The Lions went almost a decade between Monday Night Football appearances in the 2000s, but they're back on the NFL's biggest stage for the third time in as many seasons this week, hosting the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens at Ford Field.
Jon Gruden, now in his fifth season as ESPN MNF analyst, spent time with the Detroit Free Press talking about his role alongside play-by-play man and Ann Arbor native Mike Tirico, his future in the broadcast booth as well as the Lions and quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Gruden, who won four division titles and one Super Bowl in 11 seasons as head coach of the Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is regularly mentioned as a candidate for high-profile coaching vacancies today.
But the always entertaining 50-year-old said this week he's happy with his current job, even if it's one he never thought he'd be doing.
"There's times I still can't believe it," Gruden said. "But it's been very exciting for me and memorable, that's for sure."
QUESTION: Along with your Monday Night duties, you do a pretty well-known quarterback series with prospects leading up to the draft every year. Put that hat on for me for a second. Just what do you think the Lions have in Matthew Stafford as their quarterback?
ANSWER: "Well, they have a power pitcher. This is a freak throwing the ball. He's capable of making any throw. As a matter of fact, he can make throws I've never dreamed of making. He can throw sidearm, underhand. I bet he could complete 62 percent left-handed.
"He's got an unbelievable array of releases. He's got a cannon. He's got good mobility. Tough as hell. And he's had tremendous production throwing the football year in and year out in a one-back spread system. It's a credit to him."
Q: Why then have the wins not always been there for him and for the team?
A: "They've had a lot of people come and go through those doors. It's not like he took over a team that was on the cusp of winning the Super Bowl. He took over a team that was on the cusp of hopefully winning four games.
"They obviously have misfired over the years, for whatever reason, at the top of the draft. They've had some bad things happened to the franchise. Since Wayne Fontes left, they've had a lot of different coaches, different schemes and different negative things happen.
"He did get them in contention in (Jim) Schwartz's (third) season. Got 10 wins on the board. But has he been perfect? No. The turnovers have been a problem, he's had injuries that have shortened his seasons at different times. They've struggled in different parts of the offensive line. They've been one dimensional to a degree. They've been unable to get a sustained running game. And they've struggled on defense now. They've struggled on defense, too.
"This is a team game. I've heard Tony Romo go through this, Jay Cutler's going through this. A lot of guys are going through the similar growing pains that Stafford's going through, but you make a great point. The great quarterbacks, they find a way to win these close games. I think taking care of the football is no doubt a huge priority for the Lions. That minus-10 turnover ratio has doomed them from distancing themselves."
Q: You mentioned the turnovers. That is a huge thing. How can those turnover issues be corrected, both that Matt's had and the team has had?
A: "The running backs, Reggie (Bush has) had a couple fumbles in recent weeks. Let's be honest, though. When you look at Calvin Johnson, some of the reels that you show on the Jumbotron are jump balls into double coverage. And those are throws that I've never heard anybody even try to convey to their quarterback, 'Hey, throw it up into double coverage.'
"I think sometimes you get into trouble because of the greatness of Megatron. I really believe that. Maybe you want to wait for him to get one more step down the field, maybe you want to just hold onto it one more second. Maybe you stared it down a little too long, maybe you didn't see the back-side safety. I believe a couple turnovers have been a result of maybe the good fortune that they've had over the years with Johnson.
"Secondly, they've got some young guys playing on the right side. They had some veterans that struggled last year. There've been some protection issues. They've lost (Nate) Burleson, they're not playing with a healthy (Brandon) Pettigrew that's as healthy and flashy as he was inside early in his career, if you ask me.
"So throwing the ball as many times as they throw it, there's going to be some turnovers. That's just the reality of all. When you throw it 700 times, there's a lot better chance you throw interceptions then when you throw it 500."
Q: They do chuck it around quite a bit. As a team, the Lions have been a bit up and down here lately. Blowing some leads and playing undisciplined football one minute, but blowing out teams the next like they did against Green Bay. In your eyes, how far should this team go this year?(AT)
A: "If they're ever going to win the division, if I told you you're going to see the Chicago Bears half the season without (Jay) Cutler and you're going to see (Aaron) Rodgers miss about half of the season for Green Bay, I would say that'd be the year that you should win it. Minnesota's played three different quarterbacks, and this is the year Stafford and the Detroit Lions, I think, should win the NFC North.
"They made a veteran acquisition at safety. (Louis) Delmas has stayed healthy, so (Glover) Quin and Delmas have solidified the middle of their defense. They've got two top premier pass rushers inside. They've been healthy for the most part on defense. They've got to eliminate these big plays.
"My goodness, there've been so many good things they've done on defense, but there've four or five head-scratching plays you can't imagine, you just can't understand. And they've got to eliminate those plays defensively and I think they could be in business."
Q: Beyond winning the division, how long do you think it is before this team seriously contends for a Super Bowl?
A: "I see just modern-day football's a lot different than football five years ago. This is a completely different era of football. The way that teams practice now, the way that the salary caps and the teams are orchestrated from the top down. You're not going to see a lot of three- and four- and five-, six-year dynasty programs anymore. I'm seeing the Falcons go from first to worst, the Texans went from first to worst, so did Washington. So if you can go from first to worst, that means you can go from worst to first, right?"
Q: So basically, if you get in it you've got a chance? If they get in it this year, they've got a chance?
A: "Yeah, I really believe that. I think the last three years a wild-card team has won the Super Bowl. I mean, you'd like to have homefield advantage, you'd like to have a steak dinner and you'd like to have an escort take you to your home stadium every week. But the reality is the last few Super Bowl champions, Green Bay, Baltimore, the Giants, they got in as a wildcard and they've beaten people up on the road and enjoyed it and won the Lombardi Trophy.
"So this is about getting in the tournament and having a healthy quarterback, a great receiver and a solid defense that can get it done at crunch time. I think the Lions have people in place that can make plays if they get the opportunity."
Q: They certainly have the great receiver in Calvin.
A: "Is he something else or what? That's not even right, is it?"
Q: Can you imagine having a weapon like that when you coached?
A: "He's like Jerry Rice and, I don't know. Jerry Rice and Muhammad Ali in their prime rolled into one. The guy's -- I'm going to put a little segment together on him, all the F-sounding words. Fearless, the guy's focus, his physicality. His ability, he's fast. There's nothing he can't do. He's just amazing. And he's a hell of a guy, too, isn't he? That says enough right there."
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