World War G – Chapter 4: Turning the Tide


Pleasanton, California

The seating area of a converted bus is where possibly the most famous Raider coach awaits.


Enthusiastic, a rather mundane word to describe one of history’s most ebullient sports figures. Some revere him as a broadcasting savior, some revile him as a monster on the microphone, but if you ever met John Madden, ever discussed his views of the world of football and the problems, or more importantly, the solutions to the problems that plague the game, probably the one word that would always cling to your impression of the man is enthusiastic.

John always believed, well, perhaps not always, but at least in his adult life, that humanity’s one fundamental saving grace was emotion. He used to say that the heart shouldn’t only exist to pump blood to the brain, that it could also mark the internal strength of a man. Many psychobiographers have tried to label him a lunatic, but, in his own words, “lunacy is a regrettable by-product of irrational emotion. But none of my emotion was ever irrational. I love the game of football, and if you love it enough it will give back to you the love and pride of the men around you.” Madden believed the opposition between love and hate to be irrelevant. To him, they were “essential elements of the human condition,” and, in his words again, “imagine what could be accomplished if the human race would only accept its humanity.”

He kept going: “The players that played before us, the players that played when they didn’t have face masks, when they had leather helmets, when we got this thing started, the players that played in smaller stadiums, didn’t have the medical thing, didn’t have anything. They laid the foundation for this great game, and we should never forget it.”

I asked him about the hiring. His response was completely unexpected, given his natural ebullience about all things football.

What makes you think this is a good move for the Raiders?

I don’t. I think it’s a terrible decision. He’s been out of the game too long. The further you get away from it — the game changes from week to week, from month to month and from year to year. So the more years you’re out, they’re playing a different game than he coached. The game that Jon Gruden coached isn’t the game they’re playing now.

How big a gap do you see?

It’s too big. Every week on TV he can talk about that “spider 2-Y banana” bullshit, but it’s different up in the press box because you have the ability to slow a play down and analyze the heck out of it. I can break a play down eight ways from Sunday because I have the luxury of being a dispassionate, passionate observer. Hell – Frank Caliendo has a career because of that attention to detail.

When the responsibility is on his head, people forget that that head is full of plays that haven’t been called in 10 years. Teams have developed multiple strategies for his then-innovative designs, because they are all part of the learning curve. At least he’ll finally know how Bill Callahan felt after the Super Bowl.

It’s like when I resigned from coaching but would still attend the odd Raider game. I went as a fan, not a former employee. Otherwise, you just become a distraction, and you don’t help anyone. Heck – Tom Flores won more Super Bowls than I did; why are people asking me for coaching advice?

Didn’t your time as a network analyst ever stoke the fires for a possible return?

No way! The longer I was in that booth, the more I realized that I’d left the game at the right time. You see, when I quit coaching – and I “quit” coaching – I knew I had to enter the next phase with a clear agenda. Sure, I could use coaching as a point of reference, but I could never approach a broadcast acting like I was the chief arbiter of whether the man on the sidelines was doing a good job. My job was to analyze plays as & after they happened, to better educate & entertain the viewer at home. It’s why I think I lasted so long in the booth, first with Pat and then with Al. I wanted to be the best broadcast analyst on TV; I never thought I was using that job as an audition for the one I had already quit, at least the way Jon did.

It also doesn’t help Jon that he has a brother also coaching in the League. That had to be tough on him – watching your younger brother, the one you always tried to look out for, doing a mediocre job while working for such a terrible owner. You know, people give Al Davis heck for being a Jekyll & Hyde type of personality. People always remember how he did what he did to Marcus Allen – and I can’t really forgive him for that. I never understood it; here was a kid who pretty much won him his third Super Bowl, and he turned against Marcus like he’d banged his only daughter. It always seemed racial, but that wasn’t the Al I knew. He must’ve thought Marcus betrayed him; if he’d just come out and said why, maybe the tincture of the incident could have faded quicker. Then Bo Jackson comes along, and until the end Al lived in regret at what happened to Bo because of that field in LA. But at least Al Davis never openly held contempt for his players, coaches or fans.

