NEW YORK (CBS/AP) – Former Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden is still watching video at 4:30 a.m., poring over the way a receiver releases into his route.
Seemingly every time an NFL or top college coaching job opens, the Gruden rumors bubble up. Yet here he is starting his fifth season calling “Monday Night Football” games, under contract with ESPN through 2016.
Gruden and another Super Bowl winner whose name always pops up, Bill Cowher, relish the lifestyle of their post-coaching broadcast gigs. Shorter hours and more flexible schedules are certainly nice. But much of what keeps them on TV and off the sideline is the way their new jobs mimic their old ones.
“You don’t miss the game like some people think because you’re so very close to it,” Gruden said.
These guys succeeded as coaches in the first place because they thrived off those long hours of scouring video for the tiniest edge.
“You still feel like you’re a part of the game,” Cowher said. “You still have the challenges of being accountable, to make judgments, to try to forecast things that are going to happen. It forces you to study, to stay on top of the trends, to see what you would do if you were in that position.”
And in an even more satisfying way for a football nut. Cowher uses the example of the zone read, the latest trend to sweep the NFL. If he was still coaching the Steelers, he would be only vaguely aware of that development during the season unless Pittsburgh faced an opponent that used it.
Analyzing the big picture of the league for CBS’s studio show beats agonizing over an injury to your backup linebacker.
As Cowher’s boss, CBS Sports Chair Sean McManus, puts it, “It’s a pretty darn good life.” They still enjoy many of their favorite parts about coaching without the less desirable side.
“Not having your decisions parsed by every bit of the media and scrutinized nationally,” said Gruden’s broadcast partner, play-by-play announcer Mike Tirico. “It’s just an easier lifestyle, while you’re still compensated well and you’re still part of football at the highest level. There are replacements for the things he needed by having the ‘Monday Night Football’ job.
“If he was doing the fourth or fifth game of a college football schedule, I don’t know if it would be as satisfying. I think that the profile is high, the access is so good, appeals as well.”
As Gruden visits with teams before each week’s game, he sees how they practice, how other coaches’ approaches differ from his own. Cowher figures he’s more knowledgeable about the game now because he’s absorbed lessons from across the league.
To which beleaguered fan bases around the country would ask: Don’t you want to try out those improved skills back in coaching?
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Cowher said. “I think I’d be a bit better if I went back in now, because I have a broader understanding of things. But I also know what it would be like going back, too. So it’s like, ‘Nah, I think I’ll just talk about it on the show.'”
Tirico suspects that Gruden would quickly excel in coaching again, for similar reasons, if he returned to the sideline. He expects his broadcast partner to eventually do so, but in the meantime, he laughs every time the rumors resurface when some team is 2-6 in November.
“I know where his heart is right now is enjoying this phase of his life,” Tirico said.
That enjoyment includes many holdovers from the previous phase. Gruden coached the Raiders from 1998-2001 and the Buccaneers from 2002-08, winning the Super Bowl with Tampa Bay after the 2002 season.
Tirico will sometimes wake up to see that Gruden had emailed him a video clip at 4:45 a.m.
“We became his next team,” Tirico said. “He approaches the week as he’s coaching us. It’s everything but the physical preparation. It’s the mental; it’s the scouting. It’s the personnel side of it. He’ll present the teams to us as he presented them to his team.”
For a guy who cherishes dissecting video, certain perks of TV are exhilarating. Gruden sounded as though he was gushing over a perfect Peyton Manning pass when he related that “I never knew we had this many camera angles.”
“I’m not kidding you. I am so intrigued with the video I have access to, I can’t even begin to tell you,” he said. “This high-definition isolation camera, the spidercam that’s shot behind the quarterbacks. I spend most of my days in here looking at network video, and my wife thinks I’ve lost my mind. But it’s probably the most excitement that I’ve had in a long time watching these tapes that I have access to now.”
Like Gruden, Cowher went straight from coaching to broadcasting. He wonders if he would have felt withdrawal symptoms if he took some time off in between, but he never had to experience that void.
Cowher resigned as the Steelers’ coach in early 2007 after 15 seasons, less than a year removed from winning the Super Bowl. He initially signed a three-year contract with CBS.
“Bill was very honest with us,” McManus recalled. “He said, ‘Right now, I don’t know how I’m going to enjoy being a studio analyst. Right now, I don’t have any intention of going back into coaching.’ The longer he’s out, the more I think he seems to appreciate the life that he has. I’m hoping the longer he’s out, the less he misses coaching.”
Cowher used his newfound free time to take piano lessons and make several trips to Europe.
“I’ve played in golf in September which is like, ‘Wow,'” he said. “You’re able to watch the leaves change, because most of the time you don’t see it during daylight unless it’s the trees by the practice field.”
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