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Of vets and kids

Posted Apr 11, 2011

Jon Gruden, an offensive pepper pot who won 100 games as an NFL head coach with quarterbacks that were faced with issues instead of faces of the franchise, never got the big one.

He tried to sign Drew Brees, induce Brett Favre, and coax Jake Plummer during his eight seasons with the Buccaneers. He ended up winning with Rich Gannon in Oakland and Brad Johnson in Tampa Bay.

"Believe me, I've had my heart broken," Gruden said Monday, but he never quit trying.

So he urges the Bengals to keep talking to Carson Palmer.

That is, when they can once the NFL lockout is lifted and teams are no longer prohibited talking to their players.

"From what I understand, they're checking phone calls and e-mails and probably doing fingerprints," Gruden said. "Believe me, it's not a waste of time talking to Carson Palmer once they can. I know he's a good player by watching him on tape and from what I know he's a high character guy. I would certainly keep talking to him. You'd love to have a Carson Palmer. I would think that would be a priority."

Gruden, an ESPN analyst, has something in common this month with brother Jay, the new Bengals offensive coordinator. They are both dissecting quarterbacks as if they are frogs in a high school lab. One day Cam Newton is in the petri dish, the next day it's Jake Locker. On Monday, Blaine Gabbert was supposed to undergo Chuckie's taped X-and-O X-ray.

No doubt they are exchanging notes, but while Jay's dossier is top-secret Jon's scouting reports are going to be displayed worldwide in his popular draft segments of Gruden's QB Camp that feature the top quarterbacks and begin Monday at 7 p.m. on ESPN with Locker.

Of course, Jon knows that there are people in the NFL that think his take on rookie quarterbacks is about as hollow as a budget deal in the Capitol.

"They said I was in love with veteran quarterbacks and didn't like using kids, but I had some of those guys, too," said Gruden, who went 11-5 in Chris Simms' first season as a starter in Tampa. "I'm a big believer that you're going to have a hard time winning games without a blue-chip quarterback. If you want to be in a situation like the Colts and Patriots where you're always in contention, you have to have one."

But Gruden says the coach and the scheme must play as large a role as talent. Most of the time, he won with great defense and solid game management. He went to the playoffs five times with three different quarterbacks, twice leading the Raiders to the postseason with Gannon, a 35-year-old relic from the 1987 fourth round.

"I've been with five teams and I don't think we ever had a first-round quarterback," Gruden said, but as a head coach he sent Gannon to three Pro Bowls and Johnson and Jeff Garcia to one each.

"The big things about coaching quarterbacks are that your goal should be that you want to get more out of your quarterback than anybody else," Gruden said. "The system has to accentuate his strength and it might not be the same strength as Peyton Manning's. It might be high-percentage passes, who knows what it might be, and a lot of it depends on how your team plays. ... There are some Sunday mornings you show up at the stadium and you don't know how you're going to get a first down, never mind a touchdown. Then there are some days it's like, 'I know we can score, I just hope we don't turn it over.' The most overrated stat in football is total yards. I've seen more yards that are garbage than what's in my living room."

So teams can win even if they never get the guy that breaks their heart. But that never stopped Gruden from trying. In the never-ending quest, Gruden pulled a trade for Jake Plummer even though Plummer said he was going to retire. One night at training camp Gruden closed his eyes thinking Favre was almost in the fold only to wake up to find out he was a Jet.

"I had been talking to (Favre agent) Bus Cook and I know Brett well (from three seasons as a Packers assistant) and I went to bed thinking we had a pretty good shot at him and woke up and saw the headlines. I guess Green Bay didn't want to trade him in the division. I flew to Spokane, Wash., and then drove to Idaho to meet Jake Plummer. I love the way 'The Snake' played. He was perfect for what we did. I think he could come in now and play for somebody.

"He said he was going to retire, but we made the trade anyway. After I talked to him, I thought we had a real good chance to get him. The GM thought we had him. At least I got to see Idaho."

The Bengals are acting like Palmer is going to pull a Plummer and the thinking is they'll jump for a quarterback in the first couple of rounds. The consensus is there are no Carson Palmers (or any Jake Plummers for that matter) and Gruden reflects it. His advice to his brother at No. 4 is simple.

