The Jon Gruden Time Machine Project

After stepping away from the helm, the legendary coach is back in Oakland. And he's ready to challenge everybody. What happens when the past meets the future? Part 2 of Vs. Everybody—B/R Mag's look at the guys taking on the whole NFL this season.
photo of Dan PompeiDan PompeiNFL ColumnistSeptember 5, 2018

A small Raiders helmet sits on a large workstation in a hotel room that has been converted to an office. Two desktop screens play cutups from not one but two servers. Within reach are a laptop, a stack of videos, a playbook and spiral notebooks. Also a highlighter, some pens and a cup of joe. The windows are covered, and the only way to know if it's day or night outside in Napa, California, is by the digital clock.        

On the other side of these walls, Raiders players breathe hard and talk of rejuvenation, passion and energy. Beads of sweat trickle down the sides of their faces. More than 100 Raiders alumni in various stages of deterioration and inebriation tell white lies about the old days and laugh loudly. A group of Raiderettes leave a lovely aroma in their wake. Fans painted and costumed in all sorts of bizarre ways shake fists and make their voices as deep as possible to yell the things Raiders fans yell. And just across the street, a train full of tipsy tourists eating French food passes by.

Editor's note: Doubt them. Hate them. Count them out. It's these guys vs. everybody this NFL season.

Part 1 (Tuesday): Malcolm Butler
Part 2 (Wednesday): Jon Gruden
Part 3 (Thursday): Andrew Luck
Part 4 (Friday): Marcus Williams 

All of them—the players, former players, Raiderettes, fans and even the tipsy tourists—are buzzing about what is happening in this office.

But here, it's silent. Here, it's sacred. Here, it's magic.

Here, the Raiders head coach of past and present stares into a screen the way some might stare into a lover's eyes. Here, he studies the team's playbook the way some might study a Bible. Here, he scrutinizes the day's practice script the way some might scrutinize a credit card bill.

Here, Jon Gruden introduces the past to the future.


The past

They say time changes everything. But in some ways, time has changed nothing.

This is the same room in the Napa Valley Marriott that Gruden worked from during training camp from 1998 to 2001, when he was the coach of the Raiders for the first time.

Back then, Gruden watched everything Al Davis did. Now he draws on it. Davis would order a wedge salad chopped up. Now Gruden orders a wedge salad chopped up. He bought a bottle of the cologne Davis used to wear, Antaeus by Chanel, just so he can be reminded of what he smelled like. Some of the audibles and names of plays in Gruden's playbook are references to Davis.

"We are the same in that Al loved football; I love football," Gruden says. "I don't think he was on top of his golf game or shopping on Fifth Avenue. I didn't play any golf this summer. I didn't turn on the TV for six months. Now you got naked people in the woods on TV. Some of the stuff I see, it's like, really? I didn't do anything outside of football in the offseason. I took my sons to the UFC fight in Vegas. And I got to see Muir Woods in San Francisco. That's about it."

RHH/Associated Press

The last time Gruden and Davis spoke was Feb. 18, 2002, the day Davis traded Gruden to the Bucs. Davis died in 2011, leaving his son, Mark, in charge of his team.

Since Mark couldn't bring back his father, Gruden was the next best thing.

"God, I loved him, man," Gruden says of Al. "It is different without him here. When he'd walk in, whether it was a defensive meeting, offensive meeting or special teams, you had to be ready. You don't want complacency to set in. That's one thing he never let happen. I'm going to make sure his spirit, his legacy, remain alive."

And so Gruden reshapes this iconic franchise as Davis likely would have. Many of his offseason roster decisions were straight from the Al Davis book on how to put together a team.

Davis never hesitated to make a bold move, even if he knew he would be criticized, whether it was shipping off Kenny Stabler when Raider Nation thought Stabler was a football deity or trading Gruden himself at the height of his popularity. Gruden doesn't mind being in the eye of the hurricane either. He thought the Raiders needed cap space and cash this year more than the former Defensive Player of the Year, so he traded camp holdout Khalil Mack to the Bears, telling Bleacher Report simply of the deal, "We did what we felt was in the best interest of the Raiders moving forward."

Davis valued speed above all else. Gruden hired Tom Shaw, renowned as one of the finest speed coaches in the country, to be his strength and conditioning coordinator.

