By David Ford
The Oakland Raiders fans saw their fortunes change on Jan. 6 when Jon Gruden announced his return to the NFL after a 10-year absence.
During his coaching career, Gruden spent four years with Oakland (1998-2001) before taking over as Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach (2002-2008). In his initial 11-year career, Gruden won five division titles and one Super Bowl, with Tampa Bay in 2002.
The Sandusky, Ohio native flirted with potential jobs for years, but remained as an ESPN Monday Night Football analyst. This offseason, however, Gruden was ready.
In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Gruden said, “I got tired of sitting in a dark room, watching tape by myself. I took rumba-dancing classes; that didn’t last. I wasn’t any good. Bought a boat; I never used it. Live on a golf course; I never play. I’d go to the FFCA early, and next thing I know it’s 10:30 at night … I’m thinking, s***. I’m wasting my time. I got to go compete.”
Although Gruden hadn’t coached the Raiders in 17 years, the contract proved enticing, to say the least. The reunion was special for Gruden, despite its abrupt conclusion a decade before.
When Tampa Bay fired their coach, Tony Dungy, during the 2002 offseason, the Buccaneers decided to pay a king’s ransom for Gruden. Oakland obliged. Tampa Bay traded their 2002 and 2003 first-round picks, and two second-round picks, plus $8 million in cash for Gruden.
While Gruden won the franchise’s only Super Bowl (Super Bowl XXXVII), he was fired six years later after their 2008 collapse.
In January, Gruden secured the bag, with a 10-year, $100 million contract to return to Oakland. Through the first eight games this season, the Raiders are the league’s worst team at 1-7.
Throughout the offseason, Oakland fans fantasized about the reunion with championship football. Thus far, it’s been nothing short of a nightmare.
Shortly before the 2018 season, the Raiders traded their most versatile player, all-pro linebacker Khalil Mack, to the Chicago Bears for a handful of first-round picks. During the season, the team traded their best receiver, pro-bowler Amari Cooper, to the Dallas Cowboys.
While Cooper started to regress from his previous seasons, the decision to trade Mack confused the majority of NFL fans, especially those in Oakland. In my opinion, Mack was the league’s most elite defensive player. He won the 2016 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. With Mack, the Raiders possessed a formidable defense. Without Mack, the defense has been a disaster, all because Gruden wasn’t willing to give him the contract extension he deserved.
Gruden has already paid for the mistake. Through the first half of the 2018 season, the Raiders rank 31st in points allowed. Oakland has allowed the most rushing yards to opposing teams, as well. In their game last week, the Raiders allowed the San Francisco 49ers third-string quarterback, Nick Mullens, to throw for three touchdowns. They lost 34-3. Their 8.9 yards per play given up is the worst in franchise history.
The offense is as mediocre, if not worse this season. Quarterback Derek Carr participated in three straight pro-bowls. Carr looked like one of the NFL’s top young stars. This season? Carr has thrown only 10 touchdowns to eight interceptions. He has been terrible. Given their performance, it’s clear players don’t care either. Gruden doesn’t see it that way though.
“I got a cell phone just like you and everybody else, and I get a lot of phone calls from people who are dying to come and play here,” Gruden said in an interview with FOX Sports. “I’m just telling you, to have salary cap space, to have a chance to talk to people that you really want to wear the silver and black and represent this team, that’s exciting.”
It seems unlikely people want to play in Oakland, but at least Gruden’s been optimistic. Despite a semblance of optimism, the Raiders embarrassing effort this season puts them in an excellent position for the 2019 number one pick.
I believe Gruden can turn the franchise around, especially with their three first-round picks in 2019; however, it’s difficult to overlook the Raiders disastrous 2018 season.