About 20 questions into Jon Gruden’s news conference at the 2018 NFL scouting combine in February, only the second time he had spoken to reporters since accepting the job (for a second time) as head coach of the Oakland Raiders, Gruden was asked about his time away from the game and how he planned to modernize his offense.
After all, this was a man who made it a habit of mocking RPOs, predominantly on his ESPN platform, calling them a “Ridiculous Protection Offense.” Things certainly have changed since Gruden last coached in the NFL almost a decade ago. Might he consider, Gruden was asked, even borrowing from college or high-school playbooks as he takes over the Raiders once more?
Gruden had been having some fun during his combine session up to this point, talking about “trying to throw the game back to 1998” and playing the role of Luddite as he seemingly conflated football analytics and GPS technology. (Yes, as in Google Maps.) He’d later be mocked by media for this quote and the throwback approach, but cheeky Chucky did everything but wink while delivering his get-off-my-lawn spiel in Indianapolis.
That’s when Gruden name-dropped a prep school program, one near his hometown of Tampa and close to the site of his recently shuttered FFCA (Fired Football Coaches Association).
“Yeah, Plant High School in Tampa,” Gruden said, “I might put their playbook in.”
Gruden smirked. Media chuckled. Everyone in the room that day moved on.
But back at Plant, a thousand miles south of there, head coach Robert Weiner’s world turned upside down that morning. It’s a stunner his cell phone didn’t burst into flames in the middle of Weiner teaching his AP English class.
“It was a really cool thing when he mentioned us at that press conference,” Weiner told PFW recently. “I got like 200 text messages within an hour after that. Gruden gave you a shoutout! Stuff like that from everyone.”
What no one else saw that day: Weiner texted Gruden back when he caught wind of his Plant endorsement, a bit after the fact. And Gruden’s reply to Weiner was even faster in return.
“Here he is in the middle of this big NFL event, and he wrote right back,” Weiner said. “His text back was like, ‘No, I was serious. I might be hitting you up for the playbook.’ That says a lot about the man.
“It’s just really been a cool deal to know him. As a high-school coach, what an honor to have a guy like that to communicate with you and about you as he does.”
(Reached — naturally — by PFW via text this week, Gruden acknowledged their friendship and gave a strong endorsement to Weiner: “He’s a great one! Thanks for [writing about him].”)
Of course, Weiner isn’t just some ordinary high school coach — and any football coach in America might be smart to sift through the Plant playbook. He has gone from missing out on his dream job at the head coach of his alma mater, Jesuit High School (after serving 15 years as an assistant there), to taking over the Plant program and winning four state titles from 2006 to 2011, smashing scoring marks along the way. This after Plant had endured seasons of 0-10 and 1-9 the two years prior to his arrival in 2004.
“We had 17 people on our varsity and 33 people on our junior varsity when I got there,” Weiner said. He even had to sneak into the team’s spring game that year because he was still under contract as the head baseball coach at Crystal River High School, wanting to honor that commitment first before taking the Plant job.
“Man, we turned that thing around, let me tell you,” Weiner said, laughing. “We went 3-7 that first year. But with about 25 people in the stands, you would have thought we changed the world around here. I mean, we were in every game except the Armwood game; they beat us by like 40. But it was an improvement. They had beaten Plant by like 70 the year before.”
In Year 2, they improved to 9-3 and won a playoff game. And in 2006 Plant went 15-0 and won their first state championship. Three more titles followed in the next five years. They remain an area power to this day. The second-oldest high school in Hillsborough County, but one whose football team had been nearly dormant, Henry B. Plant High School was suddenly back on the map. And people were figuring out just how good a coach Weiner was.
That’s when the call came — in the middle of that championship run — from Chip Kelly. Then building a monster as head coach at Oregon, Kelly invited Weiner and Gruden to speak at the Ducks' 2010 coaches clinic up in Eugene, Ore. Gruden was the featured speaker for the event, and Weiner was one of only two high-school coaches asked to speak there.
Kelly had offered Gruden a position with the Ducks the year prior and was turned down, but the two remained very close. Gruden and Weiner, though, were just getting to know each other after running in the same Tampa-area football circles for years, and they bonded sitting next to each other during the six-hour flight. It didn’t take them long to figure out they were basically two different bodies with the same brain. Gruden didn't take long to charm Weiner.
“It was pretty funny because it happened to be on Easter weekend,” Weiner said. “Of course, a football coach who has no idea what’s going on in the real world, like Chip Kelly, he had no clue he had scheduled a coaching clinic on Easter weekend.