Davis gambled on players who had not always walked a straight line. Gruden traded a third-round pick for twice-suspended wide receiver Martavis Bryant—then cut his losses by waiving him at the end of camp. He signed cornerback Daryl Worley eight days after he was arrested on six charges, including driving under the influence, disorderly conduct and a firearms violation. He drafted pass-rusher Arden Key, who reportedly went to rehab for a marijuana problem.

"I've seen what the right culture can do," Gruden says, looking up from his playbook and over his granny glasses. "You can put a guy in the channel of success. Just follow Bruce Irvin. Hang out with Derek Carr. Go over there with Jordy Nelson and Amari Cooper. Go out to dinner with these guys tonight. Here, take my credit card. When they are around every day and they are pushed and pushed, sometimes they start changing."

Tapping into small schools was a passion for Davis. In his first draft back with the Raiders, Gruden selected defensive tackle P.J. Hall from Sam Houston State in Round 2 and offensive tackle Brandon Parker from North Carolina A&T in Round 3.

Davis had an affinity for older players. These Raiders went to camp with 14 players 30 or older. Among the players Gruden acquired are 33-year-old safety Leon Hall, 35-year-old linebacker Derrick Johnson and 33-year-old wide receiver Nelson.

But he didn't just acquire them. He reveres them—and wants his young players to do the same.

"When Leon Hall walks in, know that he is in his 12th year," Gruden says. "Know that he's a badass from the Bengals and he's played with the Giants and the 49ers. Derrick Johnson walks in, have a little respect, man. That guy is the Chiefs' all-time leading tackler."

John Hefti/Associated Press

In the offseason, Gruden distributed packets on franchise history to his young players that included bios of Raiders greats and stories of memorable seasons. And he has embraced the alums. Shortly after being hired, he called old Raiders linebacker Phil Villapiano. "You're in, Phil," he told him.

Back during OTAs, Gruden had his rookies compete in a game of Raiders Jeopardy and narrated it savagely, to the delight of the veterans. He showed a photo of Johnson as a freshman at Texas and Hall when he was a freshman at Michigan. Blank stares. He played a video of Jack Tatum making a tackle and Art Shell making a block. "They had no idea they ever were on the face of the Earth," he says, one eyebrow up, the other down.

He had his new video director intercut Kirk Gibson's walk-off home run in the 1988 World Series with practice tape to send a message about playing hurt.

"My video guy, Joe Harrington, might be the greatest video guy ever," Gruden says. "Got him from the University of Tennessee, and he might be the greatest loss in Tennessee history behind Peyton Manning. Bernard King would be third."

When Gruden wanted to make a point about mental toughness, he had Harrington put together a video on Tom Brady. "He can't run, can't jump, he's too old," Gruden says. "He gets his ass knocked off. But he's a Terminator. He ran me out of Oakland in the Tuck Game. Damn. He brought those bastards back in a two-minute drill to beat us in a driving snow. They didn't do anything the whole night until the game was on the line. And here I am 20 years later, and guess who's still there. That's why I'm back."

There are some aspects of the game he liked better before. Instant replay has run amok, in his opinion. He doesn't understand the regulations that prohibit contact between coaches and players for about three months in the offseason. He's not sure what a catch is anymore.

And he can do without some modern technology, like virtual reality training. "I don't want to wear goggles in my quarterback meetings, you know?" he says, putting his fingers in rings around his eyes. "I don't. We're not going to sit there in goggles and buy a spaceship. I'm not going to have some robot tell me what play to call."

But none of this diminishes his love of the game and his love of the Raiders. He is home again for the first time in 17 years.

Before camp, he held a pep rally for fans at Ricky's Sports Theatre and Grill just south of Oakland. He interacted with hundreds, including the fan known as Gorilla Rilla. Gruden knew him from his first go-round in Oakland. Another fan was dressed as if he got lost on the way to Comic Con. "I'm your meat guy!" he yelled at Gruden. "Hey! I'm your meat guy! Come by the grocery store, and I'll get you some meat! Go Raiders!"

It bothers Gruden that the Raiders have had one winning season in the last 15 years even though he had nothing to do with the last 15 years. They were his team when he was a boy, and they are his team always.

