Jon Gruden loves to talk about football. The former NFL head coach is a Super Bowl champion, and his broadcasting career now puts him on the road every week and on nation TV for a Monday Night Football broadcast each week.
But even though he’s not on the sidelines anymore, Gruden still approaches football like a coach. He watches film obsessively and tries to draw out his favorite parts for the audience at home. When you talk to him, it still feels like he’s a head coach breaking down an opponent. Gruden admits that football is changing, but if you ask him, the “ultimate team game” is still the best sport out there.
We talked to Gruden by phone about the upcoming NFL season, how to evaluate quarterbacks, and what he’s looking forward to most this fall. If you guessed “football” you’re right, but it’s always much more complicated than that with Coach Gruden.
UPROXX: How have you evolved as a broadcaster since you first started? Is there somebody that you’ve learned a lot from or that took you aside and said, “Hey this is how you have to do this,” Because it seems like it would take a very different skill set than coaching.
Jon Gruden: It is. I was a communications major in college at the University of Dayton and I always wanted to be that guy doing the six o’clock news if I didn’t coach. That was my objective. If I wasn’t going to coach, I was going to be doing the news, so I had a little bit of communications background. I’d obviously done a lot of interviews and things like that as the head coach for 11 years.
The number one guy to help me was Jay Rothman at ESPN. He gave me this opportunity. Really, he was hard on me, and I asked him to be hard on me initially, giving me feedback and things that perhaps I could do to get ready to go because my first broadcasting opportunity was live on Monday Night Football.
And then the second guy I gotta really give a lot of props to is Mike Tirico. He was an incredible quarterback. He set me up. I mean, when you’ve got to work with me, it’s tough, let me tell you. But he took time, personal time of his, to help me and help me be organized, more concise, helping me anticipate where he was going to go with the broadcast. Those two guys, both in particular, my good friend Ron Jaworski, who I worked with in the booth my first few years, and I miss Jaws a lot.
Was it interesting seeing things from the other side, when you make that switch and you’re suddenly the person who has to come up with questions or you have to, on the spot, analyze these things and see it from a different light. Did it change the way you view football?
No, it really doesn’t at all. Pretty much my whole life, all I’ve really done is football. Studying it. I still come in here to the FFCA breakdown tapes at four o’clock in the morning. Offense, defense, trend reels, red zone, short yards, two men at goal line, I mean, that’s what I love to do. I kind of look at this as an opportunity to share football with fans, and give some behind the scenes information that maybe they can really absorb and have some fun with. So I’ve enjoyed it, but it is a lot more travel. You don’t get in eight home games a year, you get 16 roadies man, it’s tough.
It seems like in your broadcasts you are trying to educate fans and give them something new to learn about football. That’s maybe not something a lot of others are doing these days. Is that something that you intentionally try to do, is to educate viewers as you go throughout the game?
I do. Every week I pretty much just study two teams. I study the Saints and the Vikings. That’s my first broadcast, September 11th. So I try to pick a nugget or two from each side of the ball. The Saints offense with the defense of the Vikings, the offense of the Vikings and the defense of the Saints. Maybe there’s a couple nuggets in my three days of study that I think is pretty cool that maybe we can present to our fans.
And Jay Rothman, Chip Dean, the producer and director of Monday Night Football, Sean McDonough, Lisa Salters — We all go over all these nuggets, and if we all agree that they taste pretty good, we go with it. Now, hell, I’ve got to get everything to pass through the Gruden Hotline now so it’s tough.
There’s been an explosion of people analyzing game film, especially online, in the last few years. But it seems tough to know if you can trust people and that what they’re seeing is actually there. Does giving people access to this sort of footage not always translate into actually understanding what’s happening on the field?
Sometimes. The biggest problem is they can’t rewind it over and over. Sometimes you’ve got to see it three or four times to make sense of it, but when you see it from All-22, and then you go to the next play, and the next play, and the next play, and the next game, and the next week, you have a tendency to let things run together a little bit. That’s one of the things that you try to do: you try to take some of the huge tendencies or some of the money plays or money defenses that teams are having success with and try to bring the scheme to life.
I was kind of criticized earlier in broadcasting about being too technical. ‘Try to dumb it down a little bit.’ But the fans I talked to, they really like learning some of the technical things that are going to happen. You can’t please everybody, but you got to be careful in how technical you get because you want to keep as close to the game as possible.