“Jon leaned over me when we were on the airplane and he said, ‘Coach Weiner, what in the F are we doing here?! We are going to f---in' Oregon on Easter weekend! We must be crazy …’ And then he turned to me and said, ‘I love it.’ … Just like that. I loved it too.”
Weiner never married. He never had children of his own. The ones he can claim as his own are the hundreds of players he’s influenced over three decades of coaching as an assistant at Jesuit and as head coach at Plant.
“Even when he was just starting to coach, you could tell he was destined for greatness with his energy, passion and approach to the game,” said former Chicago Bears cornerback and Jesuit graduate Chris Martin, now an NFL agent, who had Weiner as his receivers coach. “He had a voracious appetite for the game and was so meticulously detailed. He used to run us through ‘invisible tires’ during drills. I’ll never forget it.”
Weiner sees a kindred spirit — albeit a rock-star version — in Gruden, who is now returning to the NFL after last coaching with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2008. That’s when Gruden took the “Monday Night Football” job with ESPN, also forming the FFCA as his tongue-in-cheek hangout for out-of-work coaches. But it also served as Gruden’s football laboratory for the next several years, with an ever-expanding library of game and practice tape from all levels of football, including his own stash from the Raiders, Bucs and stops as an assistant with the 49ers, Packers and a few college jobs in the late 1980s and early 90s. The FFCA became a rotating think tank of great football minds, one that no longer was limited to unemployed coaches.
Weiner could have been an FFCA charter member had that group been around five years earlier. The heir apparent at Jesuit after attending the school and serving as majordomo under legendary coach Bill Minahan and as an assistant under Minahan’s successor, Dominick Ciao, Weiner just kind of assumed that he’d get the head job after Ciao stepped down after the 2002 season to take care of some family health issues.
It didn’t happen. The job went to someone else from outside the program. And Weiner was left out of work. He left to coach baseball about an hour away.
“Beautiful area,” Weiner said of his brief stop in Crystal River. “I got there and they were like, ‘If you like to hunt and fish, you are going to love this place.’
"Well, I have never been hunting in my life and maybe fishing two or three times. I thought this might not be a good match for me.”
It wasn’t, and the Plant job, despite it not initially being on his radar, eventually became his. Now Weiner has reached legendary status there despite never playing the game as a kid. Another NFL coaching friend, Tony Dungy, trusted Weiner enough to enroll his son, Eric, at Plant because of the Hall of Fame coach’s respect for Weiner. (Interestingly, Eric Dungy ended up committing to play for Kelly at Oregon.)
Most high school coaches are not texting and hanging out with former NFL coaches like Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden and flying first class on Chip Kelly’s dime, you know? But Weiner makes sure not to let it get to his head. He also said Gruden doesn't carry himself much like a celeb from what he's seen.
“You travel with Gruden, you are traveling with the rock star personified there,” Weiner said. “People yelling in the security line, ‘GRUDEN!’ But they would give him that look like they wanted to say hi to him but were too scared to approach him, and he’d turn to them and extend his hand and say, ‘Hi, I am Jon.’
“And not ‘Hi, I am Coach Jon Gruden,’ or ‘Hi, I am Jon Gruden.’ It’s ‘Hi, I am Jon.’ What a good way to disarm the situation and make the other people feel comfortable. He’s just Jon. He doesn’t act like that rock star person.”
It was on that Oregon trip where they mostly talked football. As similar as their love for football might have been, Weiner and Gruden also figured out that they had very different philosophies of calling plays. In his four years in Oakland, Gruden’s Raiders ranked 16th, 23rd, 25th and 11th in pass attempts and 17th, seventh, third and 12th in rushing attempts. On the flip side, Weiner’s Plant teams excelled in slinging the ball all over the yard.
“We were doing things at that time that — it’s a little more pass-happy now — but people weren’t doing that then,” Weiner said. “I think that’s what interested Jon. We were doing things with tempo. We have a hyperspace tempo, for Star Wars fans. But we’re not a go-go-go offense. We’re a multiple team.
“I just think at that time he was intrigued by that. That’s naturally different than he was offensively. I think now he wants to mix that in but be a multiple guy and be a pro-set guy and a play-action guy and things like that.”
Weiner said Gruden can small talk “for about a minute” before the conversation naturally veers back to football, and Gruden was interested in tapping into the head of a coach whose approach to the game was pretty different from his own. He also put Weiner to work on the flight.
“He had this stack of papers that he had on his carry-on bag,” Weiner said. “He divides up the papers and I have no idea what he has here. He says, ‘Coach Weiner, take this highlighter and get me the highlights of each one of these guys.’”
