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In the ever-evolving NFL, Jon Gruden’s traditional ways are still welcome

Eric Adelson
Columnist

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ORLANDO, Fla. – The coaches’ roundtable at NFL owners’ meetings was scheduled to begin at 7:15 a.m. on Tuesday. Patriots coach Bill Belichick was about 30 minutes late. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin strode in at almost 8.

Jon Gruden was seated by 7 a.m.

The new Oakland Raiders coach waved off the freshly brewed Ritz-Carlton coffee and the generous breakfast buffet.

“Already had my oatmeal,” he said with a grin.

The former TV commentator turned what can normally be a dour or even lugubrious affair into a fun free-for-all, dropping lines and stories just like the iconic guy in the broadcast booth. When he was asked about critics who say he can’t adapt to a new era in NFL coaching, he quipped, “Who are my critics? Does anyone criticize them?”

When a reporter asked him to play word association, he shot back, “It’s 7 in the morning.”

He spent far more than the allotted hour parrying with reporters, often sitting on the edge of his banquet chair and propping his sneakers up on their toes. He had the trademark hybrid smile/sneer. He looked like he was ready to tackle people.

“I missed the grind,” he said.

“Most of my friends in life are coaches,” Gruden continued. “Whether in pro football, college football, high school football. That’s a big reason I came back. I missed it.

“I got a lot to prove, I know that.”

Oakland Raiders head football coach Jon Gruden answers a question from a reporter at the coaches breakfast during the NFL owners meetings, Tuesday, March 27, 2018 in Orlando, Fla. (PAP Images for NFL)

He’s got a lot to prove and the knives will be out fast if he struggles. This is the Twitter world now, where judgment is harsh and anything can be taken out of context. That’s already happened with Gruden this year, even before he could officially meet with his players. In February, he answered a question about analytics by saying he was trying to “take the game back to 1998.” That was harped on as a sign he doesn’t get the era of the read-pass option (RPO). When the 1998 comment was first referenced on Tuesday morning, he bristled.

“You’re blowing that thing out of proportion,” he said, sitting back for a moment. “You guys are having a lot of fun with that, but I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean.

“I re-signed a blocking tight end who was on the team the last three years. I brought in a fullback but I also traded our fullback. I don’t know where we’re taking that 1998 quote, but what we did in 1998 [with the Raiders] is we brought in a lot of veteran free agents, at the beginning, that were tough guys, that were leaders of their position. That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to bring in a work ethic like 1998 and I’m excited about it.”

Gruden’s old-time familiarity brings fans and cameras, but his ways better not be too familiar in a league that seems to evolve every day. He was a very good coach in the ‘90s and early 2000s. He won a Super Bowl in 2002 with the Bucs. But the game has changed, leaving the Raiders with only one playoff appearance since 2002. Has Gruden changed? With the team scheduled to move to Las Vegas, his splashy big-salary hire has the feel of a gamble. And some of his opinions seem, well, traditional. When he was asked how he would alter the NFL, he answered this way:

“Try to keep the game the same as it has been. I don’t like a lot of these new rules. I don’t understand them. It’s getting awful technical. I’d like to eliminate instant reply, honestly. That’d be my No. 1 thing. Let the officials call the game.”

But this is about more than old-man-yells-at-cloud; it’s about Gruden proving his ability to adapt. He did it once, by switching from a high-octane offense with the Raiders with Rich Gannon to more of a block-and-slog attack with the Bucs. But it was clear on Tuesday his heart is with the guys who can move the line of scrimmage: the beefy tight ends, the fullback. He said running back Marshawn Lynch was at his best when the Seahawks had a more traditional blocking tight end in Zach Miller, rather than Jimmy Graham. He pointed to the Super Bowl champion Eagles, not as much for their creative play-calling but for their use of tight ends Zach Ertz and Brent Celek (and even Trey Burton). He suggested that he might move one of his offensive tackles to tight end. When asked how he defines Raiders football, he said, “Physical football, winning football.” He’s very serious about this.

“Sorry about that,” he said, clearly not sorry, “but I like tight ends.”

In his defense, that position has eroded in some ways since he left the NFL.

“Everybody’s playing the spread [in college]. [Tight ends] don’t play in line as much. They’re out in the slot, using four wide receivers and one back. They’re not in-line blockers like they used to be. There are some, but they’re hard to find.”

A tight end who can block and release into space is indeed extremely tough to defend. When he’s healthy, Rob Gronkowski is arguably the best offensive weapon in football, and Travis Kelce isn’t far behind. Those guys can block. An RPO is a nice tool, but it’s not going to wear down a defense in December. The question Gruden brings, just by being back in the league, is whether the essence of football has really changed: win the line of scrimmage, win the game. If it’s still that way, Gruden should do well. If not, it’ll be painfully clear the Raiders made a pricey miscalculation.

Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr looks to throw a pass during the Pro Bowl on Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018, in Orlando, Fla. (AP)

Perhaps the most immediate impact Gruden can make is with quarterback Derek Carr. The coach knows the quarterback landscape as well as anyone after many years working with passers coming out of college. He remembers Carr throwing so accurately at a showcase in Florida that he broke two GoPros that had been set up behind passing targets. “He put on a passing display that very few can put on,” Gruden said, adding that he was “shocked” he wasn’t taken in the first round. Part of his push to shore up the Raiders’ blocking is to protect Carr. And those who worry Gruden will be too meddlesome with his star may be soothed to hear how his goal is to return Carr to the comfort level he had at Fresno State, when he was calling a lot of his own plays.

“They’ve become more CEO type,” Gruden said of modern quarterbacks, “doing more at the line of scrimmage than they ever have. If you watch the championship teams, Tom Brady is getting a lot done at the line of scrimmage. Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers – they fix problems. They recognize matchups. They get to their own plays, and they have the free rein to do that. I think that’s where the game is going. Hopefully we can take Derek to that level, where we give him a lot of responsibility at the line of scrimmage.”

Sounds fairly up-to-date. Though, of course, it wasn’t long before Gruden was back to praising tight ends: “If you want to turn your back to the defense like Peyton Manning used to, you better have a tight end that can pass protect.”

You can’t fault Gruden for going with what he knows. He would probably feel the same way if he had remained an NFL coach for all of these years. After all, it’s not like Andy Reid – another guy from the Packers coaching tree – has dropped the tight end from his repertoire. Neither has Belichick nor Tomlin, for that matter. And while the Eagles needed backups at quarterback and running back last season, one particular offensive position remained healthy.

Gruden 2.0 probably won’t be too much different from the original version. That might be a good thing. Part of his success was due to showing up early, staying late and showing a lot of energy – basically what he did on Tuesday.

That stuff never goes out of style.

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