Jon Gruden and the Oakland Raiders will play the first game of his second tenure with the franchise on Monday night, against the Los Angeles Rams.
But on Sunday night, Gruden’s name was a trending topic on Twitter, with many roasting Gruden for trading away pass-rushing star Khalil Mack. In a span of minutes, Mack had a strip-sack and interception returned for a touchdown against the Green Bay Packers, while wearing the uniform of his new team, the Chicago Bears.
As much as he’d like to focus on the players currently on the Raiders’ roster, Gruden won’t be able to get away from Mack for a while.
‘Obviously, Khalil Mack didn’t want to play here’
In an interview with ESPN’s Lisa Salters taped on Saturday and set to air on Monday night before the Raiders-Rams game, Gruden argues that Mack had no interest in playing for Oakland.
“Obviously, Khalil Mack didn’t want to play here. That’s what’s being missed here,” Gruden said. “He was under contract, Lisa. He was under contract. He never showed up for OTAs, he never showed up for training camp, and it was obvious he wasn’t going to show up for the season. So don’t forget that. We have to get ready to play, and I want players that want to be here, that want to help us put this thing back in high gear.”
(As a quick aside: Sunscreen, Jon. Just try it and thank us later.)
"Obviously, Khalil Mack didn't want to be here."
– Jon Gruden pic.twitter.com/t1NQzF5bVo
— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) September 10, 2018
There’s more to the interview, obviously, but ESPN put this 21-second clip out there as a preview, and it’s pretty telling.
Mack outplayed his contract
First, it is true that Mack didn’t show up for OTAs, but those are voluntary. And he was under contract, heading into the fifth and final season of his rookie deal; over his first four years, Mack had been named to three straight Pro Bowls and three first-team All-Pro nods, including two in the same year at different positions, the first player ever with that distinction.
He did skip training camp, but he was using the only recourse he had to show the Raiders that he wanted a new deal — by withholding his services.
Because of the fifth-year option for first-round draft picks, Mack’s salary for 2018 is a guaranteed $7 million. It’s certainly not chump change, but it also wasn’t reflective of his status as one of the best defensive players in the league. If Mack reported and played out his final year, he risked Oakland slapping him with the franchise tag in 2019, further restricting him.
And there’s also this small matter: Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie reportedly planned for quarterback Derek Carr and Mack to be paid, recognizing that the team had one of the best young quarterbacks and best pass-rushers in the league.
What changed? Gruden. Joel Corry, a former NFL player agent, told Las Vegas Journal-Review Raiders reporter Michael Gehlken that Gruden has a history of not wanting to pay top-flight players what they’re worth.
One of Corry’s former clients is receiver Keenan McCardell; while McCardell was with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during Gruden’s time as coach, things got so bad during McCardell’s holdout that he wanted out and was eventually traded.
Gruden and Mack did not communicate
Yahoo Sports’ Charles Robinson tweeted that multiple Raiders players and team leaders would disagree with Gruden’s assessment of Mack not wanting to be with Oakland.
But could Gruden really know what Mack wanted? He spoke to Mack exactly once while the two were, in theory anyway, part of the same team. According to an interview Gruden did on Fox Sports Radio at the start of training camp, the two chatted not long after the coach was hired, on a 10-year, $100 million contract after not coaching an NFL game for a decade.
Gruden has also said the Raiders’ defense wasn’t very good with Mack in 2017. Most of us would wonder how much better it will get without him, but we aren’t Gruden.