Bringing noteworthiness to an otherwise insignificant exhibition, the Oakland Raiders’ preseason debut Friday night against the Detroit Lions will officially mark the beginning of the franchise’s second Jon Gruden Era. Gruden coached in the Bay Area from 1998 to 2001, and he remains the franchise’s top coach by winning percentage since Tom Flores left the team in the late 1980s. The Raiders are desperate for Gruden to replicate that success for them now, so much so that they lured him away from his gig at ESPN with a bewildering 10-year, $100 million contract in January.
Gruden’s track record speaks for itself, with the 44th-most wins of any coach in pro football history. But it also bears mentioning that Gruden hasn’t roamed an NFL sideline in almost 10 years, since being fired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after the 2008 season. He spent most of the intervening years broadcasting, and the time away might be the biggest obstacle to Gruden restoring Oakland to glory. Across multiple sports, history tells us that coaches who return to the game after a decade away are usually unable to improve upon their records from before they left.
By coming back to the NFL 10 years after his last season, Gruden joins a pretty peculiar group of do-over coaches. It isn’t as though these kinds of coaches are sitting around doing nothing during their years off — in addition to broadcasting like Gruden, many serve as high-level assistant coaches after their first head-coaching stints — but it’s still rare to get another shot at the big chair after so much time away. Here’s the full list of NFL, NBA and MLB coaches/managers since 1977 (the year after the NBA-ABA merger) who had a gap of at least 10 years in their coaching resumes,1 along with how they did in their first season back relative to their previous career:
Coaching returns like Jon Gruden’s usually fall flat
Change in win percentage from previous career mark for coaches who returned to the NFL, NBA or MLB after at least 10 years away, 1977-2018
Change in WPct
In the past four-plus decades, only 15 other coaches have even tried what Gruden is attempting — and their success rate has been spotty at best. In their first seasons back, this group of returning coaches saw an average drop in winning percentage of about 90 points, compared with their career marks before their long layoffs. Only a third managed a winning record in their return season, and 20 percent only lasted one season before retiring (or being fired) again for good.
Not that there aren’t any success stories in the bunch. Dick Vermeil and Pete Carroll both recovered from mediocre starts to visit three total Super Bowls in their next NFL acts, winning two titles. (Carroll, it should be said, had also established himself as a very successful college coach during his time away from the NFL.) Terry Collins weathered the Mets’ Madoff crisis to put in six seasons with the club, guiding it to the World Series in 2015, while Paul Silas2 coached three separate franchises over nine seasons upon his return to the NBA. And Jack McKeon — who was 57 when he returned to managing with the 1988 Padres after a 10-year absence — stuck around for parts of 10 MLB campaigns over the next 17 years, winning the 2003 World Series with the Florida Marlins. After initially re-retiring in 2005, McKeon returned to the Marlins again in 2011, at age 80, for 90 games before finally hanging up the uniform for good.
But more frequently, these Gruden-esque returns have failed to recapture the glories of the initial run. (The Raiders know about these declines firsthand: Art Shell’s coaching stint in Oakland went from a success in the early 1990s to a total disaster after he returned to the club in 2006.) Among our group of coaches above, fewer than half had a better winning percentage in Round 2 than they had the first time around,3 with the average coach winning at a percentage 65 points lower over the remainder of his career than he’d done before his long absence.
For Gruden, such a dip would take his record just below .500 — and while that wouldn’t be terrible by recent Raiders standards, it’s also not what the team was envisioning when it signed that $100 million deal, with a franchise relocation looming on the horizon as well. Of course, there are some reasons to think Gruden can do better than his peers from the returning-after-a-decade-away club. Quarterback Derek Carr is in his prime and should have more weapons to work with in the form of newly acquired receivers Jordy Nelson and Martavis Bryant (plus two-time 1,400-yard rusher Doug Martin).4 A defense that ranked among the worst in football last season has a completely overhauled linebacking corps around star edge-rusher Khalil Mack. Overall, enough of the roster that won 12 games two years ago remains that a bid for the AFC West crown wouldn’t be totally crazy in Gruden’s first year back.
Even so, the Raiders deserved every bit of their 6-10 record last year, and they did it with better-than-average injury luck. Meanwhile, Gruden didn’t exactly spend the offseason assuaging concerns that his thinking was stuck in the early-2000s era during which he’d been most successful. And maybe that’s the biggest reason that some of these coaching retreads end up going flat: The game evolves much faster than those on the outside can imagine, even if they’re observing it from the announcing booth. Tactics and ideas that worked a decade ago are now passé, and you might not know it until the games begin.
Gruden will get his very first taste of that Friday night, and we’ll begin to see whether the time away sharpened his focus or simply left him out of touch with the modern game.
