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Originally published Sunday, October 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Danny O'Neil

Jon Gruden's commitment issues with QBs

Gruden has worked some wonders with quarterbacks others have given up on. But he has also gotten cold feet when it comes to longer commitments, preferring to hop from one veteran to another.

Seattle Times NFL reporter

Jon Gruden's NFL career began with Mike Holmgren in San Francisco. ¶ It's their offense that starts in different places.

At least, that's been the case recently because quarterback is where Holmgren always began assembling his offense and that's the position where Gruden has never really stopped tinkering.

Now, Gruden has worked some wonders with quarterbacks others have given up on. He made Brad Johnson a world champion in Tampa Bay, put Rich Gannon in position to become one of the league's elite quarterbacks in Oakland and got Jeff Garcia to the Pro Bowl last season at age 37.

But he has also gotten cold feet when it comes to longer commitments, preferring to hop from one veteran to another, and the result is a team that's good enough to have reached the playoffs in two of the past three seasons but not strong enough to have won a postseason game since Gruden's first season in town.

"Part of his genius is that he's had some good ones," Holmgren said of Gruden's quarterbacks, "and in his own mind he never felt he had that guy. But he's had a good run with different guys.

"That tells you he's a good quarterback coach. He's a good teacher."

And an even better tinkerer. Even this season, he has flopped from Garcia to Brian Griese and now back to Garcia, citing injuries, even though Garcia didn't want to lose the job in the first place.

The one characteristic that distinguishes an NFL franchise that makes the playoffs an annual rite of passage as Seattle has the past five seasons and a team that makes the postseason a hit-or-miss proposition is finding the right guy under center.

Holmgren did it here with Hasselbeck. Andy Reid, like Gruden a Holmgren protégé, has done it in Philadelphia with Donovan McNabb until the quarterback's litany of injuries the past few years.

Gruden likes to cast a wider net and then uses a quick hook, burning through guys like Chris Simms and Bruce Gradkowski. He had five quarterbacks on the roster when training camp began, and still has four this weekend.

"People made fun of us for that, too," Gruden said. "But they're hard to develop, they're hard to find. It's a hard league, I'll put it that way."

There can be no criticizing the coaching chops of Gruden, who got his first NFL job from Holmgren in 1990. He was hired as a quality-control coach with the 49ers, a nebulous title with duties that included everything from learning computers to standing in as the quarterback during pass-rush drills to fetching coffee. He lived out of his car, a 1978 Delta 88, but even then he showed he could draw circles around anyone when it comes to constructing a playbook.

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Just ask Garcia, who came to Tampa well versed in the West Coast offense, having played for Steve Mariucci in San Francisco and Reid in Philadelphia.

"[That] part of the West Coast foundation may have had one story on it," Garcia said. "Gruden's offense seems to have three or four stories. He has continued to accumulate and expand."

But does he have enough to make a serious run at a Super Bowl title? It's an open question because Gruden inherited that championship squad in Tampa Bay with a defense so tough it could chew glass and spit nails. He just had to iron out the wrinkles on offense.

Well, the Bucs haven't spent a first-round pick on a quarterback since Trent Dilfer in 1994, and the question is whether Gruden will ever settle down with just one quarterback.

"Sometimes you don't find the guy," Holmgren said. "The guy is hard to find. Jon and I have talked about this before."

And every coach wants one player, Holmgren said. Whether it's Dan Marino standing tall for 17 seasons or Brett Favre starting every week since 1992.

"No one would like to have 10 of them as opposed to one," Holmgren said of quarterbacks. "Everyone would like one."

Gruden just hasn't found it. At least not in his seven seasons in Florida, a state explored by a Spaniard searching for the fountain of youth and a coach on his quest to find a quarterback.

Danny O'Neil: 206-464-2364 or doneil@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Danny O'Neil
Danny O'Neil will comment on issues, events and personalities in the NFL. His column will appear on Sundays during the regular season. He also posts most days on the Seahawks Blog.
doneil@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2364

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