Gruden’s Playoff Plan


The house is always packed with buzzed relatives during the holidays. What’s better: trying to catch a game live out of the corner of my eye, or watching it on DVR?

You gotta see it live. The electricity is awesome and you can cut the intensity with a knife. The players look beautiful, everybody’s got their fancy uniforms on. You’re not a fan if you don’t watch the game when it’s on. That’s just me. That’s the kind of people I like to be around. 

What’s something I can look for to determine if my team’s dialed in or not?
I love watching pregame warmups—these guys come out, they’re all business. You can even see it in the opening kickoff.

What are teams doing differently at this stage in the season to prepare? 
Doing a self-scout on your own team is huge. You don’t want to get away from what got you to the playoffs in the first place. But you’ve also put 16 games on tape for your opponents to see—they’ve studied everything you’ve done at the goal line or from two-minute drills. You’ve got to study yourself and know what you’ve shown them. And it might be a great opportunity to come up with a play that starts off looking like what they think it is, but isn’t. 

What makes for a great playoff halftime speech?
You try to say a few words about how the team will never be together again. The way free agency, the draft, and everything impacts rosters and coaching staffs, nothing stays the same. Or, when Sean Payton was on his mission toward their Super Bowl [with the New Orleans Saints], he had one of the local banks come in and lay out a hundred grand in cash: “This is what you’re playing for—per man.” 

Which player is especially dangerous in the postseason? 
[Baltimore Ravens QB] Joe Flacco is always solid during the regular season, but when he gets into the playoffs, there’s something about him—he just turns it up another notch. And Tom Brady—in sudden-death games, you just wish you weren’t playing New England. 

Is Brady even human? 
This guy’s a freak, man. Brady is a human shredding machine right now! He doesn’t just go to the beach and lie down during his time off. He works year-round. He’s into his diet, into flexibility. He’s obsessed with the details. He’s as focused on football as any guy I’ve ever seen. 

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Who would you say is the smartest player in the NFL right now?
I like Brady and [Saints QB Drew] Brees. When you meet these guys you see they could be CEOs. They run the team. They orchestrate practice during the lockout periods, like, during CBA [collective bargaining agreement negotiations]. These guys are installing, calling, and running plays without coaches even around. On defense, it’s always inside guys like middle linebackers and safeties. [The Seattle Seahawks’] Bobby Wagner and Earl Thomas—these guys are football junkies. 

Game-calling has changed so much over the years—you guys are talking about Cover 2 and 3-4 defenses versus 4-3 defenses. Does anyone really understand this?
The access to information is unbelievable. Fans are watching coaches’ video—they can buy it online now. Some of the fans know as much about football as the guys calling the plays. 

If you could change one rule in the NFL, what would it be?
Instant replay—I would eliminate all of it. Everything’s disputed now. Was he inbounds? Was it a turnover? It’s taken the juice out of the stadium. There are too many timeouts. Let the people on the field officiate and hold them accountable. Look, there’s going to be some bang-bang plays that have to be officiated. And who’s going to make the decision? The instant replay man in New York City?

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You grew up a Browns fan. Are you still a Browns fan?
I don’t have a Leroy Kelly jersey that I wear around like I did when I was a kid. But my dad’s from Cleveland, my mom’s from Ohio, we grew up Cleveland Browns fans. For, I don’t know, 25 years I was a Cleveland Browns fan. So selfishly, I was rooting for the Cavaliers like crazy last year. I root for Cleveland Browns. There’s something about the tradition there, the people there, Ohio football means a lot to me. I’d love to see Cleveland get back into the tournament. 

So I shouldn’t bring up Ernest Byner around you?
[Laughs] Don’t do that, please.

I hear you still wake up at four in the morning. Is that right?
Yeah, I get up early. I’ve been in here for a while. Just watching my films, making my cutups, drawing my notes. [During Monday Night Football,] I kind of kick it Wednesday, Thursday and Friday pretty hard and then off I go. 

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What’s the key to fitting it all in? Do you burn the candle at both ends, do you sleep four hours a night, or what?
I’ve never really slept that much. I go to bed, I just don’t sleep a lot. My mind is twirling and swirling all the time, so I’d rather get up and do something rather than just lay there in bed wishing I could fall asleep. I’ve found something, fortunately, that I love. And I like the quiet time. I come in here and I’ll watch some films. You know, I’m sitting here watching the Baltimore Ravens’ red zone offense right now. I’ll flip it around here and watch Arizona’s defense here as soon as I’m off this call. I love it. Learn a little football and get a little better every day. 

