Biggest call of all


Jay Gruden

Sprint 6 D Curl.

Jay Gruden not only remembers the last play call of his sophomore season nearly 25 years later, but how the Florida State defensive end broke down the protection and never let him get to "curl." He also turned Gruden's leg inside out, ripping the ACL and MCL in his knee to shreds so that his hip went straight to his foot.

"When I got out to the field, that dang-god leg was almost completely backward," says Howard Schnellenberger, the Louisville head coach at the time. "I didn't see how he would ever be able to take another snap. And that happened fairly late in the year, but he was back for the first play next year."

Gruden was his team MVP the next two seasons, the last a remarkable 8-3 run for the Cardinals' first winning season in 10 years, and if the people are saying the Bengals offensive coordinator is a minefield of a job for a first-year NFL playcaller, the people that know him best say he has the resolute toughness and brains of A Coach's Son to do what he's done everywhere:

Succeed.

"His brother has been driving," says Bret Munsey, who has worked with Gruden in two different leagues, "but he's been in the back seat watching."

It always seems to start with Paul Brown, doesn't it?

The Jay Gruden Story does when you figure 65 years ago his father came from the east side of Cleveland to spend a quarter and sit under the clock when the Cleveland Browns first came to town as the power of the old AAFC. The nine-year-old idolized Brown and quarterback Otto Graham and soon made football his life.

(When he was the quarterback at Orange High School, Jim Gruden scrimmaged against a Shaker Heights team quarterbacked by Bengals president Mike Brown.) 

Jim Gruden's boys were born where he coached. The oldest two, Jim and Jon, were born in Sandusky, Ohio, when he coached in nearby Fremont. In 1967, the youngest, Jay, was born in Tiffin, Ohio, while he was coaching college at Heidelberg. Like all football guys, the birth certificates of their kids can serve as their résumés. 

"I wasn't around all that much, but they took to it; they liked it," says Jim Gruden, who ended his career as an NFL scout for two decades after he coached on John McKay's last staff in Tampa. "All I can say about Jay is you'll like him. He's loyal and works hard."

If Jon Gruden is "Chucky" because his expressive, cunning and frenzied pace conjures up images of the '90s horror films slasher, then where does that leave Jay when it comes to fictional serial killers?

Try the cool, cerebral Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

But make no mistake. Despite his preference to low-key it, the good doctor goes for the heart of a defense or an X-and-O puzzle as maniacally as his brother with the Super Bowl ring and ESPN mike.

"They're different. Thank God he didn't make any two people alike," Jim Gruden says. "But they're very close. They think alike. Both are tough kids. Jay's not going to let anybody get in his face. If you want to know how tough he is, just ask Howard Schnellenberger."

Schnellenerger's quarterbacks, now at Florida Atlantic, also have had to be smart. Starting with Bernie Kosar at the University of Miami.

"I remember Bernie saying after his first year in the NFL with the Browns that he had more freedom to change plays at the line in college," Schnellenberger says. "I gave it to him in his first game as a freshman against Florida. I've always felt a quarterback has to be able to make audibles and Jay was no different. He had the final say, really, when he got out there and saw the defense after the coaches had put together the plan. I have to give Jay a call. You know, when you're coaching, you never really get a chance to talk or visit unless you play each other."

On Tuesday, Gruden's first full day as an NFL coordinator, Schnellenberger could have found him where he found him 25 years ago: watching tape. Gruden huddled with offensive quality control coach Kyle Caskey as they began the tedious job of translating what is on the screen into Gruden's language that writes the new playbook. And, no, it is not lost on Gruden, 43, that the one NFL job he's had is much like the one Caskey has now.

He knows his experience is getting questioned ("I know I have a lot to prove," he says), but, as Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis says, "He's coached a lot of football." Indeed, by the time he joined Jon as his quality control guy in Tampa Bay in 2002, Gruden had been the head coach of two Arena Bowl champions.

Then, in a profession known for ridiculous hours and amazing feats of moonlighting just to get a sniff, Jay Gruden pulled off one of the great double plays of all time as an NFL assistant in Tampa and an Arena League general manager/head coach in Orlando that allowed his young family of three boys to dig roots in Orlando. If things got tight in Tampa, he could spend the night at his parents' home.  

