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ESPN's Gruden looks quite ready for prime time

It took only a few minutes of his first preseason game on ESPN before I became a fan of analyst Jon Gruden. That's how long it took the former Tampa Bay and Oakland coach to open his mouth. Gruden remembers breaking the silence, too.

"It was the third play," said Gruden in a telephone interview. "Mike Tirico gave me a big fist and a hug around the neck to congratulate me for having the guts to speak. . . . I was a little bit reluctant, a little bit nervous. I was waiting for the right moment to say something."

He has gotten over his nerves quickly. In the preseason, Gruden was funny, insightful and educated fans about some of the game's nuances.

Gruden's move into the Monday Night Football booth is one of three major changes in NFL prime time coverage this season. Cris Collinsworth has replaced John Madden on NBC's Sunday Night Football and Matt Millen has replaced Collinsworth on The NFL Network's schedule, which includes a Bills game in Toronto on Dec. 3 against the New York Jets.

Gruden has proven to be a quick study who knows he still has a lot to learn alongside Tirico and Lackawanna's Ron Jaworski on the MNF team.

"I don't have the best verbal command," assessed Gruden. "I sometimes use analogies to speak. I have to be careful of sounding like I'm totally not educated. . . . I do want to bring enthusiasm. . . . I love the NFL, I love football and I want to bring that to the broadcast."

Gruden's first regular season test comes Monday when ESPN carries the Buffalo Bills opener against New England. He's been preparing by watching a lot of game film on the Bills.

"I have a projector in my room, an office downtown," said Gruden. "My wife thinks I'm still coaching. She just doesn't know what team I'm on."

Gruden said he was "very surprised" that the Bills fired offensive coordinator Turk Schonert before they played a regular season game. He isn't surprised Bills fans are panicking even though he doesn't think it is time to panic.

"If I were a fan of a team I always panic," cracked Gruden. "I would temper the panic a little bit."

He noted that Terrell Owens and first-round draft pick Aaron Maybin didn't play much in preseason. Gruden considers Owens and receiver Lee Evans superstars. He said his father was a San Francisco scout when the 49ers drafted Owens.

"You won't find a guy who works harder," said Gruden. "I love watching him play. . . . The media reports what he twitters, not really reporting how he practices and how he performs, which at the end of the day is what is most important."

Gruden adds preseason results really are not that important.

"Without Terrell Owens [playing], it is hard to really imagine what they are going to see defensively. Because I don't know a lot of teams that are going to line up and play single coverage against that guy."

He also is impressed by quarterback Trent Edwards

"I like him a lot," said Gruden. "He's been impressive and unimpressive. That's usually the case with a young quarterback."

Gruden believes the Bills should be more concerned with their young offensive line. He likes the Bills' defense.

"I just think it is a matter of them finding their stride on offense," said Gruden, "and getting this young quarterback some confidence and some rhythm because they have some skill that very few teams in the league have. If they can weather the storm the first four weeks until Marshawn Lynch -- who is clearly one of the best backs in football -- gets back, they can be in this thing in December. They have the components to be pretty doggone good."

The same can be said of Gruden as an announcer. A Type A personality, no one is going to out-work him. In the offseason, he learned the little things about where to look at cameras, how to use the telestrator and getting used to the workings of a three-man booth.

"There's just been a lot of technical things you really don't know," said Gruden, who added the MNF team bonded during a nine-day preseason bus trip to practices and games.

"We were like The Rolling Stones," said Gruden. "We just got to know each other and I think we really like each other. . . . You won't find a guy like Mike Tirico. And if you don't get along and like to work with a guy like Ron Jaworski, you're just a miserable person."

The football stuff is the easy part for Gruden, who is the son of a coach and was the youngest coach to win the Super Bowl until last season when Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin grabbed the honor.

During the preseason, it seemed like Gruden worked with practically every coach in the league. Sure enough, he was the receivers coach at the University of Pittsburgh when the Bills new offensive coordinator, Alex Van Pelt, was the quarterback.

"I do know he's a bright guy, a hard-working guy," said Gruden.

Gruden also was the receivers coach at Green Bay when Bills head coach Dick Jauron was the defensive backfield coach.

"I feel bad for Dick because [firing Schonert] puts him in a real bad position," said Gruden. "But they have a lot of good players. I hate to see anyone panic before a game. But they know their situation a heckuva lot better than I do."

In the preseason, Gruden used his coaching experience to display some self-deprecating humor that some of his players may have been unaware of because he didn't have a reputation for being a funny coach.

"I hope not," said Gruden. "It was not my goal to be a comedian. My job was to win football games."

He was fired last year after a 9-7 season in Tampa but is still getting paid. He said the time away from coaching has given him time to watch his oldest son play high school football and enjoy his family and faith.

"I have my priorities straight for the first time in awhile," said Gruden. But coaching is in his blood and his name undoubtedly will be one of the first to come up when someone is fired. Gruden said he isn't worrying about his future.

"I like this," said Gruden of announcing. "I'll be honest with you. I miss coaching. I did it for 24-25 years. . . . I miss the strategy, the locker room. I'll tell you this, this has been a lot of fun. How long it lasts a lot of depends if I'm any good. . . . I've been blessed to have this opportunity. This is a high profile job for announcing. I respect that. I want to be good on it. And I'm very proud to be on a team that I consider great."

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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