Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden ended his conference call with reporters in Cincinnati on Wednesday by saying he looks forward to getting back to Ohio this weekend.
The University of Dayton alumnus will lead the Raiders (3-10) as they face the Cincinnati Bengals (5-8) on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.
Gruden, who is in his second stint with Oakland, returned to the sidelines this season after almost a decade in broadcasting.
Gruden has several former Cincinnati coaches and players on his team and discussed the role of one in particular, as well as how his return to coaching has gone and what he thinks of the Bengals. Here is a look at five things he said going into Sunday’s matchup in Cincinnati.
1. Like he left it
The youngest head coach in the NFL at age 34 upon his initial hire by Raiders owner Al Davis in 1998, Gruden spent 11 seasons with Oakland and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before moving into broadcasting, including color analyst duties on Monday Night Football from 2009-17.
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After 10 years away from coaching, he didn’t find it to be much different upon his return.
“I don’t think it’s that much different really,” Gruden said. “The rules are a little different. The collective bargaining agreement is a little different, but some things never change. I think professional football players now are very similar to what they were 20-30 years ago. I think the real pros understand preparation is a big part of it. It’s a year-round job and they hold themselves to a high standard and I don’t think that’s really changed with the really good pros I’ve been around.”
2. Guenther was a good fit
Gruden hired former Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther to serve in that same role on his staff and said he liked Guenther from the time his brother, Jay, was offensive coordinator for Cincinnati.
“Obviously, he came up in this business a lot like I did — small college, worked his way through the ranks,” Gruden said. “Obviously my brother was the offensive coordinator with the Bengals, and I’ve got a lot of respect for the coaches that have come through Cincinnati —Marvin Lewis, Zimmer and Guenther and a lot of the offensive guys as well. I would spend a lot of time with Jay and studying football, and I got to know Guenther and got a chance to watch him on the grass and I got a chance to know him off the field. He’s everything I’m looking for. I think he will be a future head coach, a great teacher. If you ask the Bengals players themselves, I think they would tell you those are similar qualities.”
3. Moving on without the stars
The Raiders traded away two star players this year and are watching as both are succeeding elsewhere. Outside linebacker Khalil Mack is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate for the playoff-bound Bears, and wide receiver Amari Cooper is flourishing while helping the Dallas Cowboys challenge for the NFC East title.
Gruden said the moves were about the future of the franchise and the team is making progress without those two players, it just took some time.
“We really didn’t want to trade those players, but some of the decisions you make, sometimes you have to trade contracts,” Gruden said. “There is a lot that goes into it, but we’re building our team. This is our first year here. We’ve not had a lot of success here in the last 15 years and we’re going to build this team around the commitment to excellence and the will to win and prepare, tough guys, hard-nose guys and we’re making progress. We’re not showing it on the win-loss record but we just beat the Steelers in a fourth-quarter comeback and we had the Kansas City Chiefs in the fourth quarter in a real tight football game as well, so we are making a lot of progress in our opinion behind these doors, but there is plenty of criticism. I just don’t have time for it right now.”
4. Young guys developing
Oakland is relying on a lot of youth, but Gruden said those players are developing quickly. The Raiders start two rookie offensive tackles and three first-year players on defense, and the placekicker, holder and snapper are all rookies.
“(Heck), even I feel like a rookie, but, they are getting better,” Gruden said. “They are getting tougher, they are getting stronger, they are getting experience, and they are learning they belong in the NFL. (Rookie defensive end) Arden Key made some great plays last week, and our two tackles were a big part of our win against the Pittsburgh Steelers. We had two long touchdown drives at the end of the ball game when they knew we were going to throw it, and we knew we were going to throw it and everybody knew we were going to throw it so we are seeing progress from them.”
5. Bengals full of ‘recognizable names’
Cincinnati has a lot of new players filling roles this season because of injuries, but a strong core of experience players remain, and that’s what stands out to Gruden on film.
“They’ve got a lot of continuity, and it starts with the head coach,” he said. “We know we are going to get a real physical defensive football team and I think they’ve done a heck of a job on offense, honestly. I think Lazor has done a really good job moving the football with a lot of moving pieces, and we have to deal with two really good halfbacks. I think Mixon is a star in this league, and we are concerned about Driskel’s run ability, and I think Ross is really improving in his second year.”
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