Gruden primer: He likes Panthers to win

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The last time the Carolina Panthers played Monday night at Bank of America Stadium, the man handling analysis for ESPN's prime-time telecast was on the sideline.

"Thanks for bringing that up," former Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden said after his game-day production meeting.

He didn't mean thanks in a good way.

Carolina, which hosts the New England Patriots on Monday night, beat Gruden's Buccaneers 38-23 on Dec. 8, 2008. Tampa, which came into the game 9-3, went on to lose its final four regular-season games and miss the playoffs.

Gruden was fired after the season. He's been an analyst for MNF ever since.

"That was tough, man," Gruden recalled of the Carolina game. "I think we were both 9-3. We had one of our better offensive games, but we just could not stop them. They started running, they called it a duo scheme, and they'd come in and crack our strong safety and the ball would bounce to the outside. They beat our corners on one-on-one situations all night. They ran the ball down our throat.

"Thanks for bringing that up."

At the time of that game, Gruden didn't think he would be out of coaching the next season. He also didn't think it would take five years for the Panthers (6-3) to have a winning record again.

"But they had the exit of a lot of great players," Gruden said from a downtown hotel. "... They lost some players. They had some salary-cap problems. They went a couple of seasons without a first-round draft choice. So there were plenty of reasons for them to take a step back. It's good to see them back."

Gruden admittedly isn't the best at making predictions, but he likes the Panthers to win 20-17 against New England.

Here are his thoughts on several topics as the game approaches:

What do you think of the job Carolina coach Ron Rivera has done after consecutive losing seasons?

Gruden: "I don't know any coaches that don't get criticized on Twitter or text messages or Instagram or somewhere. He inherited a 2-14 team. He also was part of bringing on a rookie quarterback [Cam Newton]. There's going to be some growing pains. I hate to break it to anybody. He's had them competitive. They've drafted maybe back-to-back rookies of the year (linebacker Luke Kuechly in 2012, tackle Star Lotulelei in 2013) on defense to go with the rookie of the year [Newton] on offense. What's to complain about? I think he's done a heck of a job."

You mentioned Cam Newton's growing pains. Was he hurt from a perception standpoint that there was a run of rookie quarterbacks (Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson) who went to the playoffs in their first season a year ago?

Gruden: "There's probably a lot of growing up he admits he needed to do. He's changed his management of the highs and lows of this profession. He's matured as an NFL player. I also think he's in a tough division. He's with Matt Ryan (Atlanta) and Drew Brees (New Orleans). You've got to beat Matt Ryan and Drew Brees when they're full strength, that's a tall order for Joe Montana if he came back and played."

Former NFL coach and television analyst John Madden told Rivera before the season it concerned him that Cam Newton ran so much during his first two seasons. Do you share that concern?

Gruden: "The best thing he does is run with the football. You want to bring a nickel and dime defense out there, and it's third-and-4. You've got to double Steve Smith, you run with [tight end Greg] Olsen, you've got to cover [Brandon] LaFell down the field, DeAngelo Williams is playing out of the backfield ... I want Newton to run. I want to win games."

New England could have cornerback Aqib Talib back. Does it make sense to have him shadow Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith?

Gruden: "I drafted Talib in Tampa. We drafted him for one reason, because when we wanted to play man-to-man coverage, you got to go cover 89 (Smith). He tore me up. He ran me out of coaching, Steve Smith did. When we had Talib, at least we felt we had a guy who could match up with him."

Are you surprised at the level Steve Smith is playing after 13 NFL seasons?

Gruden: "Well, it's not just the Steve Smith show. When they were really good here, they had Muhsin Muhammad, Ricky Proehl. They were really good. It's a little more like those days now that [Brandon] LaFell is making plays, Ted Ginn is stretching the field. But at the end of the day, when it's a critical situation, third-and-7 like last week at the end of that game ... I sat in my room and said, 'They're throwing to Steve Smith.' And he ran a great rout to win on the outside. His competitive nature hasn't changed. He wants to kick your butt. That's what makes him special. He may not be as quick, as sudden, as fast, as dynamic, but he's still a real problem for people."

Are the Patriots and Panthers potential Super Bowl teams?

Gruden: "Anybody can get to the Super Bowl in this day and age of pro football. There is no clear-cut favorite. I don't care what any analyst tells you. I saw Carolina beat the NFC champions at San Francisco. Then I saw them play Seattle, who everybody else says is the top team, and DeAngelo Williams fumbles at the 3-yard line and at the end it was 12-7. If those are the best teams in the NFC, then Carolina is one of them also."