How much do you factor in the criticism that you might take for a broadcast? I mean, there’s always going to be somebody talking, whether you’re a coach or whether you’re a broadcaster, and now it’s even easier to get an opinion through if you have Twitter or something like that. Is that something you have to block out, or do you just find voices that are important and learn from them?
I encourage criticism. I can’t say I spend a lot of my time reading all the blogs and all the Tweets out there. I don’t have enough time for that. I know I have people that criticize me, and I don’t want to be criticized. I want everything to be good and great and perfect all the time. But you just try to trust the people you work for, Jay Rothman, Chip Dean, Sean McDonough. You listen to the people that really study the broadcast that will give you honest feedback. And I’m not looking for pats on the back either. I’ve always liked people pointing out things I could do better.
One of the things that you seem to have a lot of fun with is talking with quarterbacks, especially those that are coming into the league. How interesting is it see how people evaluate quarterbacks these days. It seems like everyone is searching for the next quarterback, but nobody seems to be very good at it.
I know. It’s an amazing process. I love it, and that’s the one thing I miss about coaching. We won a Super Bowl with a guy who was a late-round draft choice, Brad Johnson. We went to the AFC Championship with Rich Gannon in Oakland, and he was drafted by the New England Patriots to play defensive back. So they come in different shapes and different sizes, they come from different rounds, and they come from all different worlds of football. Some are experienced, some have little, some have none.
It’s just amazing how I see these quarterbacks being handled today. We have a collective bargaining agreement now in place that minimizes how much time we can practice and talk to them. We have a different offensive coordinator, it seems like every year. They’re having to learn a new system. We’re changing head coaches like we’re changing shirts. The whole quarterback development world is really being stymied. Every year we get seven or eight underclassmen, it seems, that they’re ready to go get the big ring. So it’s a challenge, it’s a crapshoot, it’s very hard to do, and if you get one, it’s like getting a lottery ticket, because they can put you into money games for a long time.
How important is stability with the franchise, and just with letting somebody take some time? When franchises change personnel so quickly, do they just get stuck in this cycle where they keep going and going and going and never give anyone time to find a solution? The Bills stand out here to me, but lots of franchises seem to be stuck like this.
I think that’s part of it. Luck is also a big part of it. Sometimes you miss. Sometimes you’re on the clock, and there’s no quarterback available. Sometimes you have a high pick in the draft and there’s nobody to take that position. One year Andrew Luck is there, the next year I saw Andy Reid with the top pick have to take an offensive tackle because there was none.
So there is a lot of luck involved. I remember Bill Walsh told me a long time ago, 49ers great coach, he said, “Don’t try to save a bad idea. If you keep running a guy out there that can’t play, you’re saving a bad idea. Find somebody else.”
So sometimes you have to go through quarterbacks to get the guy you want. Unfortunately, Buffalo hasn’t been able to, but I do like that dark horse you guys have right now, that (Nate) Peterman out of Pittsburgh. I liked him coming out.
It seems like Peterman might have a chance this year. When they went over with the new GM and the new coach, they’ve sort of taken apart what was there, and they’re slowly moving players out they didn’t draft. Are you in favor of something like that, when you get in there, get your guys and get rid of the people that are maybe assets but aren’t really your assets?
I’ve seen it done before when we were with Green Bay in 1992, Mike Holmgren was the head coach, he made a trade. He and Ron Wolf the GM, traded for Brett Favre, and I remember a few of the coaches coming in, saying, “Who the hell is Brett Favre? We gave up a number one pick for Brett Farve?” And we threw Favre out there probably way before he was ready.
So I have seen it work, and work very well. I’ve also seen it work the other way. You’ve got to trust your offensive coach, you’ve got to trust your head coach, you’ve got to trust the program, and it’s not going to be easy. Grooming a young quarterback is not easy, especially in the NFL.
How do franchises get the perception that they will eventually figure it out? I think right now the two big examples are maybe the Packers and the Patriots. Tom Brady’s 40 right now and eventually he will be gone, but there seems to be this feeling around the league that, eventually they’ll find somebody to replace him. Is it just a matter of faith in ownership or is it a leadership in the organization with the coach? What is it that makes the franchises just seem bulletproof in that sense?
I figure it does start at the top. I think everything starts at the top. The great owner, the great head coach, the great environment and the culture there, if you look at those places, they’re unique. Bill Belichick has free rein to do a lot of things here. Mr Kraft trusts him completely with Patriot football, the way that they do business. The Packers don’t even have an owner, really. They trust Mike McCarthy to do what he deems is necessary, he and Ted Thompson. That’s unique, I think, those two teams.
