In 2016, the Oakland Raiders were 12-4 finishing with a Wild Card spot and making the playoffs for the first time in 14 years. Sure, they lost that Wild Card game to the Texans, but things were looking up. They had seven Pro-Bowlers on the roster with a franchise quarterback, a solid number one receiver, a great offensive line and the best defensive player in football. That was just two years ago. However, the following year they went 6-10 and the team fired Head Coach Jack Del Rio.
So, what went wrong? Was this team ever on the brink of a return to the glory days of the 70’s and 80’s, or was it a one-year flash in the pan?
I believe that the 12-4 team from 2016 was that good and that they were poised to return to the successful seasons of the past. Frankly, there was too much talent not to be. Derek Carr was a steal in the second round of the draft who threw 28 touchdowns that year. Amari Cooper was panning out as the fourth overall pick out of Alabama with Michael Crabtree as his solid number two receiver. Khalil Mack was dominating offences looking like the second coming of Bruce Smith and the offensive line was led by veterans Rodney Hudson, Kelechi Osemele and Donald Penn.
The Raiders only lost to the Kansas City Chiefs, Denver Broncos and eventual NFC Champion Atlanta Falcons that year. They tied the Chiefs in the division but took the Wild Card spot having lost both meetings with their rivals.
However, a down year in 2017 saw them only winning six games and despite the success they saw the year prior the team cut ties with its head coach and made a move that caused many to scratch their heads.
Oakland went back to the past by hiring former Head Coach Jon Gruden. Gruden found success with the Raiders in 2000, leading them to their best record in a decade. The team ultimately won the division but lost in the AFC Championship to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Ravens.
In 2001 Gruden led the Raiders back to the playoffs, only to lose to Tom Brady and the Super Bowl Champ Patriots over what was forever deemed as the tuck rule. After winning 40 games for the Raiders, Gruden was traded to Tampa Bay for two first and two second round picks and cash. The Bucs won the Super Bowl that year over a Bill Callahan led Oakland squad.
Fast forward 16 years and Mark Davis reunited his father’s franchise with Gruden. Prior to the hire, Gruden hadn’t coached in nine years, having worked for ESPN doing colour commentary for Monday Night Football.
It’s questionable to hire a guy who’s been out of the game for that long with so many changes, let alone discussing whether he still had what it takes. But who knows, right? I mean, maybe he could reach into his old bag of tricks. Worked for Dick Vermeil, right?
Here’s where it gets more questionable. Gruden signed a 10-year, $100 million deal. Gruden says he came back to coaching because he needed to compete and was tired of watching film in a dark room by himself. A contract that large, however, suggests that the Raiders really had to work to convince the then ESPN colour man to come back to the game. $100 million doesn’t sound like it’s the cost of luring someone back into coaching who was missing the competitiveness of the game. The even more confusing part to me is the term.
Ten years is an eternity to sign or hire anyone in the NFL. Unless he’s able to build a franchise that will win for decades ala Bill Belichick but I in no way shape or form see Gruden resembling that type of franchise shaper.
If it wasn’t enough to have people questioning whether the hiring was the right move, the choices Gruden has made adds to that. It was clear very early the one they call “Chucky” was ready to set his own tone. Fair. Nothing short of a coach creating the culture of his locker room should be expected.
There’s a difference between setting a tone and shaking things up and tossing them on their head, though. First came Khalil Mack. Mack was very clear while holding out through the preseason in the last year of his contract that he wanted to re-sign, and he wanted to be paid like the best defensive player in the league, something that Mack could easily be discussed as.
Gruden made it known that the Raiders wouldn’t budge on what they thought was a fair deal. Eventually, Mack would be dealt to the Chicago Bears for two first round picks. While the haul of two first picks is great compensation, Mack is a once-in-a-generation player who you can build a franchise around for years to come, something a coach with a 10-year deal would be looking for.
To make things worse for Raider fans Mack has come out on fire for the Bears, already piling up five sacks through four games this year. After the great start, Gruden made sure to make it known via the media that Mack didn’t want to play in Oakland.
Fast forward over a month later and rumours swirled that the team was shopping star receiver Amari Cooper. Ask and you shall receive. Just before Week 8, the team moved their wideout to the Dallas Cowboys for another first round pick. And the rumours continue with names like Derek Carr, Karl Joseph and Bruce Irvin being mentioned as possible trade interests.
What I ask is, what direction is this team headed in? General Manager Reggie McKenzie has said that no one is untouchable via trade. This sounds like a team that’s looking to blow it all up and start from scratch. Which fits with a coach who looks to have more pull than most with a 10-year deal.
However, this is a team that is two years removed from a 12-win season and a Wild Card berth. The talent was there. The pieces to build off were there. But rather than build off them they shipped them out. And now there are more rumours swirling of players like Derek Carr being disgruntled in the locker room.
The Oakland Raiders continue to be a mystery. For a team with almost two decades of being the joke of the NFL to look like they may finally be competitive again, then flip it all upside down like this is mind-boggling. Fans in Oakland had an opportunity to see this team put something together before they relocated to Las Vegas in the coming years.
Now it appears that every corner of the franchise that was built in the bay is being dismantled to start the build in the desert. The only question that remains, who is directing the ship and are they headed in the right direction?