"We have the greatest fans and the greatest brand in sports," Gruden says. "I love this brand: the Raiiiiduhs. Cadillac, I love Cadillac. Every Cadillac I've ever been in, I love it. I'd rather drive a Cadillac than damn near do anything. It's class. I wish I was in a Cadillac now. I remember Jerry Rice putting on silver and black. He was in front of the mirror before he was going to go out for his first preseason game. 'Whoooo! Man, I love it!' Al Davis used to say, 'Close your eyes, Butch.' Silver and black, what do you think? Raiders."


The future

You might not believe what you were seeing if you were in that dark office when Gruden was studying page after page of Pro Football Focus reports. Or when he was telling his brother, Redskins coach Jay Gruden, that his team needs to subscribe to the analytics service.

When he was asked about analytics at the NFL scouting combine in February, Gruden said, "Man, I'm trying to throw back the game to 1998."

Gruden is 54 years old and looks like he's 44. But sometimes he talks like he's 74.

The truth? He is big into analytics and always has been.

"I was one of the first analytics guys in football," he says. "Ask Mike Holmgren. I had to do all the tendencies. What are we doing out of red formation, split backs? How many runs, how many passes? What are we doing on 2nd-and-10-plus? What are we doing on 3rd-and-1? What are our short-yardage tendencies—are we running left, or are we running right? I used to do it by hand. Now, Pro Football Focus does it all for you."

The Gruden time machine travels forward as well as back.

Ben Margot/Associated Press

During practice warm-ups one day, fans yell, "Welcome back, Chuckeeeeee!" He turns to face them, raises his fist and gives them that big head nod. But this really isn't Chucky anymore. It's more like seed of Chucky.

The evolving Gruden has borrowed from coaches he visited during his nine years as an analyst for Monday Night Football on ESPN.

He has two large video boards on the practice field replaying everything that happens. The idea came from Adam Gase of the Dolphins.

Early in practice, right after stretching, the Raiders run ball-protection drills. That's how Gruden saw Pete Carroll do it with the Seahawks. It is a good way, Gruden thinks, to get energy flowing.

Gruden has Carr and the receivers work together after practice. Sean Payton did the same thing with Drew Brees and his receivers in New Orleans, reviewing audibles and running routes to make sure everyone was on the same page. Gruden believes it helps maximize on-field time.

Gruden learned from many coaches during his time off, filling stacks of spiral notebooks with thoughts. Among them was Chip Kelly. "He saw the world totally different," Gruden says. "He's a Martian. I thought it was cool, man. I thought the guy carrying the ball came from underground."

Gruden's offense, subsequently, has mutated. In fact, it is more likely to look like it's from 2028 than 1998. Greg Olson was Gruden's quarterbacks coach during his last year in Tampa, and he's his offensive coordinator in Oakland. He says Gruden's offensive playbook is 10 to 15 percent bigger than it was with the Bucs. He also says it's the most voluminous playbook he has seen in 31 years of coaching.

Olson and Gruden
Olson and GrudenJeff Chiu/Associated Press

Gruden relies on a library of game tape that goes back to Crazy Legs Hirsch at least. He transferred his personal tape library from his office at the Fired Football Coaches Association in Tampa to the Raiders and stored it on a separate server from his Raiders tape. "Does any other coach in the history of the league have two servers?" he says. "I take pride in it."

He also has more ways to watch practice tape than he used to, with his quarterback wearing a helmet cam and with cameras attached to long poles around practice to focus on individual positions.

Of course, coaching is about more than operating a remote control. Some wonder how his lively personality will play with Generations Y and Z—that younger players might rebel against treatment like, say, in the middle of one recent presentation, when Gruden paused and stared at one of his young players to ask, "Hey, man, do you really have a tattoo underneath your lip?"

Gruden sneers at the idea. "I'm more conscious of a lot of things that these guys are going through because I have kids their age now," he says.

One of those kids, 24-year-old Deuce, is a strength and conditioning assistant for the Raiders and "the strongest 180-pound man in the world," according to his father. Deuce won a gold medal in the 2017 International Powerlifting Federation World Championship. Michael, 21, is a deejay attending the University of Tennessee, and Jayson, 18, is an aspiring MMA fighter.

Gruden is a classic rock guy, but he will tolerate Deuce's Slipknot that "rattles my bones" and Michael's techno mixes. "I'm learning," he says, but he's not learning well enough for running back Marshawn Lynch and defensive end Irvin, who voice their complaints to him about the music at practice.

But the banter cuts the monotony of camp, and they all had a laugh. It's funny how what divides people sometimes can draw them closer.