Cardinals Insider Bob McManaman breaks down the team’s position groups on a daily basis heading into training camp, which begins with the first full-squad workout on Saturday. Today: Linebackers and defensive backs.
When it comes to these specific groups, the biggest question facing the Cardinals is the same one they inexplicably keep trying to answer every year:
Who’s going to be the starting cornerback on the other side of perennial Pro Bowl performer Patrick Peterson?
Sometimes, that’s been answered in the form of free-agent signing in the offseason. Other times, it’s been a late veteran addition once camp starts. The Cardinals have also tried drafting a No. 2 corner. However they’ve gone about trying to fill the void, they also seem to be facing the same quandary the following year.
“When you look at what he’s done, on paper, you can say that,” Cardinals coach Steve Wilks said. “But once we got on the field, it’s a clean slate for everybody.”
That would indicate that it’s going to be a wide-open competition with Taylor likely having to stave off challenges from fellow newcomers Bene Benwikere and Lou Young III, third-year holdover Brandon Williams and perhaps even rookie Chris Campbell, who opens camp on the physically unable to perform list because of an ankle issue.
Wilks has spent most of his coaching career working with defensive backs, so he knows what type of corner he wants in his system. But knowing the Cardinals, it won’t be a shocker if they bring in another face with perhaps some name recognition to battle for the job.
The No. 2 cornerback role could take on heavier importance this season, given Wilks’ seeming inclination to let Peterson have more chances to attack the ball. Normally, Peterson shadows the opponents’ top wide receiver and does it so well that he sees very little action. That could change now that he may be allowed to play off the ball and do a bit of roving in the secondary, even doing some blitzing.
It’s a way to get Peterson more involved and make his job less predictable, which is what he craves.
“I’m constantly in his ear about competing against yourself, No. 1, because sometimes at this level when you get guys that great – Larry Fitzgerald, Patrick Peterson, Chandler Jones – sometimes they tend to coast. … Sometimes guys are so gifted that sometimes even at an 85, 90 percent, they’re better than the guys around them.
“I used to tell Josh Norman the same thing: ‘You’ve got to learn how to compete against yourself. It’s not about the guys around you.’ ”
Peterson sees it as a way to make more interceptions while still being a shutdown corner.
“It should be fun,” he said. “I’m looking to make a ton of plays this year. I’m looking to start jumping routes now. I’m looking to be a little bit more aggressive off the ball and be the same as I am when I’m in the receiver’s face.
“It’ll give me an opportunity to show up on the stat sheet somehow.”
The Cardinals are excited about their collection of safeties, led by starters Antoine Bethea, a 12-year veteran, and Budda Baker, who is coming off an excellent rookie season. Both are legitimate playmakers and Baker’s best days are still ahead of him. He progressed so well over the second half of last season that the Cardinals were willing to let Tyrann Mathieu walk as a free agent.
The Cardinals, however, are expected to sign one of the better safeties still on the free-agent market in veteran Tre Boston, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. Boston, 26, played three seasons under Wilks from 2014-16 when they both were with the Panthers. Last season, Boston set career highs with 79 total tackles and five interceptions with the Chargers.
His addition likely means he will compete for playing time with Bethea at free safety and ultimately may be given a chance to supplant him as the starter if he shows the muster in training camp.
Wilks has raved about the team’s young collection of safety depth behind them in players such as Rudy Ford, A.J. Howard, Travell Dixon and Zeke Turner.
Boston won’t be the only new face reporting to camp. The Cardinals on Wednesday reportedly agreed to terms with former Steelers linebacker Arthur Moats. It’s not like the Cardinals didn’t need to add some extra veteran depth at that position. The linebacker corps has a little sizzle at the top, but not nearly enough at the bottom.
The three starters in defensive coordinator Al Holcomb’s 4-3 base system are second-year man Haason Reddick at the strong-side spot, Deone Bucannon at the weak-side spot and Josh Bynes as the main man in the middle, replacing Karlos Dansby. Each has decent speed and tackling abilities, but if the Cardinals hope to have a top-five defense again, it’s these three players who will have to live up to expectations.
Moats, Edmond Robinson, Jeremy Cash and Scooby Wright are the backups, along with a handful of undrafted rookie free agents who project mostly as training camp bodies.
Overall, the linebackers and defensive backs are good enough to keep the Cardinals as a top-10 defense. Arizona and Denver are the only two teams that ranked that high each of the past three seasons, with the Cardinals averaging as the league’s No. 4 defense during that span. They’re an underrated unit and yet they represent the strength of this team once again.
Reach McManaman at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @azbobbymac and listen to him live every Tuesday afternoon between 3-6 on 1580-AM The Fanatic with Roc and Manuch and every Wednesday afternoon between 1-3 on Fox Sports 910-AM on The Freaks with Kenny and Crash.