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What Jon Gruden Can Learn From the Disastrous End to His Last Coaching Job

In 2008, the Buccaneers lost their final four games to miss the playoffs. It was a complete team meltdown that offers some lessons for Gruden as he heads back to Oakland.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In football years, one decade might as well be a century. Ten years ago, the wildcat ripped the league in half, Aaron Rodgers made his first start for the Packers, Brett Favre played 16 games for the Jets, the Patriots missed the playoffs, and most shocking of all, Jeff Fisher coached a team that won—you’re really not gonna believe this—13 whole games. If you don’t know where you’ve come from, then you don’t know where you’re going. So, to better understand what’s ahead in 2018, we’re spending this week looking back on what happened 10 years before. Welcome to 2008 Week!

“Anything goes on any given Sunday, especially on Monday night,” Jon Gruden proclaimed during one Monday Night Football broadcast in 2014. You have to wonder whether he was thinking back to 2008 when he said that.

That year, Gruden was still the coach of the Buccaneers, and his team had a Week 14 MNF matchup against Carolina. Late in the third quarter, Cadillac Williams ran in a 4-yard touchdown to help Tampa Bay draw level, 17-17, and Gruden did a celebratory shimmy-slash-fist pump. The Bucs were neck and neck with Carolina atop the NFC South, so a win so late in the season could determine who took the division, and maybe even a first-round bye. And at 9-3, the Bucs still had their eyes on a wild-card spot even if they lost.

Gruden couldn’t have known then, but his little dance was the closest he’d get to tasting the playoffs that year. Or any of the next 10 years, for that matter, as the Bucs lost to Carolina as well as their next three opponents to finish 9-7 and outside of the postseason, and Gruden was fired at the end of the year. That last month, the screws fell out of the tight (pirate) ship Gruden ran—and the way that final stretch of games went down may have some lessons for Gruden as he returns to coaching for the first time in a decade with the Raiders.

To a young generation of NFL fans, Gruden is known as a quarterback guru thanks to the popularity of QB Camp, a series in which he would interview, watch film, and run around the field as a “53-year-old pass rusher” with top quarterback prospects. Gruden, however, did not have the luxury of brilliant quarterback play at the tail end of his time in Tampa Bay.

After missing out on acquiring Brett Favre that offseason, Gruden started a 38-year-old Jeff Garcia, who threw for 12 touchdowns in 12 games. In the five games Garcia was injured, 33-year-old Brian Griese took over, throwing five touchdowns and seven picks. Neither quarterback would ever start another game in the NFL.

Even worse for Gruden’s squad than the subpar quarterback play was the complete implosion of the once-vaunted Tampa Bay defense. That demise began on December 1, one week before the Carolina game, when the University of Tennessee formally announced Lane Kiffin as the new head coach of the football team. Leave it to perhaps the only coach in football more enigmatic than Gruden to set the gears in motion on Gruden’s downfall.

Upon Lane’s hiring, speculation immediately arose that his dad, Monte Kiffin, then the defensive coordinator for the Bucs, would join his son at UT. Not long after, Kiffin privately informed the players of his intentions to leave at the end of the season. Despite Kiffin, Gruden, and Bucs players all categorically denying that Kiffin’s imminent departure affected play, the results on the field were plain to see.

Kiffin’s storied defense allowed just one rushing touchdown in the 12 games leading up to the Carolina contest. That Monday night, though, the rush defense unraveled, giving up four touchdowns on the ground, three of which came in a 21-point fourth quarter for the Panthers that gave them the win, 38-23. The bleeding didn’t stop there. Tampa Bay allowed three more rushing touchdowns in its final three losses. During the four-game collapse, Tampa Bay allowed 189 rushing yards per game. At that rate over a 16-game season, that would’ve made the Bucs the third-worst rush defense in the Super Bowl era.

Virtually everyone’s play slipped, but the most glaringly obvious culprit was Tampa Bay’s defensive anchor Barrett Ruud, whose 90.7 Pro Football Focus grade made him second-highest-ranked linebacker in the league going into the Panthers game. During the 0-4 run, Ruud graded at 53.2, plummeting him to 79th among linebackers in that span. The team gave up big play after big play after big play, including the final nail in the coffin: a 67-yard Michael Bush run in Week 17 that the Bucs never managed to overcome.

Lane Kiffin wasn’t the only distraction to plague the Buccaneers. In April, Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen selected Aqib Talib in the first round of the 2008 NFL draft, despite reports that Talib failed multiple drug tests at Kansas.