It turns out they were scouting reports of the 2010 NFL draft's quarterbacks — Sam Bradford, Tim Tebow, etc. — for Gruden’s first draft-related assignment for ESPN. Weiner made some notes on the pages, and then Gruden took them back and added more notes of his own. This went on for hours on the way to see Kelly. Between that and breaking down Kelly’s practice tape in his office with the two renowned coaches, Weiner felt as if he was the kid who was given the key to the candy vault.
And Weiner tapped into that conversation, channeling Gruden’s thoughts on his run game, later that fall when the strength of his Plant team changed. Even with senior QB Phillip Ely (who played at Alabama and Toledo), Plant changed their focus to a run-heavy system out of the power-I formation fueled by one of the best running back recruits in the country, James Wilder Jr., who ran for 1,597 yards and 22 touchdowns as a senior.
Weiner knows Gruden has been watching closely as the NFL has changed since his last game as coach, looking on high from his broadcasting perch the past nine seasons, but also taking copious notes on different systems, talking shop with anyone he respects in the game and maintaining his thirst for knowledge. He’s been prepping, as many long have suspected, for this third act as an NFL coach.
“More than anything else, [he’s] a voracious learner,” Weiner said. “He loves learning stuff. That’s what he was doing this whole time he was away.”
So what tricks from the Plant playbook might Gruden steal for the 2018 season? We asked Weiner what pages of it he might be most interesting to offer up to Gruden to fold into the Raiders' offense. The answer might surprise you.
“Well, he and I have actually spoken about this before,” Weiner said.
His belief is that Gruden should look into working in some zone read into the playbook. This is most definitely nothing he’s done with any regularity before, either in Oakland or with Tampa Bay. But it’s the kind of thing, the high-school coach believes, that can add another dimension to the system Gruden eventually will run and make it just that much harder for the Raiders to be defended.
A few years ago, Weiner had a thought: What if you can be a team that throws the ball all over the place the vast majority of the time … but also one that can mix in some old-school option football? And so now, Plant does just that. Weiner said he’ll use triple-option veer plays “three, four, five times a game” — just enough to keep defenses honest. Those plays, he said, often trip up opponents who sit back in pass defense or ones that are not disciplined to play assignment football.
“Can you dabble in option to where it’s something that’s not detrimental to you? That’s the question,” he said. “But you’re forcing the defense to adjust to it. You might even see it on film with us, but you can’t practice against that all week because that’s not what you’re going to see most of the game. But you at least have to know how to stop the option against us.”
Weiner isn’t scared by Raiders QB Derek Carr’s back injury and says that “one of his strengths was his mobility” before getting hurt. He knows that the zone read series might not be the first wrinkle many fans and observers of the team will think of when imagining the 2018 Raiders offense. But Weiner believes that they can work it in just enough to test defenses.
“The thing about the zone-read game in high school and the pros, it puts pressure on the defense from so many angles and it always makes the defense know and understand responsibility football,” he said. “A team that runs option against you, you then have to play responsibility football, which is not 11-men-fly-to-the-ball football.
“Because if you have one guy playing the dive, one guy playing the quarterback and one guy playing the pitch, in regular option — let’s say old-school triple option — you don’t have 11 guys flying to the football. Those players, regardless of what happens, have to play their responsibility and only their responsibility. Otherwise it doesn’t work against option football.”
Off of that, Weiner said, the Raiders could build in — gasp — some RPO possibilities. If Gruden has warmed up to such an idea.
“That’s what the zone read is, it’s kind of the modern triple option,” Weiner said. “You can give it to the back, the quarterback can keep it or you can flip it out to the bubble screens on the edge. And of course if someone is covering the bubble screens, you can climb a receiver over the top and you flip it out there to the receiver.”
Possibilities upon possibilities. Weiner can’t wait to see what Gruden rolls out once the game start. Of course, both are busy men. Weiner’s already deep into his prep for Plant’s season, which opens on Aug. 24 against Hillsborough — believed to be the longest-running high-school rivalry in the state, dating back to the 1920s. Gruden will be waist-deep in his own team’s preseason then, hosting the Packers that night with the regular-season opener against the Rams two weeks later.
Even still, Weiner expects at some point between now and then for his phone to buzz with a text from Gruden. He learned about Gruden Time and the coach’s odd sleep schedule, which is yet another thing they have in common. Weiner said he can “never figure out the time” so he just gets up, goes on a four-mile walk and thinks about football the whole time. He’s not alone.
“Every couple of months still I’ll get a text from Jon Gruden and he’s like, you know, ‘You better be up and working, Coach Weiner,’ and it’s coming in at 4:27 in the morning,” Weiner said. "That's Jon. That's how he works. Me too."
And maybe, just maybe, Gruden will be hitting up his old Tampa football buddy for pointers on the zone read.