In darkest hours, Gruden can give AFL jolt of notoriety on biggest stage
A guy comes out of the little ol' Arena Football League, gets his big chance and leads his team to a Super Bowl en route to what will likely become a Hall of Fame career.
It's a script we've heard before. Of course, I'm talking about the great Kurt Warner who, for all that he did great for the St. Louis Rams and the rest of his teams along the way in the NFL, got his start with the Iowa Barnstormers. Sure, he only played three seasons and never won a championship in the AFL, and having grown up in that era of arena ball, I could argue that he was never even one of the top two quarterbacks in the league at any given time.
But the notoriety for the AFL was great. From 1999 through 2009, Warner was one of the top quarterbacks the NFL had to offer. He was the conductor for the "Greatest Show on Turf" in the early-2000s, and every time the Rams dropped a 40 burger on some unsuspecting foe, that reference was made to the awesome story of a bag boy turned AFL quarterback turned future NFL Hall of Famer.
In a related story, the AFL's brightest hours coincided with Warner's career. I'm not so naive to think that Warner created the success the AFL had in the mid- and late-2000s, but there's certainly something to be said about the fact that the league had a poster child playing on the biggest stage. It was proof that a kid who played in the AFL could indeed make it to the NFL and thrive one day. There was a direct correlation between the exposure the league had playing on the big time networks and the number of players who got shots in the NFL, and that in turn produced more interest in playing in the 50-yard league we all loved.
Now, the AFL has hit arguably its lowest point in its history, perhaps even darker than 2009 or when the league had to basically have what came known to be the "barnstorming" season of 1989 when just four teams played. We've been trimmed to a league of just eight teams, seven of which have owners and one of which sure sounds like it's going to be played under league ownership for a year.
It's going to be a trying season for sure. There's no two ways around the fact that 2016 is going to be difficult for the Arena Football League.
But alas, the start of the new year brings a glimmer of new hope for the AFL. Warner, who has been out of the NFL now for six years, is on the Hall of Fame ballot and could reasonably be voted into the shrine in Canton in four weeks. He now represents the AFL of old.
Jay Gruden represents the AFL of today.
Gruden, much like Warner, didn't play all that long in the AFL, and one could argue that his accomplishments as a coach now far overstep his accomplishments as a player. Not only did Gruden win two championships as the head coach of the Orlando Predators, but he also led the Florida Tuskers to the UFL Championship Game in 2010 before taking over as the offensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals.
After helping mold Andy Dalton into a playoff quarterback in his rookie and sophomore seasons, Gruden left the Queen City for his first head coaching gig with the Washington Redskins, and on Sunday, he'll coach his first playoff game.
I cover the NFL religiously as well, and I'm fairly certain that Washington's ceiling this year is the second round of the playoffs. and even that might be a stretch. But you never know. Stranger things have happened. Like a guy who was stocking groceries in 1994 winning Super Bowl MVP less than six years later.
You don't really get the same narrative out of Gruden that you did out of Warner, unfortunately. When you listen to the talking heads on television, you hear that Gruden came out of the AFL from time to time, but for the most part, you hear his ties to the Bengals as their former offensive coordinator. But if the Redskins do happen to get to the Super Bowl, you can bet with two weeks of coverage leading up to the game, you'll hear plenty about Gruden and his days with the Tampa Bay Storm at quarterback and with the Preds as a head coach.
Personally, I still chuckle at the fact that I used to routinely blast the hell out of Gruden and suggested that he should be fired. And then there was the time back in 2008 when Gruden started off his post-game press conference on the field by saying that he managed the clock properly at the end of the first half because Adam Markowitz told him to.
This accountant's part-time writing career isn't filled with a slew of notable moments, but now I can say that I've officially given great advice to an NFL playoff coach. (And was right!)
(Oh, and don't think I didn't think for one second about Gruden still not being able to manage a clock properly at the end of the first half when this happened. I'm still available to help with clock management, Coach!)
The moral of the story though, is that Gruden made it. There are only 32 NFL head coaching jobs in the world, and the little ol' kid who came out of Louisville and couldn't make it in the NFL as a quarterback found himself a career in the AFL and worked his way up into the big time into one of those 32 slots. And now, he's one of the 12 men left with a shot to lift the Lombardi Trophy in February, and that alone is a huge accomplishment.
These might be dark days in the AFL, but Gruden at least gives us a little bit of a hope that the next Jay Gruden or Kurt Warner might be watching the Redskins take the field against the Packers on Sunday and might ultimately take that same path.