In all likelihood, Jon Gruden will leave ESPN's "Monday Night Football" booth and return to the sideline to coach the Oakland Raiders, but, because that's not a done deal yet, he'll continue to work his TV gig and that presents a potential conflict.
He'll be part of the ESPN team, along with Sean McDonough, Lisa Salters and Adam Schefter, assigned to broadcast the AFC wild-card game at 4:35 p.m. EST Saturday. Oh, and that AFC game just happens to involve the Tennessee Titans and Kansas City Chiefs, an AFC West team he would face twice each season if he becomes coach of the Raiders.
Gruden's name surfaced, as it always does when there are coaching openings in the NFL, in connection with Tampa Bay, but that job never opened. Then as quickly as Jack Del Rio announced Sunday evening that owner Mark Davis had fired him, Gruden suddenly became the next man up in Oakland.
It makes sense for Gruden, who seems unhappy since the departure of Mike Tirico for NBC and reportedly has been talking to possible assistant coaches. And it makes sense for the Raiders, who had four non-losing seasons until they traded him to Tampa Bay in February 2002. He coached the Bucs to a Super Bowl victory and remained for six more seasons, joining ESPN in 2009. With a move to Las Vegas on tap, it makes sense to hire a big-name coach, too.
But this may not become finalized quickly. First, the Raiders must comply with the Rooney rule requiring teams to interview a minority candidate, which means that Gruden will continue his TV work and that creates tricky issues for him to navigate. For one thing, broadcasters get behind-the-scenes access to coaches and players in the days leading up to the telecast, something that may not sit well with the Chiefs and Coach Andy Reid if they have to see Gruden on the opposite sideline next season.
Although the access may seem to be a minor deal, in NFL circles it is anything but that. During the regular season, there was a problem when Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, who was then injured, worked the Vikings' game against the Rams for Fox. Although the Panthers would not face the Rams until the postseason, the Vikings and Panthers had a big game just a few weeks later and Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman appealed to the NFL and Fox, which was carrying the game, to reassign Olsen. The request was denied, but Olsen did not attend practice or a production meeting. (The Panthers, incidentally, beat the Vikings, 31-24, on Dec. 10.)
"I understood where they were coming from," Olsen said of the Vikings' concerns. "I think once we made it clear to everyone involved that by no means did we ever intend to go to any practice, or being in a production meeting, interviewing the players, the coaches and getting behind the scenes info like what would traditionally happens in a production meeting, I think everyone kind of understood a little better."
And what happens when Gruden analyzes talent? If teams complained about Olsen's presence, you know they'll step up to say Gruden is tampering and gaining an unfair advantage.
Gruden's presumed hiring may not materialize quickly because there are reports that the Raiders plan to offer him an ownership stake, which would require approval by the other owners in the league and scrutiny by the finance committee. Luckily, ESPN only has one playoff game.