Seeing Jon Gruden back in the NFL, a major coup for the Oakland Raiders, has me wondering again.
What is the surest solution for any team looking to shake off the doldrums and make a serious run at the Super Bowl? And, to go along with that, why didn’t it work for the Miami Dolphins when they got their last splashy hire, Nick Saban?
Wayne Huizenga left the league when he couldn’t come up for answers to those questions. He’s the former Dolphins owner who made the huge headline hires of Jimmy Johnson and Saban at different times, and who had Dan Marino as his quarterback for a decade, but still never broke through to the top.
Huizenga was trying to buy a little magic, just as the Raiders are now with their $100 million investment in Gruden. Remember, Oakland is where Gruden started his head coaching career, but the late Al Davis tired of him after a couple of brief postseason appearances and let his popular young coach leave for Tampa Bay.
So what happened? Magic, more or less. A Super Bowl title in his first season there. A flash of charisma, too, that had you thinking dynasty.
A solid roster already in place surely helped. The Bucs had made the playoffs in four of the previous five seasons under Tony Dungy, who got the boot despite an overall regular-season record of 54-42. Right off the bat, Gruden could depend on Pro Bowl defenders like Warren Sapp and John Lynch and Derrick Brooks, who combined to make Tampa Bay No. 1 in fewest points and yards allowed.
There was, however, no elite quarterback. Gruden used Brad Johnson for most of that Super Bowl season, and turned to Rob Johnson and Shaun King for three emergency starts when injuries struck.
There was no immediate promise of help from the NFL draft, either. Tampa Bay traded its first- and second-round picks to Oakland for the rights to sign Gruden away.
Altogether, it seems that Gruden grabbed hold of some very rare lightning in his debut season with the Bucs, because he was only 45-51 after that, with a couple of wild-card playoff losses.
Clearly, this gig is harder than Bill Belichick makes it look. That’s why, in retrospect, it would have been astounding for Saban to thrive immediately with the Dolphins, and why it’s disappointing that he didn’t stick around to see what would happen when a few more things came his way.
No fewer than 11 coaches who already had Super Bowl titles or would eventually win one were working in the league when Saban showed up. All of them had figured out as much as anyone can about succeeding in the NFL, yet two of them – Gruden and three-time Super Bowl champion Joe Gibbs – could do more than match Saban’s 15-17 record in the seasons of 2005 and 2006.
Bill Parcells was 18-14 with Dallas over that same stretch. Bill Cowher was 19-13 with a Super Bowl title during those two years. Tom Coughlin and Brian Billick were 19-13 and failed between them to win a single playoff game.
Trying to be smarter than every other coach is not a viable long-term strategy in this league, unless you’re Belichick and Tom Brady, and having a great organization merely gives you a chance.
Look at Saban’s staff in 2005. His defensive line coach was Dan Quinn, who nearly won the Super Bowl last year as Atlanta’s head coach and has the Falcons on another title hunt this month. Two other future NFL head coaches – Jason Garrett and Scott Linehan – worked assistant jobs on offense. And no matter what anybody thinks of Will Muschamp, the Dolphins’ defensive coordinator in 2005, he and South Carolina just got a bowl victory over Jim Harbaugh, the savant of Ann Arbor and a former NFL head coach himself.
If there are lessons in all of this for Adam Gase, and for those who believe him to be suddenly in over his head, it’s that the NFL makes every coach look confused from time to time, especially those, like Saban, who didn’t have a top quarterback. Makes some very accomplished coaches decide to stay out altogether, too, men like Bobby Bowden and Bear Bryant and Joe Paterno and Tom Osborne.
So it’s good luck to Gruden and the Raiders. He’s a good coach but they have no guarantee of a brilliant relationship, even with glitzy Las Vegas in their future.
That’s because the Raiders are coming off a 6-10 season, just like Miami, and because there are no sure solutions for turning a mediocre team into a monster overnight. None at all.