I’m completely serious when I say there is something beautiful about Jon Gruden and Nathan Peterman. They are, at present, two NFL punch lines who can solve one another’s problem. You cannot go online without coming across a joke about them. They’re met with a degree of skepticism when it comes to their place in the league. The comparison mostly stops there: Though they are both Oakland Raiders this summer, Gruden has nine years left on his contract, while Peterman’s career could conceivably end tomorrow. Gruden won a Super Bowl in 2003, while Peterman’s two years in the NFL are known mostly for unprecedented disaster. Gruden is hugely famous and Peterman is sort of a cult figure. They can, in theory, help each other stop being jokes.
If Gruden turns Peterman into a passable NFL quarterback, even as a backup, Peterman will help restore Gruden’s long-forgotten reputation as a quarterback miracle worker. It will also allow Peterman to finally drop his reputation as one of the worst quarterbacks to ever play in the NFL. It won’t be easy since Peterman has been remarkably bad, and Gruden has had a rough quarterback run dating back to his time in Tampa Bay. The Gruden-Peterman rehabilitation angle can easily become a joke—it seems like it is already halfway there—but until proved otherwise, it has an outside shot at being a football redemption story. Maybe Gruden is right. Maybe Peterman is fine, and maybe we will all have to delete our accounts.
Training camp is the most optimistic time of the NFL season, and the most optimistic story within the most optimistic time is Gruden’s belief that Peterman’s got a chance. There is no way Peterman helps the Raiders win this year, but if he develops into a legitimate NFL player, it would be Gruden’s biggest coaching accomplishment in a long time. Peterman is in a battle this August with Mike Glennon for a roster spot. If he wins, he then has to battle against, well, seemingly every other force in the world to become a competent quarterback. To paraphrase the boxing trainer Teddy Atlas, Peterman has a month to make life fair. If football has been unfair to Peterman—or Gruden—they can solve that together.
The Peterman-Gruden angle is relevant this week because Gruden said his potential backup quarterback “is growing on me.” This, of course, set off alarm bells among members of the football punditry, myself included, which has tried to corner the market on Gruden and Peterman jokes. Lord knows I like an easy joke, but Gruden and Peterman have a unique opportunity to dunk on the entire football pundit class en masse. Fixing Derek Carr would be a minor achievement. Fixing Peterman would be a historic victory.
Peterman, if you are new around here, was a 2017 fifth-round pick of the Buffalo Bills who started one of the worst games in the history of the quarterback position: a zero-touchdown, five-interception performance in a 30-point loss against the Chargers in November 2017. The game came after Peterman supplanted Tyrod Taylor, a much better quarterback, as the starter. It also took place in the first year that Colin Kaepernick was out of football, and Peterman became a symbol for the bad quarterbacks who had NFL starting jobs while Kaepernick was not on a roster. He was a symbol for bad quarterbacks in general. In short, he became a national joke. He has started three games since then and has a 3-to-12 touchdown-to-interception ratio while completing just 52 percent of his passes.
Gruden, if you’re still new around here, has had a tough go of it since returning to the NFL last season after a 10-year hiatus. He traded Khalil Mack last September and then spent the season complaining about his team’s lack of pass rush as Mack starred for the Bears as one of the best players in the NFL. The Raiders also traded receiver Amari Cooper, who looked like one of the best offensive weapons in the league after departing Oakland for Dallas. Gruden has been ripped for his approach to modern football. Some of his jokes fall flat, like when he suggested that he wanted to bring the sport back to 1998. He’ll have his hands full this season with his starting quarterback, Derek Carr, who might end up being Gruden’s neighbor in Las Vegas next year after the Raiders move to their new home. Maybe Peterman will live with Gruden.
