HENDERSON, Nev. -- The rumors had been percolating all year. So much so that Jon Gruden took the time to address them in team meetings throughout the 2001 season.
"I'm not going anywhere," Gruden would insist to his Raiders team. "I know what you're hearing about Notre Dame. I like it here. I'm not going anywhere. I want to be here."
Gruden was in his fourth season as the then-whiz kid coach of the then-Oakland Raiders, and his team had quickly become a power, having already played host to an AFC Championship Game. But contract negotiations on an extension had stalled midseason, and Gruden was linked to jobs ranging from Notre Dame to Ohio State in college to, yes, Tampa Bay in the NFL.
And when the Raiders dropped four of their last six games, including the final three, to close out the regular season and finish 10-6, there was a thought that the rumors had become a real distraction. That Gruden might have lost the team.
Losing to the New York Jets in the regular-season finale not only dropped the Raiders out of a first-round bye and into a wild-card playoff game, it set in motion a course of events the franchise has tried for nearly two decades to course correct. And with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers set to play the now-Las Vegas Raiders on Sunday in this, Gruden's third season back with the team, it picks at a certain scab.
What if Gruden had never been traded from the Raiders to the Buccaneers on Feb. 18, 2002?
'Dude, what are we going to do?'
Charles Woodson, Gruden's first draft pick, stood to ask a question of the coach in his standing-room-only return media conference on Jan. 9, 2018.
"Is there a no-trade clause in your deal?" Woodson asked, before those assembled roared in laughter, and Gruden, smiling widely, answered affirmatively.
Nearly 16 years earlier, there was no laughing. No grinning. No guffaws. Just shock and awe. Yes, even with a half-season of rumors flooding the streets of Silver and Blackdom.
Because even as Lincoln Kennedy landed in Honolulu for the Pro Bowl the first week of February 2002, it seemed a done deal that Gruden would be gone. So Kennedy gathered with fellow Pro Bowlers Rich Gannon and Tim Brown to talk about a likely future.
"I was like, 'Dude, what are we going to do?'" said Kennedy, then the Raiders' right tackle and now the team's radio analyst. "What the f--- are we going to do? We've got to hire from within."
But the trade to the Buccaneers, who had moved on from Tony Dungy and were flirting with Bill Parcells, did not become official until nine days after the Pro Bowl.
That's when Kennedy spoke with Al Davis.
"He told me, his words were, 'I never liked it when teams would interfere with coaches under contract,'" Kennedy recalled Davis saying. "He told me, 'Tampa Bay came to me and they said they wanted Gruden' and [Davis] said, 'I felt that I put the price tag so high that they wouldn't agree to it. And they did. Gruden is no longer our coach.' So, I hung up after I talked to him."
The king's ransom for Gruden that Davis thought Tampa Bay would never pay? Two first-round draft picks. Two second-round draft picks. And $8 million to boot.
"After the trade went down, we all met with Mr. D," Kennedy said. "I put in my two cents and said I thought [the new coach] should be [Bill] Callahan. He knows the system, we can keep everything the same. [Marc] Trestman? He was the quarterbacks coach, but Callahan had the run game and Trestman was developing the pass game, but I think Rich had said he wanted Callahan and not Trestman ... and Callahan was the offensive coordinator anyway."
That string of events mentioned earlier?
Follow this road map: The Raiders, perhaps distracted by constant reports of Gruden's departure, fall out of a playoff bye and into a road game at the New England Patriots, where Tom Brady and the Tuck Rule awaited. Yes, it's Gruden's final game of his first tenure. Callahan replaces Gruden and the offense gets more explosive as Gannon becomes the 2002 NFL MVP and the Raiders glide into Super Bowl XXXVII. Except ...
Guess who is waiting?
"With the way we were rolling, the only person who could beat us was the guy who knew us better than we knew ourselves," Kennedy said. "We just had that way about us."
A 48-21 blowout loss to Gruden's Buccaneers later, the Raiders have had only one winning season since. Gruden lasted until 2008 in Tampa Bay and was, fittingly enough, put out to pasture by the Raiders and, yes, JaMarcus Russell. Nine seasons in ESPN's Monday Night Football booth ensued before Mark Davis was able to bring Gruden back to the Raiders.
In his first tenure, the Raiders were on the verge. But as the late Al Davis said in 2009, "The Tuck Game was the undoing of a lot of things."
Said Kennedy: "Here's the thing -- if we had won the Super Bowl [in Gruden's last year], I think we would have become a powerhouse because we were returning everybody the following year."
"If we weren't playing against him," Kennedy said of Gruden, "we would have won the Super Bowl."
'Can't look back at what-ifs'
Of course, there was always the prevailing thought that Al Davis had become annoyed with Gruden's conservative playcalling -- where was the vaunted vertical game? -- as well as "Chucky" becoming the face of the franchise sans Lombardi trophies and was, well, simply done. At least, the conventional wisdom went, Ken Stabler and Marcus Allen led the Raiders to titles before their respective public feuds with the iconoclast owner led to their ousters.
Gruden, though, was always beloved by Raiders alumni. Yes, even the old-school guys who never played for him. Guys like Jim Otto, Jack Tatum, Phil Villapiano, Cliff Branch, Willie Brown, Tom Flores, George Atkinson and Raymond Chester -- all of whom showed up for a private party in Gruden's honor at Raiders sports bar Ricky's in San Leandro, California, in 2009, when Gruden rocked a Raiders visor and a white Bo Jackson throwback jersey. The restaurant was asked to take down photos of the gathering from its website, for fear of Davis seeing who was in attendance and interpreting it as disloyalty.
But it was Mark Davis who brokered peace with Gruden, bringing him back to light the Al Davis Torch in memory of his father on Nov. 18, 2012.
And it was a "six- or seven-year dance" the younger Davis did with Gruden before finally convincing him to return to the Raiders.
"There was no question I wanted to have him as the head coach of this organization," said Davis, who assumed the role of managing general partner upon his father's death on Oct. 8, 2011.
But Davis would not touch the question: What if Gruden had never been traded?
"I can't look back at what-ifs," Davis told ESPN.com this week. "Are you kidding me? What if Franco Harris didn't catch that ball? What if Rob Lytle did fumble the ball? What if Tom Brady fumbled? What if this? What if that? You could do that every day.
"What if? If. If. If."
Told "if" is the biggest word in the English language, Davis howled.
"Most irrelevant, too," he said.
And Gruden, besieged with news of COVID-19 and potentially being without his starting offensive line this weekend, was in no mood to reminisce, either.
"That's a loaded question," said Gruden, who has said he never wanted to leave the Raiders in the first place and acknowledged his being inducted into Tampa Bay's Ring of Honor in 2017 served as a springboard to get him back into coaching.
"I'm just concentrating on this game, honestly. It's a great opportunity for both teams to try to get another win. I try not to get too deep, too philosophical. I had a great time in Tampa. A lot of my best friends are still there and live there. So, I'm looking forward to competing."
Yes, against his old team in the Buccaneers, and an old foil in "Tuck Rule" Tom Brady.