Inside Jon Gruden's 'Maniacal' Obsession with Football

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistMay 12, 2016

FILE - In this Aug. 15, 2014, file photo, former NFL coach and current ESPN analyst Jon Gruden greets fans at the Cleveland Browns football training camp in Berea, Ohio. The future of youth sports makes Jon Gruden cringe. The Super Bowl-winning coach and ESPN football analyst is part of a program aimed at repairing fields and buying uniforms and equipment. More needs to be done, Gruden says, particularly in low-income areas.  (AP Photo/Mark Duncan, File)
Mark Duncan/Associated Press

TAMPA, Fla. — At this hour, a beautiful Florida sunrise is still a promise. The birds have not yet begun to sing.

Down in Islamorada, Jimmy Johnson probably is a few hours away from dropping his first line into the Atlantic Ocean from his boat, 3 Rings. Over in Naples, Mike Ditka likely will not reach for his driver and a tee until well past the time the dew is off the grass. 

Here in Tampa, the parking lot of an office complex is empty and still, except for one car. Inside the building, one man sits in silence. The only light in the office—some would say in his world—is from game tape. It's a cutup of Eli Apple, the Ohio State cornerback who would go to the Giants 10th overall, in press technique.

Jon Gruden, ESPN football analyst and star of Monday Night Football, stares intently.

When he was the head coach of the Raiders and Buccaneers, Gruden famously awoke every morning at 3:17 to the Notre Dame fight song. The alarm clock that played it, a relic from his childhood, expired of natural causes.

These days, he is awakened by cellphone. He chooses between alarms set for 4:29, 4:15, 4:04, 4:00, 3:52, 3:47, 3:45, 3:30 and 3:15—"just in case I need to cram a little." Most days, he is at his desk by 4 a.m., and he stays there, save for a workout, for about 12 hours.

The desk sits in the Fired Football Coaches Association office, where Gruden maintains a lifeline to the game he loves. He started the FFCA after the Bucs let him go. The idea was to have an office where out-of-work coaches could come and watch tape. It has become much more than that.

Hundreds have passed though here in seven-plus years, including Chip Kelly, Urban Meyer, Jim Haslett, Rick Venturi and Sean McVay. Greg Schiano and Monte Kiffin have been regulars. When college coaches are recruiting in the area, they often stop by. Mark Richt brought his Georgia coaching staff through. Even high school and Pop Warner coaches have been welcomed.

Let Gruden show you around.

"In this room, I have my NFL archives—old tapes I collected," he says. "I've got Joe Gibbs, Dan Marino, [John] Elway's last year. You want to see Derrick Thomas play when he was all over the place, you can see it. When Mike Shanahan was really rolling with the Broncos and with the 49ers. Some of those films, I still look at them today. Shanahan probably doesn't even have them himself. It was some of the greatest stuff ever produced. The Greatest Show on Turf. Don Shula. I've got all of my games that I coached, too."

Down the hall to the left.

"Here is all my college tape in here," Gruden says. "I have my favorite players from college football on tape, Heisman winners. You can see Aaron Rodgers at Cal, Troy Polamalu at USC. The tape goes back maybe 25 years."

Turn the corner, up a few feet.

"This is all practice film," he says. "I used to take a lot of pride into what went into practice. You want to see Tim Brown and Jerry Rice running slot combinations together—it's pretty cool. I like watching Bobb McKittrick's individual tapes—unbelievable. I remember Bobb took me outside and taught me how to hit the Crowther sled, 10 progressions or whatever there were. Tommy Prothro taught him. I have Jesse Sapolu hitting the Crowther sled at Redwood City. Awesome. Mike Holmgren installation tapes. Bill Walsh installation tapes. I have all my installation tapes in that room, every play I installed."

Back to his office.

"This is all NFL footage, broken down and carefully placed," he says. "This is organized by protection. Over there are three-step throws. Dropback. Two- and three-jet-slide protection. Split-flow-man protections. Play-action passes. Then over here I have goal line. No-huddle. Wall draws. Green dogs. Effort tapes. Pass-rushers. Defensive tackle play. Pistol formations. I'm working on these. Missed tackles. Backed-up offense. Wide receiver isolations. A lot of it still needs to be put in my system."

His "system" is his main digital library on XOS. The library contains all of his modern game tape and "a billion" cutups.

"I break down the tape like I'm a quality-control coach, just like I was with the Packers in 1992," Gruden says. "I break it down by hand, every play. I type in the formation, Section 10 on my terminal. Sometimes I don't write anything, sometimes: 'boneheaded decision.' Sometimes: 'double-plus.' Or 'great audible.' 'Triple-plus.' 'Movement in the pocket.' 'Double-minus.' I have hundreds of these reels going at the same time.

"That's how maniacal, how sick it is."

When Gruden digs in on a player like Apple, he studies more than the standard end-zone and sideline game-tape views. He studies "melts," which are isolation tapes of players from different angles. Gruden has access to them through ESPN, which might have as many as 20 cameras at a college game.

"The skycam that flies overhead on the wire right behind the quarterback—that's his drug," says Jay Rothman, who produces Monday Night Football and Gruden's QB Camp. "He is obsessed with that camera angle. He watches the entire game from that angle."