Gruden's intensity—"Huddle up! Huddle up! Goddammit!" he yelled when presnap confusion was evident on one practice snap—can be off-putting to some. But not to safety Marcus Gilchrist.

When Gilchrist walks by, Gruden says, "That might be one of my favorite players I've ever coached."

And then, "Hey, what's Klay Thompson mean to you?"

It's a code word Gruden used on offense that Gilchrist had deciphered in a recent practice. "I got you today," Gilchrist says, grinning.

"What about Kareem?" Gruden asks.

Yep, Gilchrist knew that one too.

And then, "You hear West Coast, what are you thinking?"

Gilchrist had figured them all out, and the player and coach chuckle.

"He's going to be my defensive coordinator in five years," Gruden says. Then he turns to Gilchrist. "But wait until you get the new series next week."

Gilchrist is looking forward to the challenge. "He's one of those guys," Gilchrist says, "that you want to run through a wall for."

Gruden thinks he knows why some coaches have struggled with gaining and keeping the attention of members of the younger generation.

"Don't you think a lot of it is that we've changed as leaders?" he says, spitting the words. "We've allowed some of this to happen. Sit up in your chair. Listen. This is a piece of paper. Why don't you write this down? Let me watch you. 200 Jet Dragon. It's the No. 1 play in our offense. This is what we are after in the meeting rooms. So sit up in your chair, man, c'mon."

Gruden does not have many rules. But his players know better than to be on their mobile devices when a coach is speaking.

"You think someone is going to sit in there and play Twitter while we are getting ready for the L.A. Rams?" he asks. "What the hell do you think this is? We give these guys plenty of free time. And they are connected to the whole world. They can Facebook, Facechat, Snapchat, Instagram. I've seen it all. And you're not going to pull that bulls--t over my eyes. I know what's going on. Me and my kids Snapchat my brother every so often just to stay connected. It's a cool thing, a great invention."

Says rookie defensive tackle Maurice Hurst, "He's a guy you can listen to talk all day."


The present

What about all that money?

When Gruden is asked a question, the answer usually comes out rapid-fire. But this particular question hangs there in the dark office. And then the office seems to get darker.

"All that money," he says slowly. Gruden's contract with the Raiders reportedly calls for him to earn $100 million over 10 years—the richest coaching contract in NFL history. "That comes later in the contract. I may not live that long. I don't have time to enjoy anything anyway.

"People ask me about it, it makes me want to coach for nothing, which I probably should be."

Gruden doesn't need the money. ESPN reportedly was paying him $6.5 million a year. He has saved much and invested well.

"He ain't doing it for the money," Gilchrist says. "He loves the game."

What would Gruden say to his team about money?

"Who would play for nothing?" he says, scrunching up his nose, bottom lip over his top. It seems to be brighter in the office again now. "Raise your hand. Who would come out here tonight [continuing in a Wolfman Jack voice] and play Jones Junior High? They want to play us. Let's get their ass. Who will be here with me?"

Gruden might do this for nothing, but that doesn't mean he's always jolly. At practices, his black Raiders visor reveals how he's feeling.

Square and tight. Mood: What's up?

Eric Risberg/Associated Press

Off his head, in his hand. Mood: Come on now.

Low over his eyes so he has to tilt back his head to see. Mood: Are you kidding me?

High on his head, slightly askew. Mood: What the hell?

Whatever the mood, he really is into it. "He's the same guy with maybe more energy," Olson says.

"He is rejuvenated," says Jeff Leonardo, whom Gruden hired to be a coaching assistant after they worked together on Monday Night Football.

Among Leonardo's responsibilities is showing up in Gruden's driveway every morning—usually at 4:15—to drive him 26 miles to the office. "I can't drive worth a damn," Gruden says. "The first few days, I was driving to work and cars were going like 85, 90. I'm like: 'Holy s--t! I'm going to get killed.'"

So now, Gruden sits back and works on scripts for the day or plays "Name that artist" with Leonardo, a former roadie for rock acts, including the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney. They listen to SiriusXM channels Classic Vinyl, Classic Rewind, Ozzy's Boneyard, Hair Nation and '70s on Seven. Gruden is better served riding shotgun and controlling the radio than he would be concerning himself with merging traffic or changing lanes.