Is regional fandom overrated for a true football fan? Like, what if you just love the NFL and you love watching all of it, but you don’t have a favorite team?
I like people to always have a team. I don’t know where you could be if you just say, “I like everybody.” What kind of world would that be? I mean, come on. You can’t just sit on the fence and say, “Ah, I like New England. No, I like Seattle this year.” You gotta stay with your team. Show some loyalty, man. You gotta sweat together. Cry together. Rejoice with your team. Don’t you? What is wrong with you? What kind of question is that? 

You gotta feel the pain when they lose. 
Well, that’s some of my greatest memories. I’d go outside and play football with my brothers, I’d be so nervous I couldn’t watch the Browns game. I’d come back inside… God, there would be some of the most horrific days ever when we’d lose. And some of the greatest days ever when we’d win. That’s why they keep score, man. That’s why they have 32 of these teams. Pick one. 

If you were the NFL Commissioner, what’s the first thing you would do?
I would make a huge deal about what a great game this is. And we gotta go back to the grass-roots level of football. We gotta make sure that every young kid understands how much you can gain from playing football. I think we’re losing the young people in football a little bit today. I think we gotta reach out to them. Start at the high school. Start at the youth football leagues. We gotta do more there. We gotta get these kids out playing. We gotta get them supporting each other on a team, get the benefits that you get from being a football player. 

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Let’s go back to the tuck rule game. I’m curious: Do you think if your Raiders had beaten the Patriots, you would’ve won the Super Bowl that year?
Well selfishly, I think so. We had a really good team. We would’ve had to go to Pittsburgh and beat them. New England did that. I think we would’ve had a chance to do that. We were pretty good. We had a hell of a team that year. Selfishly, you’d like to think so. I’m sure [former Pittsburgh Steelers coach] Bill Cowher says, “Nah, we would’ve kicked your butt.” But we were good. We were a good team. 

And I thought the year before we could’ve won. And gone to the Super Bowl. We lost in the AFC Championship Game to the Ravens. They knocked our guy Gannon out of the game early and it was tough on us. They were a hell of a team, but that game sticks in my craw even more than the tuck rule game. 

So are you still sore over the tuck rule game?
Yeah, I am. You never get over that. I don’t have nightmares about it, but the call on the field was fumble, Raiders ball. In my understanding of this instant replay stuff, the only way you reverse a call is if it’s indisputable. Well, I don’t think that was indisputable. I don’t think they should’ve reversed it. Obviously.

Your name always comes up for coaching vacancies in college and the pros. Would you ever go back to coaching? What would it take?
I don’t know what’s going to happen. I love football. I love what I’m doing. That’s why I’m in here 4 or 5 o’clock every morning, just studying my teams. I’ve got a great team I’m on right now. We have a lot of fun. I get to go to all the teams’ practices. I get to watch their tapes. I get to visit their facilities and meet their players and coaches. It’s not bad. I love it, matter of fact. So who knows. I’m trying to hang onto this job. I’ve already been traded in coaching. I’ve been fired in coaching. So, you know, [I’m] just lucky to have a job. I’m just trying to hang onto it. 

Okay, got a few crazier ones here for you. What would happen if a team fielding a punt didn’t send a guy back to return? They just played regular defense. That way they’d never rough the punter, get burned by a fake punt or drop a punt.
Oh, well then you’d probably be working with me down at the Fired Football Coaches Association sometime soon. You gotta set up your return. You gotta have somebody catch the ball, otherwise it will bounce all the way down to your goal line. You don’t want that. 

But then at least you’d get possession every time. 
Well, yeah, you’ll get possession. If you’re that nervous about somebody catching a ball or having a fake run against you, then you’re probably in the wrong business. You gotta practice all the situations that come up in the kicking game. You gotta guard against a fake. You gotta try to set up some returns. You gotta have a guy back there that’s reliable, that can handle the ball. There’s a lot of situations in the kicking game, and that’s what separates the playoff teams from teams that aren’t in the playoffs oftentimes is how good you are in the kicking game. All four phases of it.

But couldn’t I argue that, if you didn’t catch punts, then you wouldn’t have to practice any of that? Then you could spend more time practicing your offense and your defense.
Yeah, you could practice your backed-up offense because you might be inside your own five a lot. You’re right. You’d have a lot more time to do that. You wouldn’t have to worry about being in good field position often. You can practice your backed-up offense every day. 

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Okay, so you don’t like that one. What about this: On offense, what if you never punted? You just always went for it on fourth down, every time?
Are you’re talking about fourth and 10, fourth and 20. Every fourth down?

