The Ultimate Grinder: Goodbye to Jon Gruden, MNF Analyst
All things surely have to end
And great loves will one day have to part
“Muzzle” by Smashing Pumpkins, Melon Collie and Infinite Sadness
If media reports are to be believed and they should be, Saturday will mark Jon Gruden’s last game in the ESPN broadcast booth before his triumphant return to the Raiders as head coach/part-owner. This means that Saturday’s Titans-Chief game will represent our last “Positively Gruden” column in a long-running series. Before that fateful game, we thought we’d take a moment of solemn remembrance of this soon-to-be bygone era.
As we say in our tagline, “Positively Gruden” was designed to chronicle the top cheers, compliments, and commendations from America’s favorite fawning former coach. And each week, we graded so-called “Grudenisms” on a sliding scale of hyperbole, vivid imagery, and outright absurdity.
Like the cacophony of armchair TV critics on the Internet, you might be excused for thinking “Positively Gruden” arose from a place of mockery. But nothing could be further from the truth. From his first game in the booth in 2009, it was readily apparent that Gruden wasn’t like other announcers. He didn’t just want the audience to understand the action on the field; he wanted you to feel it. And not just that, he wanted the audience to appreciate the sheer athleticism and determination of NFL players, and the coaching minds who played chess against each other.
In a cursory sense Gruden’s unbridled enthusiasm resembled that of John Madden, but Gruden provided much more than the “Boom,” “Wham,” and “Pow” taglines that Madden was known for. Interlaced with all that enthusiasm was sophisticated Xs and Os analyst from a coaching prodigy and diehard film studier who lived and breathed the NFL. (Remember, Gruden was the original young coaching wunderkind before the likes of Sean McVay was still in diapers.)
With all that combined, it was almost like Gruden was viewing, and conveying, football as art. This is truly where I believe the Grudenisms arose from: an authentic love of the game and desire to relay it to the viewer as vividly as possible. You could call him the astronaut poet Jodie Foster had been waiting for.
Now a fair criticism of Gruden in his early years was that he viewed every play through pigskin-colored glasses and refused to criticize anyone (well, except refs) when they made a mistake. This is an understandable impulse for someone who clearly still viewed himself as part of the coaching fraternity, one that is trained not to call out players (or other coaches) publicly. But as the years wore on, Gruden became much more blunt with his criticism, and his willingness to call out poor play or decisions (particularly by quarterbacks) clearly evolved.
But the positivity never wore off. A lot of that can be attributed to his partner for eight years, Mike Tirico, who rivaled Gruden’s enthusiasm and developed an easy chemistry with Gruden in terms of humor and playing off of Gruden’s natural self-depreciation. Tirico is also a pro in the nuts and bolts of play-by-play calling and oftentimes displayed more knowledge of the rules and instant replay process (which Gruden disdained). All this led to some great back-and-forth between the two that couldn’t be captured in any singular Grudenism quote.
My favorite was the infamous Packers-Seahawks game where the replacement refs (wrongly) resolved conflicting touchdown and interception calls in favor of the Seahawks, and Tirico spent about ten minutes meticulously breaking down the review process while an apoplectic Gruden ranted about the travesty we were witnessing.
Gruden has nowhere near this kind of chemistry with Sean McDonough, who I am convinced is either (a) a cyborg; (b) enacting an elaborate type of performance art where he is attempting to portray a character from the movie Flatliners; and/or (c) Jeb Bush in disguise. (What I’m trying to say is he’s low energy.) Without his trusty sidekick to play off of, one has to wonder whether this change was a catalyst for Gruden to finally take a leap back into coaching. But most importantly, McDonough’s dulling presence has put a damper on our beloved Grudenisms.
We wholeheartedly understand why Gruden has decided to trade in his suit for khakis and a hoodie and go back to coaching. He certainly young enough, up on the latest film study, and sufficiently hungry to give it another shot (the money doesn’t hurt either). But still, the news has prompted a classic five stages of grieving: denial (fake news!), anger (it’s all your fault, McDonough), bargaining (maybe ESPN will pay him more money), depression (who can possibly replace him?), and, finally, acceptance. Que sera sera, right?
And of course, now we get to experience Gruden again on the sidelines and see if he restore a talented, but flawed, Raiders team. It would be nice if the NFL could do us all the courtesy of having Gruden mic’ed up every game, as a way of easing into the withdrawal. And who knows? Perhaps the return to coaching won’t take, and Gruden will re-emerge as an even better commentator. He could even replace the increasingly smug Cris Collinsworth to rejoin Mike Tirico on NBC’s Sunday Night Football.
One can only dream.