"I just want to match the effort, work ethic and focus that I had the first time," he says. "I want to match those things—nothing else. Worry about what you can control."

There is something else he wants. "I want to have fun," he says. "I'm here to have fun. I like laughing, man. I'm not going to be miserable. I didn't have any fun the last three or four years when I was coaching."

Fun? Fun was filming his assistant coaches running plays back in March so he could show the players what it is supposed to look like. Tom Cable at center making the protection calls, flanked by Tim Berbenich at left guard and Lemuel Jeanpierre at right guard. They wear big black shirts with letters corresponding to their positions. Jemal Singleton is H. Frank Smith is J. Olson is Z. Edgar Bennett is X, and he pulled his hamstring running a chase route. Brian Callahan is the quarterback. "He had a QB rating of 155," Gruden says. "It's good s--t, man."

Fun? Fun is telling Al stories to an audience that hasn't heard them before. "I used to watch him come out of the tunnel at games," Gruden says. "I'd be on the field. I'd hear this ruckus. People going crazy. I looked down, Al's hair's flying back in the wind. He has his white suit on. He's pointing at the Black Hole." Gruden squints and imitates Davis. "Ahhhhhhh!"

Coaching Derek Carr, now that's fun. Carr is the quarterback Gruden always wanted but never had.

To some, Gruden and Carr seemed to be an odd match, but they are bringing out each other's best, challenging each other daily. They are the first ones in the office and the first ones on the practice field. During OTAs, Carr tried to beat Gruden to the office. He set his alarm for 4 a.m. and went straight to his car. When he arrived, Gruden's car was already in the lot.

Back in April, Gruden tried to make it easier for Carr than he did for his quarterbacks in previous jobs by asking for his participation in determining new terminology. Gruden, Olson and Carr came up with more concise play calls than Gruden previously used.

In camp, Gruden and Carr meet in a room that connects to Gruden's office. It's the same room in which Gruden met with Rich Gannon. Back then, there was a pool table in the room. Gruden got rid of it. The room is for working, not playing.

"Last night, I was saying we need to slip some NyQuil in his coffee—try to tone him down at night so he can get some rest," Carr says. "He'll make these elaborate cutups. I know it takes a long time to make an easy 20-play cutup of a certain coverage and certain look. He makes cutups with maybe 80 plays each and eight coverages, and he does it every day. He finds them in every which way, from college football, pro football, from 1998, from 1976. Where does he find the time?"

As Carr was finishing up a day's work in the spring, Gruden stopped him.

"I just want to tell you I love you and appreciate you," he told him. "Your work ethic is awesome. If you screw up, it's my fault because I didn't prepare you well."

That was all Carr needed to hear. "Now, if I screw something up and he gets on me, I don't question it," he says. "It's more like I feel like I let my dad down, and you don't want to do that."

The Gruden that Carr describes does not jibe with his reputation.

Eric Risberg/Associated Press

"He's one of the most loving people I've ever been around," Carr says. "He's family. I know he loves me, would give me the shirt off his back. He would do anything for my two boys, for my wife. He wants to know everything about me. He wants to meet my doctor. He wants to meet my agent. He wants to meet my business team, my parents, my brothers, my nieces, my nephews. He told my brother [NFL Network analyst David Carr] he can come whenever he wants."

Yes, this is a honeymoon.

Gruden has not had to live through a regular-season loss yet. A bad call has not gone against him. A draft pick hasn't flopped. An ominous cloud rarely has darkened the sky.

The Mack ordeal has tested him. But for the most part, he has been Jonny Sunshine.

Negativity and impatience did not serve Gruden well in his first coaching incarnation. He knows it. And he waited nine years for this, the perfect opportunity.

Gruden, as those his age tend to be, is more appreciative than he once was. People who have known him for years have noticed a mellowing.

"Last time I was here, I was 34 years old," he says. "I saw football as X's and O's and the urgency to get better as the primary focus. I probably was nuts. Now I'm trying to slow the train down and have a different perspective that way. I try to take more interest in these guys than I did last time. I try not to scream and yell and get all unglued all the time."

Old coach, new man?

This office is the intersection of yesterday and tomorrow.

"We're proud of our past here," Gruden says. "But like Al Davis used to always say, 'It's time for someone to take this team into the future.'"

And there is no one better to do that than the man who works in a dark, familiar hotel room, oblivious to the world outside.


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


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.