Former Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook, who would be drafted by the Raiders in the fourth round, sat with Gruden for close to four hours watching tape and talking football for an episode of Gruden's QB Camp.

"That was a big eye-opener, to see the amount of tape he had, the amount of viewing points and angles for each play," Cook says. "You think you are watching one play, but there are like 10 or 12 different angles where he catches it from. I don't know where he got all the tape from."

Gruden's library of football game tape must be as extensive as any collection, with the possible exception of NFL Films.

And there is more than game tape in the FFCA compound. In another room, Gruden keeps every game plan from each of the 303 games he participated in as an NFL assistant or head coach.

On his desk in his office is his last playbook as a head coach, from the 2008 Bucs. It is one of his favorites. In his computer system, he keeps a descendant of that playbook that has evolved considerably and continues to evolve.

So, for example, when he was watching Dak Prescott tape and saw zone-stretch concepts from Dan Mullen's Mississippi State offense that excited him, he incorporated them in his playbook.

"If you ever came back in coaching, say you got Dak Prescott, I know what he did," Gruden says. "I know what Cam [Newton] did at Auburn. I have all my notes from that. I know what [Tim] Tebow did at Florida—studied the s--t out of him. I know what Alex [Smith] did at Utah."

As a 23-year-old graduate assistant in the mid-'80s, Gruden worked for offensive coordinator Walt Harris at the University of Tennessee. It was Harris who impressed on him the importance of taking thorough notes.

When he prepares for a Monday Night Football broadcast, Gruden interviews coaches and players in production meetings and writes down everything they say—just how they said it. When he gets back to his office, he records them in his computer. He has a file for head coaches, offensive coordinators, defensive coordinators, quarterbacks, wide receivers—everyone.

The amount of knowledge in this office is staggering. It's not a stretch to presume Gruden knows more about the game of football than anyone on the planet.

So why isn't he coaching it?

Michael Perez/Associated Press

Gruden has thanked Rothman "a million times" for talking him into doing this job.

"I get to go to any training camp," he says, sounding like a fan who won a raffle. "Last year, I got to go to the Cowboys training camp in Oxnard, California, and stand on the field with Jerry Jones and watch practice. I got to watch Cowboy film and hang out with Tony Romo and Jason Witten and ask them questions. I used to hang out with the Jets with Rex Ryan and Bill Callahan and Mike Pettine and Bob Sutton and Mike Westhoff. I thought that was the best coaching staff I'd ever seen. I'd sit there for three or four days until Cindy said it's time to come home. I'd say, 'One more day, just one more day.'"

And Gruden still gets to be part of a team. In fact, he is the head coach of a team—the Monday Night Football team. 

When he was coaching the Raiders and Bucs, Gruden would present his game plan to his team two days after the last game. That hasn't changed.

Every Thursday morning in a conference call with the Monday Night team, he gives an in-depth talk about the participants of their upcoming broadcast. A few hours later, he provides a lesson plan for the game, featuring about 40 points—tendencies, breakdowns and angles to be aware of.

"It's over the top," Rothman says. "I've been doing this for 30 years and worked with so many analysts in so many sports. Nobody has come close to him in terms of preparation."

Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

Monday Night Football can replace Mike Tirico with Sean McDonough seamlessly because Gruden is the franchise. There is a brotherhood between Gruden and his team, including Rothman, director Chip Dean and the on-air talent. He gives the cameramen a pregame pep talk and needles officiating expert Gerry Austin about calls Austin blew when Austin was a referee and Gruden was on the sidelines.

Once they reach the city of the game, they get around town in a customized bus. The driver, Jeff Leonardo, has navigated buses for AC/DC, the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and Lynyrd Skynyrd, among others. Gruden and company get him to tell some good stories.

On the bus, they put $5 in a pot and play "name that tune" with classic rock songs.

"Jeff is the only guy I ever met who can beat me," Gruden says. "It pisses me off."

In the offseason, Gruden still gets to coach quarterbacks as part of his QB Camp. Since the show began seven years ago, he has worked with the same number of players that comprise an NFL roster—53. Ten of the NFL's 32 primary starting quarterbacks last season were alums of the show.

He clicked with Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Kirk Cousins, Colt McCoy and others and has maintained relationships. Some of them have come to see him in the offseason after becoming pros.

Cook took Gruden's cell number and said he would call. Gruden says he wants to have Cook play in his offense.

"I make noises when I watch Connor Cook," he says.

What does he get out of working with these quarterbacks?

"I get the feeling I can help these guys get 1 percent better, just 1 percent, maybe 1.5 percent," he says. "They learn a new snap count, they learn to handle a situation a little bit differently. Selfishly, I get to learn a lot about them myself. I was a head coach for 11 years. I had all kinds of different quarterbacks. But we never drafted a first-rounder."

Gruden loves quarterbacks. He loves football. He loves his job.

You can love your job and yearn for something else.

Why. Why does Gruden do this?

Even Cindy, his good wife of a quarter century, has to wonder.

Cindy: "What the hell are you doing still working? We have to go to dinner. This is the offseason. You don't have a team. You don't have a job."

