Why Jon Gruden Won’t (and Shouldn’t) Replace Jim Schwartz as Lions Head Coach


December 9, 2012; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers former head coach Jon Gruden talks during a presentation celebrating the 10th anniversary of the 2002 Super Bowl Champions during halftime against the Philadelphia Eagles at Raymond James Stadium. The Eagles won 23-21. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

With the Lions’ major late-season collapse and elimination from the playoffs, the firing of head coach Jim Schwartz is almost a foregone conclusion.

Of course, nothing is for sure in the NFL, but all the writing appears to be on the wall. So it’s only natural that fans are starting to think about Schwartz’s successor in Detroit, and since he’s a relatively young former coach who is still in everyone’s faces  every Monday night, Jon Gruden is obviously one of the first names to come up.

So now we have fan after fan…

after fan…

after fan…

after fan…

all calling for Gruden to become the Lions’ next coach.

I can understand the sentiment. The average fan looks at Jon Gruden and sees a 50-year-old former head coach  with 11 years experience and a Super Bowl win under his belt. But what happens if we look at his credentials a little more closely?

The part of Gruden’s legacy that nobody talks about is how he won a Super Bowl in his first season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (a team that Tony Dungy was largely responsible for building), then systematically drove the team into the ground over the next six years.

Did you know that 2002, the Bucs’ Super Bowl year, was the last time a Gruden-coached team won a playoff game? His teams have a 45-51 record in the six years he coached since then. Isn’t that the kind of mediocrity Lions fans are hoping to get out of? In 11 years with the Raiders and Bucs, Gruden has a career 95-81 record, with five playoff appearances.

That’s not an awful track record, but it’s only slightly above average. The thing that sets him apart with any other coach with a barely-over-.500 career record is that Super Bowl win, and it’s understandable that Lions fans won’t turn their noses up at that.

But I can’t stress enough that the 2001 Bucs were Dungy’s team, which means the 2002 Super Bowl-winning Bucs were still mostly Dungy’s team. In the next couple of years, when it became Gruden’s team, they went 7-9, and then 5-11.

Of course, arguing career records is typically a semantic exercise, because measuring a coach’s prowess in win-loss ratio is like doing the same for quarterbacks: sure, they had a lot to do with it, but it’s not like it was all their doing.

So instead, it’s important to think about what the Lions need from their next head coach. One of the biggest qualities the Lions will need from their next coach(ing staff) is the ability to develop a young quarterback. Matthew Stafford is a talented guy that the Lions can build around, but he has remained stuck in his debilitating bad habits for years, and it doesn’t look like anybody in the organization is willing to tell him to knock it off.

So what is Gruden’s track record with developing young quarterbacks?

Zero. In fact, he’s never even tried. There are only three seasons in which the quarterback starting the majority of a season for Gruden was under age 30.

In 2004, 29-year-old Brian Griese went 4-6 as the Bucs starter.

In 2005, they went with 25-year-old Chris Simms, who went 6-4, and he only played because the 30-year-old Griese went down for the season with a knee injury.

In 2006, 23-year-old Bruce Gradkowski went 3-8, and the following season, Gruden decided that his best chance to win was to sign 37-year-old journeyman quarteback Jeff Garcia. He has a clear affinity for veteran quarterbacks, and doesn’t have the patience to improve a young one before dumping him off the following season.

I guess that means Gruden is an okay coach if you’re convinced that Stafford is a bust of a quarterback beyond saving, and would like to see how far the Lions can get with Shaun Hill.

So basically, if your ideal Lions coach of the future is a guy with a record of only middling success who will send the team into a slow downward spiral from whatever progress they’ve made in the last five years, Gruden’s your guy.

And that’s only if he’s as good as he was when he left coaching five years ago. Because Lions fans should all remember what happened the last time the Lions hired a guy out of the broadcast booth.