Jon Gruden insists he is not a TV star. "I'm just a ham-and-egger," the Monday Night Football analyst says, in his aw-shucks cadence. "I'm just trying to hang on to this job."
It's a good line—but that's all it is. This week Gruden began his fourth season on MNF, and his first as a solo analyst. Until now, the former Raiders and Buccaneers coach had the luxury of relying on a thoughtful partner in Ron Jaworski, who shared Gruden's wonkish fascination with zone busters and goal-line fronts. The problem, at least for ESPN executives, was that Gruden and Jaworski sounded too similar; one of them needed to go. When asked earlier this year why Jaworski had been reassigned to work on other NFL shows, ESPN president John Skipper said, "We want to ride Gruden.... He has a lot to say."
That faith in Gruden is why MNF will have a two-person booth for the first time since Al Michaels and John Madden in 2005. While Mike Tirico is an elite play-by-play man, Gruden is the face of the franchise. Given that MNF is the network's most valuable property—it has been the most-watched series on cable for six straight years—the 49-year-old Gruden is thus the most important on-air staffer in the ESPN empire. His rise has drawn interest from such varied entities as HBO's Real Sports (the program profiled him last month) and The New Yorker, which last December included a Vince Wilfork--sized profile of Gruden between examinations of placebos in medicine and the European financial crisis.
As a performer, Gruden has been most entertaining not on MNF but on Gruden's QB Camp, an ESPN series in which he prods draft-eligible quarterbacks with sharp questions and sarcastic remarks. Search YouTube for Gruden's 2011 grilling of Auburn quarterback Cam Newton. After Gruden called out a particularly long play ("Flip Right Double X Jet 36 Counter Naked Waggle at 7X Quarter"), he cajoled Newton to call something from the Tigers' playbook that was "a little verbal." Flummoxed, Newton shook his head, smiled and stammered that Gruden was putting him on the spot.
On MNF, Gruden meshes well with Tirico and clearly knows the league's personnel, especially team tendencies. He'll be better in a two-person booth; the NFL's short play clock makes it nearly impossible for three people to make salient points between snaps. The knock on Gruden is his hesitancy to criticize players and coaches, likely because he still entertains thoughts of returning to the sidelines. NBC's Cris Collinsworth, one of the best analysts in any sport, is always willing to say what he sees, knowing that it may cost him relationships. "The guys who are respected in this business are willing to cross the Rubicon," Collinsworth says.
As Gruden's work on QB Camp shows, he's capable of using his rapier wit to highlight shortcomings. But until he fully separates himself from the coaching fraternity, he'll never reach his peak in the booth. Tirico predicts that his partner—who has been linked to jobs with the Dolphins and at the University of Miami—will coach again. But ESPN executives say there is no contingency plan if Gruden leaves, and last year he signed a five-year contract extension that begins this month. "This scratches the itch," says Gruden. "Or itches my scratch. What I'm trying to say is this keeps me very close to the game. I get to see things from a different angle."