Jerry McDonald: Raiders’ Jon Gruden loves quarterbacks until he has to draft them

Tribune Content Agency

Jon Gruden can’t control himself. He sees a quarterback, and you know what happens next.

The Raiders coach has been peripherally connected with Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert and Utah State’s Jordan Love within the last few days.

Next up is Gruden making eyes at LSU’s Joe Burrow and Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, and how he’ll part with most of his draft class to get it done.

Herbert reportedly will have a video interview with the Raiders, one of 60 each team is allowed. A Los Angeles Times mock draft had Love going to the Raiders at No. 12, with Mel Kiper Jr. telling the “Big Lead” he thinks the Utah State passer may be headed to the Raiders.

Rewind to a year ago, when Gruden had “fallen in love” with Kyler Murray of Oklahoma and later was linked with Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins.

It didn’t make sense then. It makes even less sense now.

Gruden’s nine years away from coaching included heaping helpings of his enthusiasm for working with young quarterbacks on his “Quarterback Camp” show on ESPN. His tenure as an NFL coach has indicated a reluctance to use quarterbacks that young in actual games

In a dozen years as a head coach, these are the quarterbacks Gruden selected in the draft:

2001 — Marques Tuiasosopo, Washington, second round, 59th overall.

2003 — Chris Simms, Texas, third round, 99th overall

2006 — Bruce Gradkowski, Akron, sixth round, 194th overall

2008 — Josh Johnson, San Diego, fifth round, 160th overall.

That’s it.

Just because Gruden likes to work with young quarterbacks on television doesn’t mean he trusts them with one of the most involved and complex playbooks in an actual game. In 208 games, quarterbacks drafted by Gruden started only 26 times. Eleven of those were by Gradkowski in 2006, the only rookie quarterback to ever start a game with Gruden as a coach. The rest were from Simms, who didn’t play as a rookie.

Tuiasosopo, whom Gruden lobbied Al Davis to take with the Raiders, sat behind Rich Gannon in 2000 and 2001. Johnson, who arrived in Gruden’s last draft with Tampa Bay, didn’t start for him either.

If there ever was a time for Gruden to take a quarterback, it was 2005. The Bucs were coming off a 5-11 season and had the fifth pick in the draft. Simms was entering his third year, presumably ready to play at some point. Brian Griese was also on the roster.

That didn’t stop Gruden and Co. from flying to Utah to meet with Alex Smith, and then to California to visit with Aaron Rodgers. Gruden liked Rodgers. I sat in on the entire process, from the meeting with Rodgers to the workout at Memorial Stadium in which Jerry Rice appeared as a surprise guest receiver as he contemplated finding another team and continuing his career.

“We wouldn’t be here if we weren’t serious,” Gruden told Rodgers.

When the draft came, Smith was taken by the 49ers at No. 1. Rodgers was there at No. 5. The Bucs took running back Cadillac Williams of Auburn. Gruden is often labeled as emotional and impulsive, but he’s a pragmatist at heart. Williams was going to help right away.

Williams did for the Bucs what Josh Jacobs did for the Raiders in 2019, rushing for 1,178 yards as the Bucs went 11-5 and made the playoffs. After a torn patellar tendon in the 14th game, Williams was never the same. Gruden didn’t find his Gannon in Tampa Bay, coming closest with 37-year-old Jeff Garcia in 2007.

The due diligence of talking to Herbert and probably other quarterbacks will be the same as Gruden showed when meeting with Rodgers.

But when weighed against the needs of a 7-9 team that already has Derek Carr and Marcus Mariota in place, Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock will be looking for instant help in the first round at Nos. 12 and 19. Either that or make a trade that brings additional picks for players who can help right away.

Keep in mind that when Gruden drafted quarterbacks with the Raiders and Buccaneers, there was an offseason. When he returned, Gruden could barely conceal his sarcasm when discussing how the lack of on-field time impacts young players.

Now the Raiders and every other team in the NFL are faced with a great unknown due to the coronavirus pandemic. The first on-field time for rookies probably won’t be until training camp in late July, and that’s a best-case scenario. Not a lot of time for a rookie quarterback to get caught up with the Raiders, given Gruden’s insistence on having his signal caller work out of a huddle and with a higher percentage than most in terms of plays under center.

There simply won’t be time for stripping down the likes of Herbert and Love of their college systems and rebuilding them into instant NFL quarterbacks in a tight window.

Meeting with top talents is wise even if you don’t select them. They may become available by trade or free agency in future years and you’ve got a baseline to work with. It’s possible if not probable the Raiders will take a quarterback in the draft. They’ve got three third-round picks, enough to possibly get Jalen Hurts either at their draft position or through a trade.

But to use one of their first-round picks on Gruden’s latest alleged crush?

Makes for a good story. Chances are that come April 23, it will stop right there.


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