Jon Gruden rumor creates problems for ESPN and the NFL

The worst-kept secret in the NFL is that ESPN analyst Jon Gruden may be hired as the next coach of the Oakland (soon to be Las Vegas) Raiders.

“You don’t make that move with [firing] Jack Del Rio if you don’t know you can get Jon Gruden,” ESPN’s Adam Schefter said on SportsCenter on New Year’s Eve. “Jon Gruden is going to be the next coach of the Oakland Raiders.”

Gruden would become the fourth ESPN analyst in recent weeks to depart Bristol for a head coaching job, following Chip Kelly (UCLA), Aaron Boone (Yankees) and Herman Edwards (Arizona State) out the door.

While the new gig would force ESPN to conduct a high-profile search in the offseason to find a replacement for Gruden in the booth for Monday Night Football, his rumored departure presents a more immediate challenges for both the sports network and the NFL.

An ESPN spokesman has confirmed that Gruden will still call this weekend’s AFC Wild Card playoff game between the Chiefs and the Titans, along with play-by-play man Sean McDonough and sideline reporters Lisa Salters and Adam Schefter. Ahead of the Eagles Oct. 23 Monday Night Football game against Washington, the Birds opened up their practice and production meetings to Gruden and ESPN’s crew, a move that’s typical in the NFL.

The Raiders are a close divisional rival of the Chiefs, and if Gruden ends up taking the job in Oakland, it could appear to be a conflict of interest for the 54-year-old broadcaster to have in-depth access to the Chiefs’ game plan, coaching staff and players. The Titans don’t play the Raiders next season, but both compete in the same conference.

“Despite Gruden having a good relationship with Andy Reid dating to their days together on the Packers’ staff in the 1990s, the Chiefs presumably don’t want the Raiders’ next head coach to have access to their preparations,” Pro Football Talk’s Michael David Smith wrote.

It’s not the first time this season the question of access has come up. After Fox Sports announced Panthers tight end Greg Olsen would be a guest analyst for the Nov. 19 Rams-Vikings game, the network agreed to limit his pre-game access in response to complaints raised by Minnesota.

ESPN declined to comment about the situation.

Of course, this isn’t the first time Gruden has been linked to open head coaching vacancies. Gruden, a former offensive coordinator for the Eagles under head coach Ray Rhodes, has been rumored to be interested in multiple Eagles head coaching vacancies over the past few years. In fact, rumors of Gruden’s return to the NFL following every season are so common they have their own term: “Grumors.”

But this time is different. Not only did the Raiders part ways with Del Rio after just two seasons (making him awkwardly announce his own firing in a post-game press conference on Sunday), the team is reportedly offering Gruden an ownership stake, something so unusual it would have to be approved by 24 of the league’s 32 owners.

Gruden himself has been noncommittal, telling Oakland Tribune writer Jerry McDonald over the weekend, “I can’t say I haven’t taken any phone calls. I take a lot every year from coaches, some others. … Yeah, sometimes owners.” But there are many reports that Gruden has been amassing his staff for a few weeks, which could include Jets offensive coordinator John Morton and Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther.

There’s also the Rooney Rule, which is supposed to force all teams with coaching vacancies to interview at least one minority candidate. Even if the Raiders ultimately hire Gruden, they would have to comply to the rule and interview a minority candidate or face punishment by the league.

In 2013, the NFL fined the Detroit Lions $200,000 for failing to comply with the Rooney Rule after it hired Steve Mariucci as its head coach. Former general manager Matt Millen claimed the team tried to comply with the rule, but that African-American candidates declined to be interviewed because they felt the job was already guaranteed to Mariucci.

“If Jon Gruden is going to be the HC of the Raiders, no way any black coach should interview to satisfy the Rooney Rule,” fellow ESPN NFL analyst and retired offensive lineman Damien Woody wrote on Twitter. “What a joke.”

Gruden was hired by ESPN in 2009 after amassing a 100-85 coaching record in 11 seasons as a head coach in the NFL. In 2001, he led the Raiders to the AFC championship game against the Patriots, where the Raiders lost in part due to a Tom Brady fumble being overturned by the league’s controversial “Tuck Rule.” After being traded to the Buccaneers following the 2001 season, Gruden led Tampa Bay to its first Super Bowl win, defeating the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII 48-21. He was added to the Buccaneers’ ring of honor this season.

Regardless of the outcome, it certainly won’t sour ESPN’s desire to hire former NFL coaches. In addition to Gruden, Edwards and Kelly, former head coaches Mike Ditka, Dennis Green, Bill Parcells, Marty Schottenheimer and Dick Vermeil have all spent time at the sports network. Just last year, ESPN hired former Jets and Bills head coach Rex Ryan as part of a remake of its Sunday NFL Countdown pregame show.

And who will replace Gruden? It’s too early to speculate, but it’s clear it will be a challenging hire for ESPN, especially considering longtime president John Skipper decided to make his own exit from the network before Christmas, citing a substance abuse problem. Complicating matters is the fact that Gruden is more than just a voice in the booth; he is also a large contributor to ESPN’s NFL Draft coverage, contributes to the network’s extensive Super Bowl coverage and his Gruden’s QB Camp series remains popular with fans.

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