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Former Tampa Bay Bucs coach Jon Gruden should return to NFL on Dallas Cowboys sideline

An old friend is in need. It seems his career may be reaching a crossroads, and he could use a little help. You see, there are people begging for him to come to San Francisco. Others are dreaming about him in Cleveland. And, if you listen closely, they've been talking him up in Dallas, too. So, tell me, what advice would you have this morning for Jon Gruden? Hard to believe it has been eight years since he was the NFL's wonder boy, winning a Super Bowl at age 39 with the Buccaneers. Harder still to imagine the league has been deprived of his unique sideline passion for more than 21 months since Tampa Bay dismissed him. All of which may explain why rumors are starting to heat up about Gruden's possible return to coaching.

Yes, he has signed what was supposedly an ironclad TV deal. And he has been a bit of a hit in the Monday Night Football booth, as well as appearances on other ESPN properties. Not to mention, the Bucs are still paying him millions through the end of next season.

Yet timing is everything in the NFL, and the job applications seem to be lining up nicely for a Gruden return.

He even acknowledged he might be open to job offers when asked this week on an NFL.com podcast about the possibility of a comeback.

Which means the larger question is where might he go?

There are a handful of destinations that can probably be ruled out immediately. Carolina is not bringing John Fox back, but the Panthers won't spend close to the kind of money it would take to get Gruden to put down his microphone. The Bills may be changing coaches for the 32nd consecutive season, but there didn't seem to be much interest in that coupling a few months ago.

In the coming months there will be other teams that falter, and other job opportunities will come around. For now, however, the focus would appear to be on the Browns, 49ers and Cowboys.

So, again, if you're advising Gruden, what do you tell him?

Do you push for a reunion with his old friend and mentor Mike Holmgren in Cleveland?

After all, it was Holmgren who gave Gruden his first break in the NFL almost 20 years ago. Gruden was just a few years out of college and working as a grunt in San Francisco where Holmgren was his immediate supervisor as the 49ers offensive coordinator. When Holmgren was hired as the head coach in Green Bay, he brought Gruden along as one of his assistants.

Still, you might wonder if that relationship would still work all these years later. Each man has since won a Super Bowl as a head coach in the NFL, and each is going to have strong opinions about personnel and philosophies.

Cleveland is also a team in complete rebuilding mode, and Gruden has never shown much patience for building from the ground up.

So, no, maybe Cleveland isn't the best place right now.

Does that mean a return to San Francisco is the best answer?

After all, it was where Gruden's NFL career began as a quality control coach in 1990. And maybe there would be some satisfaction in setting up shop across the bay from where Gruden spent four years as a head coach for Al Davis in Oakland.

Fans in San Francisco are running out of patience with Mike Singletary, and the team certainly seems to have more talent than its 1-5 record would indicate. But, in the end, the only real draw seems to be a geographical acquaintance some years ago.

So, no, perhaps San Francisco isn't the frontrunner, either.

Does that mean Gruden is best suited for Dallas?

You betcha.

The job is certainly high profile. And the owner definitely has money to spend. The Cowboys have a Pro Bowl quarterback with a reputation for being an underachiever at playoff time, and that might be just the kind of pet project that would intrigue Gruden.

The Cowboys have been in the postseason three of the past four years but have not been able to get past their first playoff game. In other words, they're not so different from the Bucs team Gruden took over in 2002.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has employed Jimmy Johnson, Barry Switzer and Bill Parcells over the years but squeezed in Dave Campo, Chan Gailey and now Wade Phillips in between. In other words, it's about time for Jones to go hunting for another star with a whistle.

When Pete Carroll and Mike Shanahan were on the market last season, the Seahawks and Redskins were both willing to pay $7 million a season to lure them to town. Gruden could be in the same ballpark, and Jones is one of the few owners who could afford him.

In a way, the bigger question may be whether Jones wants to go after Gruden or Bill Cowher.

No matter how the next few months shake out, the suspicion is that Gruden will show up soon with a job as an NFL head coach. The time just seems right.

As frustrating as the final few seasons were in Tampa Bay, there was really never a question about the man's talents as coach. Gruden is at his best running a pro football team, and the NFL is a better league when he is on the sideline.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Former Tampa Bay Bucs coach Jon Gruden should return to NFL on Dallas Cowboys sideline 10/20/10 [Last modified: Thursday, October 21, 2010 8:44am]

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