"Hey, I would have loved to have had Peyton Manning and been riding down the street next to him and maybe I could get you his autograph," he said. "But the No. 1 thing is, you've got to be a team guy. At No. 4, you've got to take the best player."

Gruden is looking at the top quarterbacks trying to figure it all out. It's the usual suspects. His top five in no particular order is Locker, Auburn's Newton, Missouri's Gabbert, Arkansas' Ryan Mallett, and TCU's Andy Dalton. He's also taking peeks at Florida State's Christian Ponder, Nevada's Colin Kaepernick, Iowa's Ricky Stanzi, and Delaware's Pat Devlin.

If you've been listening to Jay Gruden since he arrived Feb. 3, then you've heard this before. Jon Gruden is looking for smarts and leadership on top of his list of characteristics. With these guys, there's not much else to go on between the early-outs and the influx of the spread offense.

"Ideally you’d like to see a guy with 24 wins and a couple of bowl victories and a guy who goes through all four years," Gruden said. "With Cam Newton, you've got 14 games on tape. Gabbert's got 26 games. The scouts' big challenge is trying to project to the pros from the spread. It's hard to do at any position because the college game is so different now. How do you grade a tight end in college? When does a fullback ever take on a linebacker? Same thing with the quarterback."

For instance, Gruden says by the time the bubble screens and swing passes are taken away from the Missouri offense, there's not a lot of Gabbert passes to evaluate. But he does like winners like Gabbert and doesn't like to penalize players for the playcalling or scheme.

"I like Cam Newton because he dominates; that's what you're looking for," Gruden said. "He's running the same power play that (running backs) Bo Jackson and Cadillac Williams ran there. They keep telling me the SEC is the best conference in the country. Well Cam Newton threw and ran for 51 touchdowns in one season so that tells you something right there."

Gruden gives Locker higher marks these days than many of the media draft experts that have downgraded him because of his inaccuracy.

"He might be the toughest one. He was a one-man wrecking crew against some good teams," Gruden said. "I like Locker. He might have made some throws he'd like to have back, but I think he's a smart guy, a good guy, a guy that went back and got his degree. He's been through a lot. He was on an 0-12 team for goodness sakes and he had two different head coaches. He looks like a good leader to me."

Gruden says he's excited about Mallett because he worked in former NFL head coach Bobby Petrino's system "handling audibles, taking snaps under center with a big-time arm that can make a difference. He's got some (on-field) decision-making issues, but you certainly like the way he throws the ball."

Gruden also likes the way Dalton flings it even though he played in a spread and says "There should be statues of Coach (Gary) Patterson and Dalton in Fort Worth," after TCU's Rose Bowl season.

While many scouts aren't enthralled with Dalton's arm strength, Gruden laughed when told some think Dalton is the best fit of the top prospects for the West Coast style his brother has brought to Cincinnati.

"Somebody probably saw him throw a slant and he didn't have that Mariano Rivera speed on it," Gruden said. "He's got a good head on his shoulders, he can run, and he's a quick decision-maker. It probably means they don't think he has a rifle. But you've got to throw the ball to the sidelines in the NFL and he can do that. He can make all the throws."

Gruden may be wearing a network blazer, but in typical fashion he's bubbling about his brother's new team.

"Let's not forget that not very long ago they went 6-0 in the division," Gruden said of 2009. "And we had them last year (on Sunday Night Football) and they were knocking on the door to beat the Steelers in the last two minutes. They've got some very good defensive players. They've got talent there. It's not as bad as people think. They've got a hell of a defensive coach and I think Marvin (Lewis) does a great job."

But if there is one guy that also knows what a good veteran quarterback means, it's Gruden.

"Do you look back at a season and say, 'Gee, I wonder what we could have done with that guy?' '' Gruden asked. "Sure, but in the end, you have to do what your guy does best."

The Locker episode is to be re-run at 12 a.m. Then on Tuesday it is Dalton followed by Mallett on Wednesday. Newton gets the call next Monday night and Gabbert is up a week from Wednesday on April 20.

 

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