There’s no question Jon Gruden is a unique coach. He has a way about him that simultaneously comes off as fun and no nonsense. His personality would appear to be such that a player would want to play for him. He isn’t for everyone. But for those who get him, great things can happen.
Take his first stint in Oakland. That team had a collection of players who were already great and players who would eventually become great. Some were on the team already and some Gruden brought to the team.
Great players who were on the team when Gruden arrived included the likes of Tim Brown and Steve Wisniewski. Then Gruden added the likes of Jerry Rice, Rich Gannon, Eric Allen, and Charles Woodson.
The fact that every one of those players were in attendance Tuesday to be a part of and witness Gruden’s return to coaching says a lot about how well-liked and respected he was as a coach and continues to be.
It’s important, however, for the current players not to let that lull them into a false sense of security. Gruden won’t put up with nonsense. They will buy in or bye, out.
“If you don’t respond, you gotta go,” said Charles Woodson. “That’s gonna be the bottom line. I don’t think Gruden’s gonna come in here favoring or babying anybody. He’s going to come try to hit the ground running and if you’re not ready to jump on that train, maybe there’ll be another team for you or something else you can do. But it’s gotta be all in or nothing.”
Woodson was Gruden’s first draft pick as a head coach. The Michigan star corner is the only ever primarily defensive player to win the Heisman so his selection at 4th overall was not a difficult one to make. And no doubt the former Ohio Mr Football and College All American was not an easy player to coach either. But he never missed a start while heading to the Pro Bowl in all four of their seasons together.
The experience by the rookie Woodson wasn’t unique to young players. As he said, the young coach didn’t treat veteran players with any sort of favoritism. Even players like Tim Brown who was just two years his junior or Jerry Rice who was two years Gruden’s senior.
“It’s gonna be work and I’m not just talking about physical work, but it’s gonna be mental. They’re going to have to learn the game of football,” said Tim Brown. “Not saying these guys don’t know the game of football, but it’s gonna be different. You’re gonna have to know defenses, you’re gonna have to know when to sit down, where to keep going, you’re going to have to know things that maybe you haven’t had to do in year’s past. It’s going to be an adjustment, no doubt about it.”
Brown had been the man for the Raiders for a good six years before Gruden took over as head coach. He was the team’s leading receiver with three different regular quarterbacks. And Gruden was Brown’s fifth head coach. But he still had things to learn.
“Even for a guy like me that was having a pretty good career,” said Brown, “he was able to take me to another level because [he was] showing me how much better I could be. I thought I was pretty good at that time, but you can even be better. If you can do this, you can do that and sometimes you just gotta turn your brain off and buy in. I think if you can do that great things can happen. It’s tough, it’s a tough thing to do.”
After three years of Brown dominating the Raiders’ receiving corps, Gruden decided to add 39-year-old Hall of Fame bound receiver, Jerry Rice.
Rice knew all about good coaching. Over the first 12 years of his career, he had just two coaches – Bill Walsh and George Seifert. Between them Rice got three Super Bowl rings. He had nothing left to learn and nothing left to prove. But he wasn’t ready for his career to end, so he joined the Raiders to play for Gruden. A coach who Rice said matter of factly was very much like Bill Walsh in how much of a perfectionist he was.
“When I was a Niner, we couldn’t drop footballs during practice,” said Rice, comparing Gruden’s style to his experience with Walsh. “Or you wouldn’t be a 49er. Or you wouldn’t be on the football field. Will that do it for [these] players? I don’t know. But practice is everything. The way you practice is going to determine how you play in that game on Sunday or that Monday. If you bullshit around all week long, you’re not going to be able to turn it on on game day. I think with Jon Gruden, he’s going to make sure that these players work hard during the week and they’re ready to go Sunday, Monday.”
With the failings of this team last season, there were some grumblings about problems with the attitude of the team. The feeling was that Jack Del Rio had lost the team and all it’s personalities were no longer working in tandem; they were working against it.
That won’t stand with Gruden. He will either strip the team of it’s problem children right off or keep them with the clear understanding of what is expected. If this team is more 2016 squad than they are 2017 results, like many believe, we are about to find out.