But, look, the Miami Dolphins spot, they would replace Dan Marino quickly. They’re still looking. I think the Bills fans thought another Jim Kelly would come running down the pike. The Cleveland Browns were probably looking for another Bernie Kosar soon after he left town. The reality is, you can go a lot of years until you get the quarterback that can take it to the post-season repeatedly.
How much has fantasy football changed the way that fans think about football, and do you think it’s a bad thing? Some fans are much more interested in watching other teams, and I think that’s valuable, but does fantasy kind of taint the way that they value players and how important they are?
Yeah, I think it’s a great question. I think fantasy football is obviously great to get everybody involved. I’ve seen a lot of my friends that are women play fantasy football. They love it. Kids, all kind of people love fantasy football. Now, it is what it is. It’s your team, these players are picked from all around the league, and you’re interested in their statistics, period. That’s how you measure their success.
Unfortunately, you forget a little bit about your favorite team growing up as a kid, or you forget about your local team that maybe, if it wasn’t for your fantasy team, maybe you’d be out there Sunday afternoon, or Monday night, raising hell, yelling, screaming, and cheering for them. Maybe you’ve lost the loyalty to the home team, or your previously favorite team. That’s something I don’t like. But I love sharing football in any way possible with as many people that are out there.
Do you think coaching has changed much over the years? With TV shows like Hard Knocks and All Or Nothing fans seem to get a better understanding of what exactly head coaches do, but has coaching actually changed that much over the years?
Coaching has changed tremendously. There’s a lot of reasons for that. Number one, the rules are different. The game is played differently. The way you practice, with the collective bargaining agreement it puts a huge restriction on, I think, coaching. Because you can’t be on the field giving guys reps and development. So the time on the field, the time on the off-season is limited.
Obviously the players switch teams more than I’ve ever seen before. There is no continuity in this game. I’m watching the Minnesota Vikings, getting ready for our broadcast, they’re going to have five new starters on the offensive line. All five are gone. They’re going to have a new feature running back, they’re going to have I don’t know how many rookies starting on this team. And I don’t recognize the New Orleans Saints. I mean, you’ve really got to do a lot of homework to see who the Saints are playing on defense, and who they’re playing with on their offensive line, and who are their receivers.
There’s no continuity, there’s no time on the practice field, and these guys are making a lot more money now than they used to too. They’re different animals to deal with. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just the reality of it.
So I have to ask: I watched All Or Nothing, the show about the Rams, and talked to the showrunner. And the one thing i kept coming back to is: why do coaches love Powerpoint so much? Every coach used some kind of slideshow. Is that just the best way to teach football?
You know what, when you’re coaching football, remember you’re talking about the ultimate team game. To run a power play off tackle, the quarterback has to know how to step, a running back has to know what hole he’s going to, how to read it. The offensive linemen on the play side, the back side, has to know. The receivers have to know how to watch the perimeter, and if they line up a certain way, we all have to know what the audible is.
So, you’re talking to the entire offense. There’s no app that you can put on your phone that can teach you how we’re going to install a game plan each week because game plans change, because the defense you’re playing is different. Their personnel in fronts and coverages are different.
So you’ve got to remember, players learn differently. Some learn on the black board, some learn by demonstration, some learn in walkthroughs. What you probably didn’t see is, I’m sure every coach is operating with those three styles. Installation with PowerPoint on the overhead projector, demonstrating, and having walkthroughs, and then going to practice.
Just back to quarterbacks really quickly. It’s expected to be a very interesting and very diverse class of quarterbacks that, hopefully, will to come out this year after college football. But the narratives seem to be so established already. I mean, Lamar Jackson just won the Heisman last year and he obviously looked very good again on Saturday, but it seems like the overarching narrative is still, “Can he actually play in the NFL?” Do you think that sort of talk is damaging to letting a player develop, and also his actual value as a player and as a potential NFL player?
Yeah, I think so. I think Michael Vick, his presence and his style of play, I think, opened the door for the running quarterback. Now, don’t get me wrong, there were other quarterbacks that ran, but nobody ran for a thousand yards like Michael Vick.
However, you see Robert Griffin who comes in, wins the Rookie of the Year, he can’t get a job right now. Colin Kaepernick is a running quarterback first. I just don’t see Kaepernick as a drop-back passer either. He can’t get it on a team yet either. And Cam Newton, as good as he is, he’s been hurt, hasn’t been able to practice much, he’s been hit a lot.