The seasons were pretty much split until about halfway through his seven-year tenure in Tampa when the Arena League introduced a salary cap and free agency. Munsey, his player personnel man in Orlando as well as a defensive assistant, had a ringside seat.

"He'd get up at (four) in the morning in Orlando to hop on I-4 for the hour-and-a-half hour trip to Tampa and a couple times of week he'd come back and work on Predator stuff at night," Munsey says. "He'd be negotiating contracts, or trying to talk guys back, scouting guys, building a team. You can't fluster him. No matter the situation, the guy doesn't panic.

"He works well with people. You talk to a lot of the guys in Tampa and they say his personality helped keep things together on game day."

That's when Jay was on the headsets with his brother, a guy that has been characterized as "high strung." But Jay says the partnership consisted of him staying out of his way. "If you told my brother on game day to 'take it easy,' " he says, "he'd probably fly up to the press box and strangle you."

Jay downplays his work on his brother's staff. He says it was a pure learning process of what he calls "the outdoor game."

"And if I could help my brother with a play, I would," he says. 

But guys like Munsey and Jim Haslett, the former NFL head coach that had both Jay and Munsey on his staff at the UFL's Florida Tuskers, say he was a lot more than that. So does Jon, who relied on Jay to install much of the key situational stuff such as third down, blitzes and red zone.

"His right-hand man," is what Haslett calls him.

And the education continued after Jon got fired in Tampa in 2008 and he opened an informal office that he called the "Fired Coaches Association." Anybody was liable to show up on a given day, and they still do as Jon leads the parade of tape.

"I still think I have a few T-shirts," Jay says. "I probably learned the most football I've learned in there. A lot of coaches have gone through."

When Jay and Munsey were putting together the Tuskers the last two seasons, Jay would get to Tampa three times a week and Munsey at least once.

"We'd meet at a McDonald's at 5 in the morning in Orlando and by the time we got there Jon would have already been watching tape for an hour," Munsey says. "Jon would be tough on him. He'd get him up on the board and he'd fire stuff at him as quickly as he could and he'd challenge him."

Which is one of the reasons Munsey believes the jump from the UFL won't be a problem even though teams can only play a 4-3 defense and all the linemen have to rush.

"He's been looking at 3-4 tape for the last month," Munsey says. "Let people say he has no experience, but he's done in the Arena League and the UFL what you have to do in the NFL: Bring professionals together to win. And finding the players. He's extremely good with players. He gets their respect because of his knowledge.

"I think what the biggest thing working in the UFL and Arena League helped him with is personnel. Even though the Arena League is a little different, you're still looking for size and speed."

Gruden laughs when he's called the "Joe Montana" of the Arena League during his stint in the '90s with the Tampa Bay Storm. 

"I was the Jay Gruden of the Arena League," he says.

Whoever he is, he's a Hall of Famer once voted the fourth-greatest AFL player of all-time after quarterbacking the Storm to four titles. A feat that again required A Coach's Son traits of toughness and brains.

"You get hit on every pass in the Arena League," Munsey says.

"The best quarterbacks in that league got the ball out of their hands fast, were accurate and could think quickly," says Duke Tobin, the Bengals director of player personnel who quarterbacked for two seasons in the AFL and got beat by a point in his one showdown with Gruden.

"It was primarily a man-to-man league, so you could take some shots if one guy broke down," Tobin says. "And you didn't want to scramble near the boards."

Actually, Gruden saw Joe Montana play at Notre Dame back when he was in grade school and his dad was coaching the Irish running backs. That's back when Jon barged into the Notre Dame weight room as a high school freshman to lift with the big kids.

It's just one of those experiences as A Coach's Son that convinced Jay to make the game his life like the kid sitting under the Browns scoreboard all those years ago.

"I got a chance to watch Joe Montana," Jay Gruden said. "How great is that?"

Now Jay has his own office with tape and a batch of new T-shirts.

"I expect Jon to be up there a little bit," says Jim Gruden with a chuckle.

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