Miller: NFL’s New Year may be brightened by Garoppolo, Gruden

It has been an intriguing season in the NFL, with the re-emergence
of Todd Gurley, the continued brilliance of Tom Brady, four new
division winners in the NFC and all manner of off-field diversions
ranging from anthem protests to the status of Roger Goodell, the
commissioner.

Yet, as we approach the season’s final weekend, two of the biggest
stories in the league involve none of that but, instead, a coach
turned broadcaster and a quarterback on a losing team.

Coincidentally, the stories involve two men with the same initials.

Jon Gruden and Jimmy Garoppolo could emerge in 2018 as two of the
league’s biggest names.

That is, if Gruden finally emerges from the broadcast booth to take
over a team that has a quarterback with whom he can win. Let’s
consider the Bucs or Raiders, places he has succeeded in the past,
or the Colts or even the Texans, who have an owner willing to spend
money.

And there is Garoppolo, whose four-game run in San Francisco has
triggered memories of the 49ers’ past glory. Consider if he can
perform near that level over a full season for a team that has a
Fort Knox full of salary-cap room to improve itself at other
positions by next season.

For all of the NFL’s well-known issues that have been front and
center this year, what continues to make the league the country’s
No. 1 sport is the anticipation and excitement fueled by
year-to-year and even week-to-week uncertainty.

Every team has a chance. Except, maybe, Cleveland.

All of those who thought the Eagles, Vikings, Rams and Saints or
Panthers would be the NFC division winners this year, raise your
hands.

Didn’t think so.

And for bonus points, who thought the untested pairing of head
coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch would have the
49ers dreaming of the 2018 playoffs even before the end of the 2017
season, let alone the 2018 draft?

Yeah, again, didn’t think so.

With that that sole change, the 49ers, who were 1-10 after 11 games
with a victory only over the Giants while averaging 17 points a
game, would go on to win four straight, averaging 27.5 points a
game including 44 against the division-winning Jaguars, who had
allowed the fewest points in the league.

Certainly, San Francisco is a team that needs help at multiple
positions, but history has shown that stable, solid play at
quarterback can cover for multiple problems at other positions.

In his four games for the 49ers, Garoppolo completed 69 percent of
his passes, averaged 8.74 yards per attempt and compiled a passer
rating of 98.9. He has not thrown enough passes to qualify for the
league rankings, but if he had, those figures would rate second,
first and seventh, respectively.

It is, of course, ridiculously early to make any comparisons or
blanket statements about the future, but the Patriots’ trade of
Garoppolo late in their dynasty is reminiscent of what happened to
the Pittsburgh Steelers in the early ’80s.

Heading into the 1983 draft, Terry Bradshaw was about to turn 35
and had a sore arm. But Bradshaw and the Steelers believed he still
had several years left, so the team passed on drafting Dan Marino,
a hometown hero at the University of Pittsburgh. As it turned out,
Bradshaw would start only one more game, and the Steelers would go
more than two decades before winning another Super Bowl.

There is no comparable indication that Tom Brady’s career is near
an end, but Brady is, after all, 40 years old, and now, with
Garoppolo gone, head coach Bill Belichick hopes Brady can continue
to play until the coach finds and develops another potential
successor.

Gruden’s situation is potentially even more intriguing. He has not
coached in the NFL since 2008, with Tampa Bay, and seems well
settled in his TV role. But it’s well-known that ESPN is cutting
back on spending; whether that would touch Gruden’s role is
uncertain. But, it is believed he would only be willing to return
to a team with a quarterback in place ready to win, which is why
the volume may be turned up on a possible return to the sidelines
during the coming offseason.

There are at least six non-playoff NFL teams that might be changing
head coaches with either prime-of-career quarterbacks in place or
top-shelf quarterbacks developing: Tampa Bay and Oakland, the
places he worked before, plus Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis and
Houston.

Of course, what’s also not clear is whether time and television
have built Gruden into something he is not. After all, while he got
great credit for developing Rich Gannon into an MVP in Oakland,
there is a tendency to overlook Al Davis’ hand in the background.
And, in Tampa Bay, Gruden won with Monte Kiffin’s defense, not his
offense. Lest we forget, it was a defense that returned three
interceptions for touchdowns in the Super Bowl.

Television time tends to make coaches look better and smarter.
Gruden’s Super Bowl victory came in his first Tampa Bay season; his
record for the remaining six years was 45-53 with two playoff
appearances and raise your hand again if you can name their
quarterbacks in those years.

Furthermore, it’s likely that Gruden would want complete control of
personnel were he to return, and that could be a sticking point
with some of those teams. Oakland, for example, has done a nice
rebuild with general manager Reggie McKenzie, but a Gruden-led
revival there would make the Raiders that much more attractive for
their coming move to Las Vegas. And both the Raiders and Texans not
only have young quarterbacks, but enough terrific defensive players
already in place to build a contender around.

It’s the prospect of rebuilds like that which make January just
about as intriguing for the NFL’s crummy teams as for the good
teams competing for the Lombardi Trophy.

–Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the
National Football League for more than five decades and is a member
of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He is a
national columnist for The Sports Xchange.

Tags: ,