In a way, it must be akin to what Jon feels for Jay, watching him take the best talent his ownership could convince to play in Washington, and then throwing them out onto a field I wouldn’t even let Pop Warner kids play on.

So you’re saying desperation played into his reasons for signing?

It played into both sides. Jon had an itch that he needed to have scratched, but there weren’t many teams that were willing to take a chance on a coach 15 years removed from his greatest triumph. The last one to pull that off was Vermeil, and that only happened because Georgia Frontiere liked older men she could make cry. It was so much easier for Dick, because she could do it with his clothes on.

Mark needs Jon just as much, to act as human bait to take away focus on the impending move. Bringing in a certifiable lunatic to run the team while ownership tries to figure out how many Mayflowers they need is a perfect gamut to run. Hell, the sideshow alone will be worth the price of admission. I just hope I live long enough to see a player rebellion like the one that’s brewing.

Orlando, FL

A nondescript two-bedroom bungalow

It was hard to believe a current-era Hall of Famer lived in such a banal complex. It was a generic condo development in the Windhover section of Orlando that seemed more “what I can afford” versus “best I could do”. There wasn’t the level of luxury or security I had come to expect from former top-tier NFLers. It seemed a perfect place to hide from the past that was currently haunting his present.

I knocked at the door, arriving a few minutes early for our pre-arranged discussion.

Hey man, are you a cop? You have to tell me if you’re a cop!

I’m not a cop, Mr. Sapp. I’m the fellow that called you wanting to talk about Jon Gruden.

Oh. Oh yeah, right. C’mon in… You’re not from the bank, right?

No sir.

Okay then. Sorry ’bout that – I’ve had a bad couple of…years. **sighs**

I understand. I’ll try to be brief and then be on my way. I’d like to start by asking you about what it was like playing for Jon Gruden.

Coach Gruden

The man was like a father to me. He put trust in me when I was named defensive captain. He would always ask my opinion on game situations, and I respect how he treated me like a man, not just as a player but as a person. He was a real player’s coach.

It’s said that his speech prior to the playing the Eagles in the NFC Championship is key to understanding his legacy.

Brother, you know it. Tony Dungy put the damn cake in the oven, and then Jon Gruden came in and put the icing on it. Coach was giving us the usual “rah-rah” bullshit that all coaches do to fire up a team – man, it’s the NFC Championship, next stop: Super Bowl; we know it’s a big fucking deal – when all of a sudden his speech took a turn that spoke to the heart of us as a team:

“I want Brian Mitchell’s ass on a plate,” he said. “And once we finish with the Philadelphia Eagles we are going to go to San Diego for the Super Bowl…” he paused, grinned and concluded, “Where the coach is gonna get two hotel rooms for all my bitches!”

Man, I didn’t know he called his tapes “bitches”.

Still, I took that shit to heart. Get two hotel rooms on the road; don’t need some stray come knockin’ on my real room. After that game, I made sure that I had extra chicken in every town we hit. Sure, sometimes you have to pay for it, but when you’re earning millions of dollars… **sighs**

But you only played one more season for him after that Super Bowl.

Sure, but that’s not his fault. I was at the top of my game, and he made me that way. Malcolm (Glazer, the Bucs owner) didn’t want to pony up to keep his big defensive playmaker around. So, I walked.

Why did you pick the Raiders?

Because Mr. Davis pays big for big talent! Thirty-six mill! He knew I helped beat his team in the Super Bowl, so what way to cement your defence than to bring in the guy who beat you to become an anchor. The fact that I signed on for seven years was just retirement planning… **sighs**

How did it feel, leaving a winning organization and going to a team that could only manage 15 wins in your four years there?