Jon: "Baby, I think I've got something. Just a little longer. I've got some clues here."

The clues are what he lives for—to know more, to be better.

For 23 years, Gruden was obsessed with competition. Now?

"I compete with myself," he says. "I try to get more done than you. I don't know why. Stay on guard, man. It's weird, isn't it? Try not to ever get dull. Keep the knife sharp."

What else is he supposed to do if not host a three-day clinic on the double A-gap blitz? (In case you were curious, the Bengals showed 13 such looks over the past two years and the Vikings 20.)

Even the mundane can make the hair on the back of his neck stand on end.

"A three-yard gain," he says, "can be the greatest thing I've ever seen."

It's not like he has other interests.

He owns a Grady-White bay boat. But he doesn't even know how to turn it on, let alone pilot it through the Gulf of Mexico.

He recently got his hands on his dream car—a Ford Mustang GT350R. It's a collector's car, custom made for him in silver with a black racing stripe. It's the most beautiful car he's ever seen. But he can't drive it because it's a stick.

He lives on an exclusive country club. But he's not a golfer.

Love of the game, now that has something to do with this. Gruden wrote a book called Do You Love Football?! When he hosts a player for his QB Camp he asks him the same question—"Do you love football?"—probably 10 times throughout the day they spend together. And he looks deep into the player's eyes to discern the answer.

The slogan of the FFCA is "Giving back to the game we all love: football." He is a champion and guardian of the game. In conjunction with Dick's Sporting Goods, GoPro and Hooters, Gruden and the FFCA have made numerous generous donations to youth football.

"People are stepping on football," he says. "We're losing the game. Youth football needs help."

He coached offense, but he can get defensive.

"You can get hurt playing tackle football," he says. "You don't need a medical degree to understand that. There's danger in cage fighting. There's danger in a rodeo, NASCAR, jumping out of airplanes. I've seen people get skin cancer going to the beach. Awareness is great. After a while, it becomes piling on. Everything is so slanted, it drives me crazy. It's embarrassing. It's sickening."

This is what Jon Gruden misses about being an NFL coach:

  • Game-planning
  • The battles
  • The highs
  • The lows
  • Putting together a team
  • The weekly grind
  • Seeing a player succeed and knowing he had a small role in it
  • The journey of an NFL season

This is what Jon Gruden does not miss about being an NFL coach:

  • Free agency
  • The salary cap
  • The collective bargaining agreement
  • Having to meet the media almost daily
  • Not being able to say what he wants to say
  • Owners meetings
  • Rule changes that don't make the game better
  • Restricted offseason contact with players
  • The agony of cut-down day
  • The tuck rule
  • Getting traded
  • Getting fired

It has been seven years since Gruden was fired—or emancipated, depending on the point of view.

In the early evening, he and Cindy often enjoy a glass of wine on their deck. At 52, there is not a gray hair on his head.

He is a wealthy man. He is earning a reported annual salary from ESPN of $6.5 million. He is signed through 2021.

His job allows him to be a part of the NFL without the risk of being destroyed by it.

"I'm in the fire—I just don't get burned," he says. "That's the best way I can explain it. I couldn't probably live very well if I didn't have this access to the fire, the heat. I have to get close to it."

He lives the coaching life vicariously through his brother Jay, the head coach of the Redskins.

Uncredited/Associated Press

His son Deuce will be joining Uncle Jay in Washington this year as an intern strength coach. It is a career path Jon heartily endorses.

"I love it, love it," he says. "As long as your heart is in the right place, coaching is great."

It may be great, but Gruden does not need it.

The question is, does he want it? Or rather, how badly does he want it?

In the mirror, Gruden sees an advocate. To many NFL decision-makers, he is a source of intelligence and a power broker who can influence draft picks and hirings. Some might see him as an entertainer, or Y2K John Madden. Behind the curtain, he is a curator and a scientist.

Whatever the perception, there is a coach at his core.

Gruden as a coach

A source close to Gruden says since he has been out of coaching, he has received feelers from a dozen NFL and a dozen college teams. Among the interested have been most of his former employers—the Bucs, Raiders, 49ers and Eagles.

Next December, teams will tempt him again.

"I know it's hard for him," Rothman says.

The force within him is strong. It is what makes him a one-of-a-kind analyst. It is what made him a Super Bowl-winning coach. And it is what pulls him in different directions every day. The force is not easily controlled.

Gruden says flat out he is not trying to stir up a comeback. He never dismisses the possibility, though.

The youngest of the three Gruden boys, Jayson, is a freshman in high school. Dad is a volunteer coach on his football team. When Jayson goes off to college, perhaps the dynamic will change in Gruden's life.

The perfect situation might come along—great owner, perfect city, obscene money, total control, the chance to work with the next Peyton Manning.

Maybe the pull will be too powerful for him to resist.

Maybe not.

A chapter has yet to be written in Gruden's life story.

"I just wish I had more time," he says. "I'm fighting that every day. I wish the days were longer. Wish I had longer time on the planet. I'm running out of time."

Yes, he needs more time. There is tape of Eli Apple to be watched, and the sun will be up soon.

Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @danpompei.