Back when he was a NFL coach, Jon Gruden was the definition of a grinder.
He would arrive at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ football facility in the wee hours of the morning, pecking away at his computer and breaking down tape. It was the only way he knew how to do his job, and he worked at a breakneck pace that paid off with a Super Bowl title in 2002.
These days, Gruden’s football life is a lot simpler. His ESPN show, “Gruden’s QB Camp,” is extremely popular. After leaving coaching eight years ago, it also gives him an opportunity to stay engaged in the sport he loves.
That’s where the Chiefs and their quarterback of the future, Patrick Mahomes II, enter the picture. Gruden and Chiefs coach Andy Reid worked together and remain good friends. For years, the two quarterback gurus have regularly talked about draft-eligible players, including Mahomes, who appeared on Gruden’s show this spring.
“I didn’t have any influence on (the decision to take him), I know that,” Gruden said. “But we always talk about players in the draft, things that are going on in the league. Andy and I go way back. He’s one of my really good friends. I’m sure Mahomes’ name did come up.”
Gruden is on a long list of people outside and inside the Chiefs organization — where the love for Mahomes was practically unanimous — who have co-signed on the strong-armed Texan’s fit in Kansas City.
“I’m on record … on (one of) those (ESPN) shows, they put me on the stage and said ‘Who ya takin,’ and I said ‘Mahomes,’” Gruden said. “I can’t find guys that can do what he does in terms of his overall arm talent.
“I said if I could have one guy, I’d pick Mahomes.”
Gruden also noted that Mahomes was fun to be around. Half the battle of playing quarterback in the NFL is how you carry yourself.
“I’d enjoy going to work and seeing him everyday,” Gruden said.
Mahomes’ gunslinger tendencies have also elicited both veiled and direct comparisons to Pro Football Hall of Famer Brett Favre. It’s a notion Gruden — who, like Reid, was on Green Bay’s coaching staff during parts of Favre’s heyday — has also made publicly and obviously doesn’t take lightly.
“I haven’t said that very often, and that’s a comparison you don’t like to put on anybody,” Gruden said. “But we were there for the beginning of Favre and there are a lot of similarities in the way they play, the way they see the game and the way they throw the ball.”
One underrated aspect of having a quarterback with Mahomes’ unique combination of arm talent and creativity is the way they tend to empower receivers — they believe their QB can get the ball downfield at any time.
“You have to train your receivers a little bit differently now, because we’re dealing with not only a man that can scramble, but you’re dealing with a man that can reach you in any zip code at any time,” Gruden said. “So (receivers have to) stay alive and really work hard on the scramble drills and understand he’s going to give you some opportunities down the field, so you either make a play on the ball and catch it, draw the flag, or play DB and make sure they don’t get it.
“It’s an exciting thing to have. I think the receivers will enjoy it.”
Gruden added Mahomes isn’t just a deep-ball passer.
“He’s a good, accurate, intermediate passer, and he carried the ball over 300 times, scored 20 touchdowns rushing, so he can still dabble in the zone read that Andy Reid likes to use,” Gruden said. “He’s just going to have to learn how to handle the running game, how to administer these protections and get everybody lined up in a very challenging pro-style offense.”
Those are areas Chiefs starter Alex Smith — whom Gruden also likes — has already mastered. Mahomes will also have to spit out Reid’s lengthy playcalls regularly, something he was never asked to do in college.
But while the Air Raid offense he ran at Texas Tech has yet to produce a prolific NFL passer, Gruden cautions against lumping in Mahomes with the quarterbacks who failed before him, largely because Gruden says Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury’s offense is more advanced.
“I think when you’re around Mahomes, you realize that this is not the same ‘Red Gun’ or ‘Air Raid’ offense that they’d been running with Graham Harrell and Kliff Kingsbury,” Gruden said. “They do a lot at the line of scrimmage, they give this kid a lot of freedom to recognize the coverage and hand-signal routes, and they do it a lot, it’s not just a little bit.
“He gets to the line of scrimmage play after play after play, and a vast majority of the time, he’s got the freedom to recognize the defense, communicate what he wants done and then he can thrash you. That’s something he’s well known for already, and he’ll be a quick study, because he’s very interested in being great.”
Reid echoed that sentiment Thursday, after the third of 10 voluntary offseason practices that featured Mahomes as the Chiefs’ No. 3 quarterback behind starter Alex Smith and backup Tyler Bray.
“That offense they run is great — it’s just different than what we do here,” Reid said of Texas Tech’s offense. “He’s learning to take drops, stay in the pocket and do the things that we expect him to do here. One thing I appreciate about him, though, is that he’s one of those guys that wants to be great.”
And if anyone can extract that greatness from Mahomes, Gruden said, it’s the 59-year-old Reid, who remains enthusiastic and engaged entering his 19th season as an NFL coach because it’s still so much fun to him.
“I enjoy teaching — it doesn’t matter the position,” Reid said. “I enjoy teaching and that’s why I do this.”
That said, it’s easy to understand why Gruden is excited to see what Mahomes looks like after a year or two of seasoning. One of his favorite coaches in the NFL is now teamed up with his favorite quarterback in the draft — who could draw it up better?
“He’s in a perfect situation,” Gruden said of Mahomes. “He’s 21 years old, he’s a true junior … he is nowhere near a finished product, mentally … and certainly, he’s not a finished product physically.
“You’ve got to remember, this guy played baseball in the spring most of the time. He really hasn’t been a full-time football player for very long. So I think a year of fundamental work, a year of conditioning, is going to help him launch his career a year from now and really (help him) be a guy that can take the reins.”