Man, that sucked. They should have been set up. They traded two years worth of top picks and $8.0 million to the Raiders for Chucky. You’d think they could have turned that into gold, but I’m guessing everyone was too afraid to tell Al Davis he’d lost his touch.

Speaking of losing his touch, do you know who my QBs were during that period? Broken-assed Rich Gannon, racist-ass Kerry Collins, sack-magnet Aaron Brooks, whoever-the-fuck-he-was Andrew Walter, some Samoan dude (Marques Tuiasosopo), how-the-fuck-is-he-still-playing Josh McCown, and the King of the Flame-outs – JaMarcus Russell. I may not have earned all of my money from Al Davis, but I sure as fuck didn’t steal it from him like those assholes.

For Christ’s sake, in 2006 we were the 8th ranked defence, but the 32nd ranked offence; no wonder we only won two games. Good thing Rob Ryan was our DC – he rewarded guys with strip club coupons! That guy knows how to incentivize millionaires. I don’t think I paid cover in San Fran until I came back as an analyst for the NFL Network. **sighs wistfully**

I’m not sure how Mark Davis works. Dude just sat on the sidelines when I played there. Al made him wear white so he’d always know where the kid was. He had to keep buying him new tracksuits every week, ’cause the kid couldn’t work a Gatorade bottle. He used to squeeze them until they exploded; every Sunday he looked like the mop at a Smurf gangbang. Didn’t know to pull up the nipple, probably because he’d never seen one before; I still don’t think he’s seen titties since his mom cut off the milk supply. I probably should have taken him to the club once or twice; maybe with some action he wouldn’t look all short-bus now.

How do you think Coach Gruden will do this time around?

Honestly, I’m surprised Chucky’s back there now after everything he did to that team, because it sure can’t make up for anything he can do for that team. That trade to Tampa was possibly the stupidest thing that ever happened. Tampa just got out from under the effects of that trade; the Raiders are still suffering from it today. But only an idiot would turn down $10 million per season.

I saw that press conference they held for him, though. Everyone seemed pretty happy. There were a lot of Raiders alumni there…

I guess my invite got lost in the mail. Guess his phone don’t work either…**sighs**

Still, you had a Hall of Fame career, and you won a Super Bowl.

Oh yeah. The money is going to come and go, but once you get that ring they can never take it away from you. That ring’ll last in your family for centuries, and no one can ever take it away.

[Warren Sapp declared bankruptcy eight years before this interview and lost that ring.]

Livermore, California

The home of George Atkinson

[The room is windowless. Dim, fluorescent bulbs illuminate the concrete walls and unwashed cots. The patients here mainly suffer from respiratory disorders, many made worse by the lack of any usable medication. There are no doctors here, and understaffed nurses and orderlies can do little to ease his suffering. At least the room is warm and dry, a luxury beyond measure. George Atkinson sits upright on his cot at the end of the room. As a Raider alumni he rates a new track suit every year & free popcorn at all attended games. He coughs into his handkerchief before speaking.]

WHOA! (Looks into his hand.) That’s a big one. I’mma save that for the nurse next time she comes by. (Using a TV Guide, he scrapes it from his handkerchief into a glass beside the bed.)

So, you were at the press conference?

You’re damn right I was.

All those years beating the drum for the Raiders, they better have had me there.

How would you describe the event?

Chaos. I don’t know how else to describe it, a complete breakdown of organization, of order, of control. I loved it.

How so?

Mark Davis, you see, is a child. A child of a great man, but a child. He dresses like one, thinks like one, and even has his hair cut like one. So he lacks the self-control of a person who has been raised properly. I remember the kid being a ball boy back in the 70s. Because he’s always been the son of The Boss or the boss, people have never said “no” to him. Look at how he dresses; who wears that much white if they’re not in Boyz II Men?


Maybe Howie’s said “no” to him before, but probably to avoid having that sack of potatoes jump onto his lap. I know I’ve never tried – I like getting free stuff whenever I visit Alameda.