Every fourth down. You went for it. 
Okay, I would say that you need to put me to sleep.

Well if it’s fourth and 20 you could just throw a bomb, and then if it gets intercepted it’s as good as a punt, and then maybe you’d catch some of them. 
Yeah. [Laughs] You know, you gotta give me some other questions. We ain’t going for it on fourth down and 15, fourth and 20. What makes you think they’re not going to bat the ball down? You gotta give the defense some credit. These aren’t guys that are dopes that are just standing back there that are gonna intercept the pass and get tackled immediately. These pass rushers might sack you. They might knock you on your ass like they did on third and eight to make it fourth and 15. You might not be able to block them or hold the ball for more than two seconds. So then what do you do? Run a trap? 

I love it, you’re ripping my theories to shreds. 

You’re not going to like this next one: What if you just threw a Hail Mary on every play? 
What if the Tooth Fairy flew into your room and put a million dollars under your pillow, wouldn’t you love that? What if you threw a Hail Mary on every play? Come on, man. You can’t throw a Hail Mary on every play. Guys would get tired. Fans would get bored. They’d lose their mind. I mean, that theory is just totally insane. It doesn’t even deserve an answer. 

Do you have any crazy theories like that or things that you always wanted to try but never had a chance to?
Yeah, there’s some special plays in the playbook. You know, you got first and goal at the 2-yard line. You’re going in. You’re in a shootout. It’s 42 to 40. You don’t want to just kick the field goal. You don’t want to score too quickly because now you gotta give the ball back to Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers and you haven’t stopped them all day. Think about that. How many times have you seen a team go down there and not want to score too quick because if you do the other team gets the ball with time to beat you again, you with me on that?

Yeah, I see it all the time. 
So what plays can we devise where we can run off the time on the clock, kick the field goal, get the win, and not give them any time left? I’ve been coming up with some plays for that situation that might blow your mind. But that’s for another phone call. 

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Oh really, you can’t share them?
What if you have a guy back behind you like 40 yards. Another quarterback. And your quarterback gets the ball, turns around and throws it to him. It’s a lateral. You run around and you run around and you run around and you throw it way. 

Ah. That’s brilliant.
It’s insane. I had a guy – I swear to god – I’m in New York City, I’m driving to the hotel, and the car driver dropped that on me. And he says, “Have you ever thought of this play?” And I said, “You know what? That’s not a bad idea.” So I started thinking of it. You can learn football from anybody. But I haven’t learned any from you yet. Because the Hail Mary on every play is not firing me up.

It just seems like the probability of catching the Hail Mary is better than you might think. Like, there was a Houston game recently, where they threw it at the end of a half. 
Houston – Indianapolis.

Yeah. And it worked. And I’m like, why don’t they throw more Hail Marys? Maybe not every play, but like six times a game, throw a Hail Mary. Not just at the end of the half, but throw it more often.
Okay. You know, I wouldn’t want to be your offensive coordinator. What else you got?

Peyton Manning. What is his problem in the playoffs, and how will we see that unfold this year?
He got beat by some good teams. But I don’t always pin it on one guy. I think if you go back and look at the film, it was a combination of maybe it wasn’t his best stuff, but maybe it wasn’t their best stuff either. Know what I mean? There was a couple times they lost to the Patriots, I can remember those games. Vividly. The Patriots were probably better than the Colts. But you gotta remember this. One of the big reasons Denver’s in the playoffs in the first place is because of the Sheriff. One of the reasons they got a chance to win is because of him. But I try not to get too obsessed with blaming Andy Dalton for all the Bengals’ problems in the playoffs and blaming Matt Stafford for the Lions’ problems and blaming one player on a 53-man team. You know what I mean?

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What’s your fitness regimen like these days?
I got an upstairs gym here. I got some weights. I got an elliptical. I got a treadmill. I got this old-school StairMaster. I get cardio and I try to do a little weights. It’s like about an hour a day, hour and 15 minutes.

Every day?
Yeah, I try to get up there every day. You know, I might go 25 minutes here, 20 minutes there, 20 minutes here. Sometimes I go up there and watch it for an hour and get it done, but I try to get an hour a day, hour and 15 minutes. 

Do you watch football while you’re working out?
Not usually. I don’t really. Sometimes I just watch ESPN. Or, I like that—do you ever see that pawn store where they go in there with that guy and they just show up with stuff? 

Yeah. Pawn Stars.
I love that show. I’m thinking about showing up at that place, bringing some of my stuff in there, see what I can get. 

You should! They would love that!
I know it. I’m gonna try to do it.

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