Soon after being drafted, Talib got into a fight with new teammate Cory Boyd at the rookie symposium. In his first two seasons, Talib also got into another fight with Donald Penn, smashing Torrie Cox in the face with his helmet amid the struggle, was arrested on a battery charge, and was late to meetings and overslept and missed a flight.

Gruden dismissed Talib’s rookie transgressions as “innocent mistakes,” but it was a symptom of his missteps in management. After Gruden was fired in 2009, former colleague Michael Lombardi wrote a column explaining why he thought Gruden was canned, calling him the “Larry Brown of the NFL” thanks to poor personnel decisions and crummy player-coach relationships. Wide receiver Michael Clayton, who played under Gruden for five years, labeled Gruden a “turncoat.”

While Gruden gave Talib multiple passes, it wasn’t necessarily an indication of his coaching policy because, well, hardly anyone knows what his philosophy was—not even the players. “How do you build a championship team with all the inconsistency?” Clayton said.

Still, when Chucky returns to the sidelines this season—and probably for many more after, given the decade-long contract Mark Davis handed him—Raiders fans have reason to be optimistic. Derek Carr is just 27, and he is coming off three straight Pro Bowl appearances. Oakland’s pass offense DVOA peaked at fourth in 2016, and even last year, amid lamentations about letting offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave go in favor of the less impressive Todd Downing, the air game still finished 13th in DVOA—the same as Gruden’s best year in Tampa Bay.

All reports coming out of the Bay Area indicate Carr’s infatuation with the “Spider 2 Y Banana” offense. And this will be Carr’s first NFL season under an offense-first head coach. Meanwhile Carr may be the best quarterback Gruden has ever worked with—it could be an excellent match for both parties.

As Gruden begins his return stint in Oakland, some ghosts of the 2008 Bucs have come out of the woodwork. Oakland’s defense ranked 29th in DVOA last season, and the only new defensive signing to have made a Pro Bowl was Derrick Johnson. Even then, Johnson’s yearly PFF grade in the past three years has fallen from 82.0 to 70.5 to 65.5, the latter being his worst season since 2008.

Still, the Raiders have reason to expect that their defense will improve this year. First, they will need to resolve the standstill over two-time All-Pro Khalil Mack’s contract holdout. If they get that squared away, Oakland will be in promising shape in Year 1 of the Gruden project, having shored up the supporting cast around PFF’s sixth-best edge rusher. By moving Bruce Irvin from linebacker to defensive end, the Raiders can play to Irvin’s pass-rushing strengths while filling a hole opposite Mack on the line. Elsewhere on the defensive line, Oakland has potential upgrades to Eddie Vanderdoes—who is coming off an ACL tear—in rookies P.J. Hall and Maurice Hurst Jr. In vying for a starting spot, the pair will challenge Mario Edwards, who the Raiders hope will finally break out this season.

Other signings may not be flashy, but they fill needs for an Oakland team that needs stability. Free-agent acquisition Tahir Whitehead is a step up from Cory James at weakside linebacker. New signings Rashaan Melvin and Marcus Gilchrist, plus last year’s first-round pick Gareon Conley—who, after playing only two games in 2017, is expected to win the starting cornerback job opposite Melvin—have completely revamped last year’s secondary, potentially boosting a pass defense that ranked 30th against the pass by Football Outsiders. Revamped too is Oakland’s whole defensive scheme. New defensive coordinator Paul Guenther has installed a high-demand scheme—featuring 14 different D-line fronts, 15 coverages, 20 blitzes out of a four-down front, and 26 blitzes out of double-A-gap fronts.

To make up for Chucky’s deficiencies as a player’s coach, Guenther and offensive coordinator Greg Olson will need to be rocks, not distractions, especially when the team relocates to Sin City. Olson was Oakland’s OC as recently as 2014, so he’s already worked with many Raiders players, including Carr. Since then, he’s made stops with the Jaguars and the Rams, coaching Blake Bortles to his career-best year and putting Jared Goff in the Pro Bowl. Gruden and Olson may be the perfect quarterback gurus to return Carr to his 2016 form, when according to PFF he was the fifth-best quarterback in the league. If they can engineer that, Gruden will finally have his Favre.

Gruden has a promising quarterback, a set of coordinators who aren’t about to leave for Tennessee, and 10 years of perspective to learn from some of the mistakes that ultimately doomed him in Tampa Bay. It may not all come together immediately—having another nine years left on your contract doesn’t scream urgency anyway—but there’s at least plenty of reason for Raiders fans to feel like it won’t end up in the disaster Gruden oversaw in those last four games with the Bucs.