Despite what many believe occurred with Jon Gruden and Herman Edwards, an NFL team can’t trade its coach. It can, however, trade the right to talk to its coach about a job and the release of the coach from his contract. The real difference is that the coach has to be in on the deal – he can’t be sent to another team against his will.
The Buccaneers fired Tony Dungy in January 2002 after losing in the wild card round of the playoffs. Dungy was at the time the only coach in franchise history to finish his tenure with a winning record, yet was let go because he was unable to get the team to the Super Bowl. According to rumors, even before Dungy was fired the Bucs had been talking to Bill Parcells about coming out of retirement to take the reins. Parcells actually signed a contract to coach the team but soon after changed his mind and backed out.
Meanwhile in Oakland, Gruden’s agent said there was a “zero percent chance” that his client would coach the Raiders after his contract expired following the 2002 season. In his four seasons with the Raiders, Gruden had compiled a 38-26 regular season record with two trips to the playoffs, but efforts to get an increase to his $1.2 million per year salary (which was in the lower half of NFL head coaches) had not been fruitful. The Bucs asked Oakland owner Al Davis for permission to talk to Gruden but were told that it would cost them four first-round draft picks and All-Pro defensive tackle Warren Sapp. They declined.
The Bucs reportedly considered several other candidates, including Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis, Maryland head coach Ralph Friedgen, LSU head coach Nick Saban, Steelers offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey, and Chargers offensive coordinator Norv Turner, before shifting their attention to 49ers head coach Steve Mariucci. Mariucci had two years left on his contract, but the 49ers agreed to let the Bucs talk to him, possibly due to a rift between Mariucci and general manager Terry Donahue. The teams worked out the compensation that the 49ers would receive for letting Mariucci go, then Tampa Bay’s representatives met with the coach and may have made him an oral offer.
That night, Bucs owner Malcolm Glazer called Davis and let him know that he was still interested in talking to Gruden if Davis would be more reasonable about what it would take to let “Chucky” out of his contract. Davis agreed, probably envisioning a scenario in which Mariucci would jump to Tampa Bay and the 49ers would load up on Buccaneer draft choices, go through the 2002 season with an interim head coach (such as Donahue, the former UCLA head coach), and then grab Gruden after his Raider contract expired. The next morning Gruden was announced as the new coach of the Bucs with a salary of nearly $4 million per year. In exchange for Davis letting Gruden go, Tampa Bay sent the Raiders first-round picks in 2002 and 2003, second-rounders in 2002 and 2004, and $8 million.
If the Bucs evaluated the move based solely on Gruden doing what Dungy couldn’t – getting to the Super Bowl – then despite the cost, they had to view the hiring was an immediate success. Less than a year after he took the job, Gruden’s new team defeated his old one, the Raiders, in Super Bowl XXXVII. He wasn’t able to maintain that level of accomplishment, as he only made the playoffs two more times over the next six years and never won another postseason game. Gruden’s regular season record in his seven years with the Buccaneers was 57-55.
Edwards’ move from the Jets to the Chiefs wasn’t quite as dramatic. His Jets had a regular season record of 39-41 in five years, and had made the playoffs three times. The team finished a disappointing 4-12 in 2005, but that didn’t stop Edwards, who was making $2 million per year with two seasons left on his contract, from seeking a raise and extension.
In Kansas City, the Chiefs were looking for a replacement for the recently-retired Dick Vermeil. The team’s management interviewed their offensive coordinator Al Saunders and reportedly had interest in Redskins defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and Broncos offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, but Edwards’ name kept coming up in connection with the job. Edwards had relationships with Vermeil and Chiefs general manager Carl Peterson dating back to when Peterson, then an assistant coach at UCLA under Vermeil, tried to recruit Edwards to play for the Bruins (he ended up signing with Cal instead). Edwards later played for the Eagles when Vermeil was the head coach and Peterson was the director of player personnel and then served as a scout and defensive backs coach for the Chiefs during Peterson’s tenure as general manager.
The Jets, who were already less than thrilled with the results of Edwards’ coaching in 2005 and his attempts to sweeten his deal coming off that bad season, were further irked by what they perceived as “flirtations” between their coach and the Chiefs. According to Kansas City officials, the Jets contacted them to offer the opportunity to speak to Edwards about the opening. The Chiefs hired Edwards at $3 million per year. The Jets didn’t put up much of a fight, settling for a fourth-round pick to release Edwards from his contract.
If the Chiefs could do it all over again, you’d have to imagine that they’d have gone in a different direction. Edwards made the playoffs in his first season in Kansas City (and lost in the wild card round) but won only six games in the next two years. The Chiefs fired him after three seasons and a 15-33 regular season record.