The NFC North will again be the shootout division, where familiarity doesn’t breed contempt so much as a habit of losing track of receivers streaking down the field. As much as Gruden likes the Chicago Bears’ additions at wide receiver (trade acquisition Brandon Marshall from the Miami Dolphins, draftee Alshon Jeffery from South Carolina), he doesn’t think the team will be able to keep pace with the Green Bay Packers. Along those lines, Gruden expects the Detroit Lions to “come back to the pack a little bit,” owing to questions in both the offensive and defensive backfields.
Not surprisingly, Gruden’s analysis of the NFC South revolves around the New Orleans Saints, who endured one of the most insanely? unsettled offseasons in recent league history. Sanctions imposed in the wake of Bountygate, in which the organization was accused of allowing payoffs to anyone who injured an opposing player, send the Saints into the 2012 campaign without head coach Sean Payton and possibly, pending a judge’s ruling that was imminent at press time, linebacker Jonathan Vilma, among others. Gruden still believes they’re the class of the division, especially with quarterback Drew Brees at the helm. “They’re going to use all this stuff as their battle cry,” he says. The second playoff team from the division will likely be the Atlanta Falcons, which Gruden refers to as “the most criticized good team in the NFL.”
Finally, count Gruden among the pundits who don’t believe that the San Francisco 49ers’ 13-3 season last year was a fluke. “This is the most physical team I’ve seen on defense,” he enthuses. “They don’t give up big plays. They rock you.” The combination of that defense, which returns most of its 2011 starters, and a few key additions at wide receiver (Super Bowl star Mario Manningham, first-round pick A.J. Jenkins from Illinois, recently unretired legend Randy Moss) should help the 49ers repeat as NFC West champions and return to the NFC title game — where, Gruden predicts, they’ll lose to the Eagles, who will go on to defeat the Patriots in a rematch of Super Bowl XXXIX.
Despite speculation otherwise, Gruden’s own future isn’t quite so hazy. When asked the de rigueur question about a return to the coaching ranks, Gruden doesn’t respond with the usual “we’ll see what the future holds” clichés. Instead, he affirms his commitment to his current gig without binding himself to an I’m-done-for-good oath.
“Every day, I try to do two things: Stay up on what’s going on in football and get better as a broadcaster,” he says. “If I can help out some coaches by going to clinics or training camps or high schools and colleges, that’ll keep me involved in the X’s and the O’s. But I really enjoy what I’m doing right now. I want to hang on to the job.”
New York-based writer Larry Dobrow is thankful that his family didn’t give up its Giants season tickets during the last couple of decades.