So that style of quarterback is very risky because the quarterback’s the only guy that can’t play with a sore, throwing shoulder. The amount of hits that these guys take take their toll. I think Lamar Jackson is, probably for some people, put into the running type of quarterback. Although he’s a brilliant performer, there are risks involved with playing like that, as you know.
With Kaepernick, it’s tough for fans that don’t have the technical know how that others do, and the thing that sort of came up with him and him not getting the job at this point is that, while he has to fit with the scheme, he has to fit with the offense. Is that really the case with him, or are there things that are really going on there, or is it a perception issue that he’s going to have for the rest of his career?
I think of it as, and I’m sure he’d get different, varying opinions on whoever you talk to. But I sit in a dark room here, I value game tape. I already brought up Robert Griffin who is the same age, and he’s the Rookie of the Year, but they were 1-15 in Cleveland. Kaepernick was the quarterback of a 2-14 team and people forget — Kaepernick couldn’t beat out Blaine Gabbert. Blaine Gabbert won the job to start the season. So performance was lacking. Maybe style of play, maybe team’s aren’t wanting to go that route right now. All the other issues are for other guys to talk about, I really don’t even go there.
Quarterback’s the most important position on the field, and that’s something that everybody knows. But the value of an offensive line and how good they are at protecting that quarterback, that seems like it’s something that fans kind of struggle to understand. Is that something that you’ve noticed as well?
Well you know, there’s fantasy points for a left tackle and a left guard switching a stunt. The right guard doesn’t get any fantasy points for blowing a defensive tackle off the ball for that 12-yard run to happen. They’re not even recognized at all. Unfortunately, they don’t even get any notoriety whatsoever.
I think that’s a group that really has a lot to do with the success of a team. You think that Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott are going to have that type of performance if it wasn’t for those men? I mean, you watch Tyron Smith and Frederick at center, and Zack Marton at guard. Good Lord. I wish I had those guys when I was coaching. I’d still be coaching.
So what are you most looking forward to about this season? It seems like it’s been kind of a weird one with the way that the Super Bowl ended last year, and a lot of people expect that New England team to be just as good. But is there anything that excites you that people aren’t talking about right now?
I just think that the beginning of the season is just the most exciting time. Everybody’s undefeated. I know it sounds cliché, but there’s a lot of teams that I think that have quietly gotten better, and are on the brink of doing something great.
Can Tom Brady really do it at 40? I know everybody thinks he can. Can they do it without Julian Edelman? I’m sure people think they can. But can they? Let’s see. Is there another team, is there another fighter that’s ready to win the championship? I really believe there’s some really good contenders out there, and I just get excited for the beginning of the season. You can probably call the Gruden Hotline and we’ll tell you something about it. We got a great hotline going here at Corona.
That’s right, you’re working with Corona this season with a few commercials and a promotion. Talk me through this hotline and what I’d expect if I called
We’re having a good time, man. We might tell you how to run your tailgate. We might remind you to leave your technology at home and get into the game a little bit. We might remind you to bring a cold iced down, cooler, a Corona, and not to forget the limes. I might give you a nickname. I might give you some X and O insight, but the great thing is, is we’re going to have a winner on the sweepstakes at the Gruden Hotline, and whoever this lucky winner is, we’re going to fly you down to Orlando, Florida, for Gruden’s QB Camp. You might get to see a great young quarterback behind the scenes, what we do with them, and you’ll get some Spider 2-Y Banana t-shirts, I might even bring you back to camp, here at the to the FFCA headquarters and do a couple hours of board work with you. So we’re having a lot of fun, we’ve made a lot of friends, football fans, Corona fans, uniting together on opening weekend. How exciting is that?
Did you expect you’d get a chance to do commercials when you started coaching and eventually got into broadcasting?
It’s always a surprise. I’ve seen a lot of the Corona spots long before we collaborated together, and you always associate Corona with good times, beaches, just good fun times. To be associated with them is certainly something I’m very proud of.
What’s it like filming these spots. Are you officially comfortable on TV doing pretty much anything at this point?
We had a lot of fun. The one thing about Corona is, it’s a great product, as you know. What people probably don’t know, is there’s just so many people in that brand, and I’ve made a lot of friends, and we have a lot of creative people that do an outstanding job of having fun and bringing Corona and football together, and with that we had the Gruden Hotline. I encourage you to call and get some information that might help you big time as football season kicks off this weekend.