Hired days after Marvin Lewis and the Cincinnati Bengals fired former offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski (hip, hip...), Jay Gruden was surprisingly introduced as the team' next play-caller. With a name like Dave Shula buried deep in the pages of Pro Football Reference, the immediate reaction was "we're going back to the days of name recognition?" Then it played it far more awesome than we thought.
Handed the easy-as-pie task of rebuilding an offense with a rookie quarterback and wide receiver, all the while implementing a new offense that veterans were forced to learn during an offseason that the NFL locked out its players, this team needed that Gruden blood of 3 a.m. start times and 18-hour work days. Otherwise the slow evolution of a freshly installed offense would fall before it ever rose. Thankfully the team had leaders amongst the players to put together minicamps after coaches were told to leave the players alone like an unapproving father says to his daughter after her hell-raising date rolls up on a motorcycle... without a friggin' helmet.
Now given the circumstances, Gruden has done a tremendous job easing Andy Dalton into the NFL, keeping the offense simple enough to ease the rookie quarterback with an adjustable comfort level. Because of the impression of developing, implementing and executing was largely believed impossible, the success has led to some star power with Gruden that's generating interest from other teams that will have available head coaching positions next season. Most notably the head coaching spot in Jacksonville, a team that Gruden has been linked to multiple times, where the Jaguars new ownership fired Jack Del Rio in a state that's been home to Gruden for so long.
"I have a long way to go before that happens," Gruden told the Orlando Sentinel in mid-October. "I'm just trying to figure out a way to beat Seattle in our next game. I don't think about what might be four or five years down the road. I've never worried about any job except the one I have."
Well, he obviously has the coach-speak down. Gruden has proven to be a capable and prosperous head coach, winning two Arena League Football Championships with the Orlando Predators going 93-61 and a playoff record of 11-7. When the AFL filed for bankruptcy in July of 2009, Jay Gruden was named the head coach of the United Football League's Florida Tuskers (now the Virginia Destroyers), going 5-3 that year with the league's highest scoring offense, eventually losing the UFL Championship game to the Las Vegas Locos by a field goal.
That being said the UFL and the AFL isn't the NFL and most successful head coaches have spent significant time as assistant coaches in the NFL before being named as a head coach. Mike McCarthy spent 13 seasons as an NFL assistant (five as an offensive coordinator) before taking over as the Green Bay Packers head coach. Tom Coughlin was only a coordinator for five season with Syracuse, but spent 21 years as an assistant in college and the NFL before taking his first head coaching job with Boston College and the Jacksonville Jaguars two years after that. Sean Payton spent three seasons as the New York Giants offensive coordinator before becoming an assistant head coach in Dallas and then a head coach in New Orleans. Andy Reid spent five seasons an offensive assistant, offensive line coach and assistant head coach with the Packers before being hired on as the Philadelphia Eagles head coach in 1999.
On the other hand, slamming those trends are guys like Jim Harbaugh, who spent two seasons as the Oakland Raiders quarterbacks coach before being named as the University of San Diego head coach and seven years later, the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers (with Stanford in between). Mike Tomlin was hired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a defensive backs coach in 2001 and then spending one season as a defensive coordinator in Minnesota before replacing Bill Cowher in Pittsburgh before the 2007 season.
There is no path for a coach to walk that will earn him a head coaching position in the NFL, other than being incredibly successful and in Gruden's case, being successful against the odds.