Critics such as me thought Jon Gruden's Raiders were a joke. We were wrong

Oliver Connolly
<span>Photograph: Darren Yamashita/USA Today Sports</span>
Photograph: Darren Yamashita/USA Today Sports

The Oakland Raiders are a playoff contender and Jon Gruden deserves the bulk of the credit.

Twelve months ago, the Raiders and their $100m head coach were a laughing stock. They had traded the team’s two best players, Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper. The team’s owner was battling with the team’s current landlords in Oakland, was uprooting the team to Las Vegas, and didn’t have the cash to sign mega-money player extensions or to even contemplate letting Gruden out of his contract for at least seven years.

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Things got worse in the offseason. The team traded for Antonio Brown and signed him to a contract worth more than $50m. Things quickly devolved into chaos, then anarchy, then lunacy, then lawsuits and Brown was out before he had even played a regular-season game. Meanwhile, their other big offseason move, drafting Clelin Ferrell with the fourth overall pick, was viewed as a reach and a whiff.

In 2018 Gruden had returned to football with all of the bluster that had turned him from a coach into a caricature during his days as an ESPN commentator. The cheesy, cringe-filled viral video from the team’s stint on Hard Knocks – “knock on wood if you’re with me” – was perfect fodder for Gruden’s detractors. He felt like a coach from a bygone age, one whose bravado couldn’t or wouldn’t connect with most modern players.

It was easy to characterize Gruden’s return as such because he helped push that narrative. He was football’s savior: along with fellow TV star and current Raiders general manager Mike Mayock, they would Make Football Great Again. Every sentence the pair uttered was dripping with subtext. Our football will be proper football. It would be all toughness and grit and heart and blue-collar and other easy-to-deride cliches.

Those, such as this writer, who sneered at the virtues Gruden and Mayock value were wrong. So-called “football character” is a real thing, even if it’s not the only thing. The Raiders bet big on it in free agency and during the draft and, even though players such as Brown and Vontaze Burfict did not work out, they generally won. In the world of detailed analysis and fancy metrics, we forget that sometimes, on third and short, all you need to do is hit someone in the mouth. And that to install those fancy designs and post those advanced metrics you need people to turn up to work on time and want to be there. Gruden gets all of that, to the point of caricature.

The great 49ers and Patriots teams of Bill Walsh and Bill Belichick were built atop the same core principles. Players bought into the team concept, not thinking of themselves as a solo act. Derek Carr is not a superstar, a 2015 jaunt into the MVP discussion aside. He has been average throughout his NFL career but, as with most players, fit is just as important as talent. Now with Gruden, Carr has blossomed into a legitimate top-10 quarterback.

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The Raiders rank seventh in offensive DVOA (Carr ranks sixth among quarterbacks), utilizing one of the most balanced, forward-thinking offenses in the game. Gruden was, is, and probably always will be an X’s & O’s savant. All the modern trappings are there: a blend of gap and zone scheme runs, RPOs, motions, shifts, running backs in the passing game and a wide variety of tight ends. There is nothing Gruden is unwilling to run, and few know better exactly when to run it.

Gruden and Mayock’s ways have worked. They have revitalized a stilted franchise and energized a fanbase they’re set to leave behind when they head to Las Vegas. If Gruden’s charge to the Black Hole after every victory – beers spilling, high fives soaring – don’t get you fired up, not much will. Corny? Yes. Successful? No doubt. The fans feel attached to the team again.

Sticking to long-term principles in a microwave society is hard, and the Raiders deserve credit for that. They’ve built a foundation of young, talented, hardworking players. And it’s not like Mack and Cooper were the wrong guys, they just had the wrong need-to-be-extended contracts at the wrong time. Gruden wanted to get five or six players of the same character as Mack and Cooper, perhaps of lesser skill, but of more collective value.

Oakland are led by a star-studded rookie class. Running back Josh Jacobs leads all rookies in scrimmage yards and touchdowns, while pass-rushers Ferrell and Maxx Crosby have combined for seven sacks in the past two games, helping to ease the pains of a struggling defense. Crosby looks like the most menacing pass-rusher this side of Jadeveon Clowney – how Oakland stole him in the fourth-round remains a mystery. Hunter Renfrow, an undersized slot receiver, has been everything in the pros he was in college: a picture of chain-moving efficiency. The Raiders are getting quality contributions from eight rookies, a staggering total.

Taking a running back in the first round was slated by the supposed smart crowd. As was signing the troubled Richie Incognito. As was drafting Ferrell, a hardworking, run-stuffing defensive end who hadn’t proved in college that he could be a fearsome pass-rusher at the next level. All have proven to be smart choices. Mayock and Gruden have built a solid young team and have six picks in the first three rounds of the 2020 draft. Tomorrow looks promising.

Let’s not go overboard, though. The Raiders remain an above-average team, excellent on one side of the ball and woeful on the other. Only the Dolphins have given up more big plays on defense: in a division that features Patrick Mahomes, that’s a big problem. A bad bounce here or a rough decision there and the Raiders’ 6-4 record inverts rather easily. But you’re blinded by bias if you fail to see the early stages of a quality rebuild. The Raiders are ahead of schedule, and Gruden has done it his way, unapologetically. He was right. We critics were wrong.

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