Some pairings feel predestined. Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid; John Lennon and Paul McCartney; Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich—you could never imagine one separate from the other. Gruden and Peterman have been hurtling through the universe toward each other: Before the 2017 draft, when Gruden still worked ESPN’s Monday Night Football, he wrote that Peterman “is ready to walk in and be a contributor from day one. He just looks like a pro quarterback—coming out of the huddle, running an offense with different formations, shifting, motioning, different patterns that other colleges don’t run.” He went on to say that Peterman could command 10 grown men in the huddle immediately. They’ve each been on quite a journey ever since: Gruden signed a 10-year, $100 million deal with the Raiders last year. Peterman, meanwhile, has at times looked like he was taken out of the stands to play football after having seen the sport for the very first time. There are additional layers to the joke, including Peterman having an online store that sells throw pillows. Another joke is that he started the Bills’ opener last year to predictably bad results.
Despite all of these things, Gruden has lengthened his paper trail of Peterman love:
Nathan Peterman must be approaching elite status for Gruden to be higher on him than he was before training camp even started lolz pic.twitter.com/weFWCLh5c3— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) July 30, 2019
I think a lot about Peterman’s role as perhaps the worst NFL starter in the modern era, and often wonder where he ranks on a list of must-see players in the NFL. If someone told you that, say, the Bears’ Mitchell Trubisky was on the field, maybe you’d be intrigued. If Peterman, who has found disaster at every turn, is on the field, you would probably do whatever you could to watch. Peterman’s troubles, of course, are a lesson in how hard it is to play NFL football. When he was playing at Pittsburgh in 2016, Peterman torched Clemson, the eventual national champion, for five touchdowns in a 43-42 win. So few quarterbacks even get drafted, and there are probably hundreds who would be worse than Peterman in the pros. So Peterman has a unique problem: he was good enough to make the NFL but bad enough to be the worst quarterback in its history.
When ProFootballTalk’s Mike Florio wondered whether Peterman had a future with the Raiders, he invoked Rich Gannon as an example of a quarterback whose career Gruden revitalized. Florio also noted, correctly, that Gruden may have simply been talking up Peterman to push Carr to get better. Gannon was a much better pro than Peterman when Gruden brought him in, but the point is that this is the ultimate reclamation project. For each person.
Before we go any further, here’s one qualification: Gruden can go off the rails in his press conferences sometimes, and his comments don’t always reflect what’s happening with his team. As luck would have it, the first press conference I ever covered as a journalist involved Gruden. In 2006, as a freshman in college, I listened to Gruden talk at length about a wideout from Brown named Chas Gessner. At one point, Gruden said something to the effect of “what a great story it’ll be when it is all said and done.” The quotes that made it into news reports at the time were Grudeny: “I call him `Golden Goose.′ He hates that name, but he’s made a lot of plays,” Gruden said. I came away from that press conference thinking that Gessner was Jerry Rice. In reality, Gessner was cut, eventually made the practice squad, and appeared in one game in his NFL career. All of this is to say that Gruden hyping up Peterman might be a bit—and Gruden loves a bit. Still, Gruden’s longtime love of Peterman and his comments in training camp suggest he likes something about him.
And there’s already some evidence that Carr likes Peterman as a backup:
Find yourself a teammate who supports you like @derekcarrqb supports Nathan Peterman. #HardKnocksNow pic.twitter.com/WaElOAE0fA— NFL Films (@NFLFilms) July 31, 2019
The Raiders will probably be better in 2019. They have Antonio Brown. They used their haul of draft picks from the Cooper and Mack trades somewhat strangely, but at least they’ve got some young talent like first-round picks Clelin Ferrell and Josh Jacobs, even if their talent doesn’t exactly match up with their draft position. Carr’s development will be crucial. Peterman’s development probably won’t add much to their win total in 2019, but it’s one hell of a subplot.
The dirty little secret of training camp is that it is intensely boring: After the novelty of players putting pads back on wears off, there is no news outside of injuries and coaches lying about position battles. Gruden and Peterman are doing us a service by making the first week of camp exciting and arming NFL Twitter with the idea that Peterman could stick in Oakland. At the very least, Gruden just made the first episode of Hard Knocks must-see television.
There is an easy joke column to be written about Peterman and Gruden, and on a different day, I might have written it. But it’s training camp, which is one large celebration of what is possible. A festival of unrealistic projections. Peterman and Gruden can help one another. It’s not funny. (OK, it’s kind of funny.)