John Gruden is now in his fourth season as ESPN's "Monday Night… (Steven Senne / Associated…)
Jon Gruden is returning to the scene of his greatest victory Monday, San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium.
Gruden, 49, directed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a 48-21 triumph in Super Bowl XXXVII over his former team, the Oakland Raiders, in 2003 in San Diego.
Now in his fourth season as ESPN's "Monday Night Football" analyst, Gruden will call the AFC West battle between the division-leading Chargers and the Peyton Manning-led Denver Broncos.
Gruden spoke to The Times about the game, the teams, the league and more.
How significant is Monday's game, with the Chargers at 3-2 and Denver at 2-3?
"It's still early, of course, but it's important because it's an AFC West game and both of these teams will jockey for position to win this through the end of the season. This could determine who finishes where."
What are your thoughts on the teams, the Broncos first?
"Denver has had five tough games already, and Peyton Manning is looking like he's getting his offensive system in place. His teammates are looking more comfortable and the team appears much improved. And I'm sure, with leaders like Coach John Fox and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, that defense will only get better. They had a tough slate early, but that's a good thing. It means you've already measured yourself against Pittsburgh, New England, Atlanta and Houston. You know, 'We can beat anybody.' It's confidence to draw upon down the stretch, no doubt."
"San Diego had some tough calls go against it in New Orleans last week. Let's see how mentally tough they are to come back from losing that lead late."
The way they lost that game, letting the Saints go all the way downfield after a Chargers interception-for-touchdown was denied by a roughing-the-passer penalty, and blowing the 10-point lead late, to me that's another indicator Coach Norv Turner doesn't instill the killer instinct in his team. Your thoughts?
"I don't think you can point fingers at Norv Turner over that. He wasn't out on the field. He didn't take any snaps. It's a mentality over there that the players need to deal with. That has to change. It's like putting the closer out there in baseball. You've got to close the game. Your pass rush has to rush the passer. This is a team that still has to show it can be great in prime time. This is a great opportunity to do that."
I've always thought your name should be near the top of the list if the Chargers get rid of Turner.
"I don't want to start rumors. I love the day-to-day operation with ESPN, I'm just trying to stay employed doing this. . . . I love broadcasting football and I love coaching. But I'm not worrying about who's doing what. Being out of coaching, you miss the game, you miss the players terribly. There are days you're an emotional wreck. But I'm very fortunate to be with the people I'm with, and I love the magnet of 'Monday Night Football.' You deal with the best players and coaches. It's a playoff atmosphere every week. How can you not love it?"
Thus far, Peyton Manning has beaten teams with losing records and lost to winners. How does he look to you?
"When you sit out of football for a year and then start over with a whole new cast of coaches and players, there's going to be some growing pains. But I think from the second half of the Houston game on, his rhythm and timing . . . everything looks crisper. He's getting back in the groove again. Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas has exploded. Receiver Eric Decker is solid. That offense is getting its tempo. They just need to start faster now. Peyton is arguably the best quarterback ever. I'm not going to compare him to the prime of his career right now, but he's pretty darn close. Some of these throws I've seen him make . . . there's still a lot of magic left in his wand."
Your expertise with quarterbacks requires a couple specific questions. First, why is Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers struggling?
"They're a controversial Hail Mary and an emotionally crazy victory by Indianapolis away from still having the record of the elite teams. He had such an amazing MVP season last year, that may never be duplicated. But his line is allowing pressure, wide receiver Greg Jennings is hurt, people are out to get him, and they've had a difficult schedule."
Does the injury to Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III show there really can't be a running quarterback in this league?
"He's a great athlete with a habit of being the best athlete on the field, which he sometimes still is. The way the Redskins run their offense, they're asking him to run the ball. But you have to think first down, not touchdown now. You have to protect the top of the head and your throwing shoulder. These hits take a toll. He's learning from that, and he'll also learn the importance of throwing the ball away when the play's not there."
Your former teams, the Raiders and Buccaneers, are struggling badly. What's wrong?
"I don't study them as carefully as I used to. The Raiders have had so much change. They traded away first-round draft picks. They continue to change coaches and players. It'll take time to win when you do that. The Buccaneers have lost 13 of 14 [before Sunday]. They've got to get things turned around now, that's for sure."
Who's the best team in the league?
"I really like the Houston Texans because I just saw them with my own two eyes. They have incredible balance. They can run and throw on offense, and Wade Phillips is doing a great job with that defense. I say that while knowing the Atlanta Falcons, with Mike Nolan now leading the defense and playing in that domed stadium, are very good too."