Two years ago, during his first season on Monday Night Football, former Raiders and Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden signed a contract extension. Touted as an “exclusive” deal, ESPN opted not to elaborate on what “exclusive” means, specifically as it relates to Gruden’s ability to leave ESPN to return to coaching.
Now, another contract extension has been signed and announced. Again, it’s exclusive. And, again, ESPN isn’t saying whether exclusivity applies to broadcasting or to other lines of work.
ESPN spokesman Bill Hofheimer declares that teams can “[c]ross this guy off coaching candidate list for 2012.” Sorry, but absent the disclosure of language in the deal preventing Gruden from leaving to become a coach again, the question of whether he can leave to become a coach again is unrelated to his “exclusive” broadcasting deal. Since ESPN won’t answer that question, we’ll assume the answer is yes.
There’s a not-so-obvious a benefit for taking Gruden’s name out of the mix, at least until the final Monday Night Football game of the 2011 season has been played. If/when Gruden’s name gets connected to a NFL team that will be looking for a new head coach before the present season ends, current head coaches of teams that compete with the team Gruden may be coaching could resist giving Gruden access to practices and/or production meetings. With this new “exclusive” extension, the media will be more likely to resist linking Gruden’s name to likely openings, which will in turn help avoid any awkwardness in November or December.
Gruden has made it clear that he plans to return to coaching at some point. If he honors the full five years of the contract extension, which kicks in at the start of the 2012 season, Gruden will have gone eight years without coaching. By that point, there’s a chance he won’t be on the “A” list.
For now, his name will continue to come up when jobs come open, regardless of his ESPN contract. And if the Eagles miss the playoffs and coach Andy Reid gets his walking papers, count on many folks in Philly to clamor for Gruden to get the job.
Until then, look for Gruden to continue to say great things about every team, coach, players, and owners, as he tries to maximize his options (and, in turn, his leverage) for when he finally decides to return to the NFL. And that’s really the best barometer for whether Gruden truly intends to return to coaching. Unless and until he begins to put on his Chucky persona when he attaches his headset, Gruden will in reality have one foot in the broadcast booth — and one foot on the sideline.