It seemed like people were genuinely happy to have Jon Gruden back.

As well they should. Here was a coach who had brought our last real success to Raider Nation, returning triumphantly to the fold.

But he was only the coach for four years?

It doesn’t matter. Raider Nation never forgets a true friend.

But that true friend cost Raider Nation Super Bowl 37.

Man, why do you have to be like that? Sure, he coached against us in that game, but his heart was always here in Oakland. He left to help the team; we wouldn’t have made that Super Bowl without all of the work he’d put in prior to leaving. He might not have been their coach, but that was his team in that game.

Okay, sure. But by using that logic, Tony Dungy was actually the winning coach of Super Bowl 37.

(Angrily) It sure seems like you have an answer for everything, son. Look – what do you want me to say?  These were just mobs of men in uniforms, starters & the practice squad guys; anyone who happened to be attached to the team suddenly became in charge of scouting. None of us were set up for this, weren’t trained for it, weren’t equipped… Where was the scouting they promised us, the new playbook, the signals, where was Rich Gannon?

On the subject of Rich Gannon – They had a whole season to devise new plays. Surely someone might have considered that an obsessive tape-muncher like Gruden would watch film and recognize that the Raiders hadn’t changed a thing from his old playbook?

Look – there’s a reason Bill Callahan was only a NFL head coach for two years. The man’s good at taking someone else’s plays & making them work. But he couldn’t design his way out of a paper bag. I think his whole plan that year was to hope we wouldn’t meet Tampa in the Super Bowl. Seems kind of stupid on its face, but he still had advantages. Any first-year coach could have turned that offensive line into an impregnable fortress. He had 18 games to prepare for that possibility, and two weeks to get ready for that eventuality. Either way, the decision to try & change the game plan at the last minute sure fucked up Barret Robbins. That Bill froze up under those circumstances might have been the first sign Mr. Davis didn’t have the skills to evaluate talent anymore.

In that vein, do you think Tim Brown was wrong to say Bill Callahan sabotaged the Raiders chances as a favor to his former boss?

Man, I don’t know. Raider Pride runs deep, so I’d like to think Bill just wasn’t ready to coach at that level. It’s hard to believe that any depth of loyalty would cause a man to throw his one chance at winning the biggest game in our sport. That’s a gift almost too much to request, let alone expect.

So you’d say everything is water under the bridge?

Oh sure. Mark’s wanted him back for the last six years; so now that he’s got him, he’ll give him the keys. He’s going to clean house, coordinate his staff, evaluate the players – you know, everything a new coach does. He just has the benefit of having watched from the sidelines for the last 10 years.

What do you think the future holds for Jon Gruden & the Raiders 2.0?

All the way, baby. Super Bowl bound! All those years of failure are gonna be washed away. Raider pride! Raider strong! Fuck Lynn Swann!

A Canadian man-child of indeterminate age, he stays young by selling alcohol at sporting events and yelling at the patrons he serves. Their rage nourishes his soul, and their tips pay for his numerous trips to various sporting events.
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Don TMoose -The End Is Well NighballsofsteelandfurySenor WeaseloHoratio Cornblower Recent comment authors
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Don T

Mark Davis may not be an extraordinary owner, but the dude has an impressive camel toe.
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Moose -The End Is Well Nigh
Moose -The End Is Well Nigh

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This was truly amazing. Every word rings true.

Senor Weaselo

Is it bad I read Madden in my head like Madden? Or more likely Frank Caliendo Madden?

Horatio Cornblower

This was well done, well researched, and because I have the maturity of a 9-year old, I laughed hardest at this:

“every Sunday he looked like the mop at a Smurf gangbang.”


he looked like the mop at a Smurf gangbang

Thank Jeebus I have my own office – I laughed way too loudly at this.

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RIKKI: [loads DFO]

RIKKI: [sees “World War G” graphic]

RIKKI: Oh, fuck yeah.