In the end the Raiders had little choice but to cut loose one of the best young coaches in the NFL. That's because as last weekend dragged on it became clear that Oakland faced two choices: Make a deal that would let Jon Gruden, 38, leave for the Buccaneers right now in return for a handful of draft picks or sit back, watch him depart at the end of next season and get nothing.
On Monday, Gruden agreed to a five-year contract worth at least $175 million to be Tampa Bay's new coach. According to a source close to the deal, Raiders owner Al Davis decided late on Sunday night to let Gruden leave after considering these facts. First, the Bucs agreed to add another second-round draft choice to their original compensation offer of two first-round picks and one second-rounder over the next three years. Second, Oakland had known that Gruden would be a lame duck next season ever since he turned down a three-year, $9.5 million contract extension late in 2001. Finally, Davis realized that if Niners coach Steve Mariucci agreed to be Tampa Bay's new coach and general manager—a deal that was in the works last weekend—that there was a reasonable chance that San Francisco would come calling for Gruden at the end of next season. Imagine the embarrassment if Gruden drove across the Bay Bridge next February, a year after the Niners got four high choices for Mariucci.
So who wins here? We say the Bucs. Yes, they paid a king's ransom for a coach, but Gruden is one of the best in the business. Besides, football coaches—who oversee highly complex game plans and large rosters—are more valuable than managers and coaches in other sports. Patriots owner Bob Kraft traded a first-round pick to the Jets for Bill Belichick two years ago. On the night of New England's Super Bowl victory, he called the move "the best deal I ever made, in business or sports."
Consider that Tampa Bay's last two first-round picks were tackle Kenyatta Walker and defensive tackle Booger McFarland, and their last two second-rounders were guard Cosey Coleman and quarterback Shaun King. If you wouldn't deal Walker, McFarland, Coleman and King for one of the top coaches in the game, you're watching the wrong sport.