-pointing with Gruden there; he took responsibility for his own mistakes and he expected players to do the same. He persuaded Davis to get rid of the more conspicuous underachievers.

Most important, Gruden persuaded Davis to let Jeff George go and sign Rich Gannon. George had the arm to throw the deep passes that Davis loved, but he has the personality of a wet noodle and absolutely refused the leadership role that is part of the job description for a quarterback. Gannon’s passes weren’t as pretty but he was a fiery leader. He and Gruden bonded immediately.

Gruden first brought the Raiders back to respectability, with back-to-back .500 seasons. More important, though, was the attitude Gruden brought to the team. The 1999 Raiders, especially, had a toughness, an attitude, that the Raiders hadn’t had in years. It was clear that they were about to break through and get back to the postseason.

It happened the next year, as the Raiders went 12-4 and got to the AFC Championship game, where they lost to the Baltimore Ravens, 16-3. The Ravens went on to win the Super Bowl, and their 34-7 win over the New York Giants made it clear that the two best teams had played in the AFC Championship game.

The next season, the Raiders went 10-6 before losing to the New England Patriots in the infamous “tuck rule” game. That was a bitter defeat, but it seemed Gruden had created an attitude and a style of play that would give the Raiders more chances to get to the Super Bowl.

Behind the scenes, though, the Davis-Gruden relationship had developed cracks. One problem was that Gruden had become such a public figure that he was on billboards around the area; he, not Davis, had become the symbol of the Raiders. He wanted a contract extension, with an increase in salary that would reflect his success, but Davis wasn’t willing to do that yet.

Meanwhile, Tampa Bay was trying to get Steve Mariucci from the 49ers. When Mariucci decided to stay with the Niners, Tampa Bay went to Davis and made the deal for Gruden.

THE 2002 draft picks the Raiders got were turned into cornerback Philip Buchanon and offensive tackle Langston Walker. Next year’s first-round pick became defensive end Tyler Brayton. Last year’s second-rounder was center Jake Grove.

Davis elevated assistant coach Bill Callahan to replace Gruden. The results seemed spectacular when the Raiders went to the Super Bowl after the 2002 season, but those close to the team knew Callahan had nothing to do with that.

After winning the first four games of the season, the Raiders lost the next four. The wheels seemed to be coming off. At that point, the veterans on the team, led by Gannon, took control. A source close to the team told me that Gannon probably audibled out of half the plays sent in by Callahan and offensive coordinator Marc Trestman the rest of the season.

The Raiders went 12-4 but, when they got to the Super Bowl, were humiliated by Gruden’s Bucs, 48-21. The next season was an acrimonious one with the finger-pointing that Gruden had eliminated returning in a 4-12 season. Last year, with Norv Turner in charge, was quieter but the results were only slightly better, 5-11. The two years were the worst two years for the Raiders since Davis came to the team as a coach in 1963.

THERE ARE two conclusions I would draw from the series of events:

1) The Raiders got some serviceable players out of the draft picks from Tampa Bay but no great ones. Overall, their talent level was only marginally improved.

2) The team would have been immeasurably better with Gruden as coach the past three seasons. I think a Gruden-coached team would have won that Super Bowl the Raiders lost, and the Raiders would have remained in playoff contention in the following two seasons.

A coach can’t do it without players; Gruden’s Bucs went nowhere last year. But Gruden had created an atmosphere in Oakland that produces success. Without him, the Raiders are still floundering.

NOTE TO READERS: Tomorrow (Thursday), I will be writing on the travails of the Giants without Barry Bonds.

Though I can’t answer every e-mail, I read them all and try to update the “Letters” about three times a week, as I did today. For those of you who still want to know more about why I favor Aaron Rodgers over Alex Smith for the 49ers pick, I refer you to the “Archives” because I have discussed this in depth in earlier columns. For those of you who are Giants season ticket holders, what have been your experiences in trying to sell tickets for games you don’t attend? I may do something either on-line or for the Chronicle (yes, I am still on the paper’s payroll), so please indicate if you are willing to have your name used or do not want that. I always respect a reader’s wish to keep his views private.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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