As the months went by and individuals had interactions with the Oakland Raiders this offseason, the consolidation of power slowly became apparent. When personnel-related interviews took place, candidates walked away feeling like the man they needed to impress most was Jon Gruden. When final decisions were made on key free-agent acquisitions, they were largely streamlined through Gruden and the salary-cap guys, not general manager Reggie McKenzie. And finally, when it came to the blockbuster decision of this new era – figuring out how to navigate an impasse with Khalil Mack – Gruden’s role couldn’t have been more obvious to everyone involved.
Jon Gruden is flying this thing and he’s doing it from a single-seat cockpit. Everyone else is just a spectator, including Raiders owner Mark Davis. And Gruden’s flight plan and bold new vision is becoming increasingly difficult to chart.
This is what happens when you trade away your best player. Not just your best defensive player, mind you. Your best overall player. A foundational cornerstone. A program guy. That’s what the Raiders are dealing away to the Chicago Bears.
It’s the kind of move that leaves other locker-room leaders waking up in disbelief and then breathlessly diving into the same emotional pool as the rest of the fan base.
“No way,” quarterback Derek Carr followed up one hour later.
As Raiders social media went on Saturday, you could have stopped at those two tweets and been completely up to speed. The entire development of the Mack trade from February until this week was a matter of traveling from one definition of “no way” to another. First, “no way they trade him.” And now, “no way, they traded him.”
In that one definitive journey, the Raiders delivered clarity and opacity. The clarity of knowing Gruden has Bill Belichick control in Oakland – where he can decline to engage in contract talks and then deal any player. And then the opacity of not knowing what the hell Gruden has in mind when he trades away a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Maybe Gruden believes he can now use the two first-round picks to draft … what … two DPOY candidates?
But before we get to that increasingly vague plan, let’s consider the clarity. In one fell swoop, the Raiders cleared the hurdle on all the past mealy-mouthed statements about who was in charge of personnel and how the Gruden-McKenzie partnership would work.
This wasn’t just a question to the general public, by the way. Inside the Raiders building, some of McKenzie’s own personnel staffers were not entirely clear on what he was or wasn’t allowed to engage in. And this was as recently as last week. Some of the free agency decisions had been made without him having meaningful input. When it came to the plan, the financial guys and others close to Gruden suddenly seemed more in the loop than the general manager. And one thing became crystal clear over the past several months: McKenzie wasn’t making the call on Mack. Everyone in the building knew the final decision on Mack would be Gruden’s show. Only he could green light an extension to get Mack into the fold for Week 1 of the regular season.
Davis promised Gruden autonomy when it came to football decisions. So the owner wasn’t stepping on Gruden, despite Davis’s affinity toward Mack as a franchise centerpiece.
Not that anyone should be surprised. At the NFL owners meetings in Florida, Davis hinted at the true power dynamic when he basically skirted questions about McKenzie’s changing role in the organization.
“They have roles to play,” Davis said of Gruden and McKenzie. “At this point in time, the role Reggie plays now is a little different than the role he played with Jack [Del Rio], a little different than his role working with Dennis [Allen]. It evolves. He has built the team to where we are now, and we’re in pretty good shape with the [salary] cap and everything else. Now he has a head coach who’s going to be running this thing for the next 10 years. [Gruden’s] vision is going to be most important building what type of team we’ve got. That vision, and that direction is going to be helpful to Reggie more so than not. I think they’ll work together very well.”
Davis later added, “Jon’s the head coach and he’s going to be here a while, so it’s important that he gets the players he wants and builds a team he wants to build. Reggie is there with his staff to find the players, and also to keep the cap and everything else in order.”
With the Mack deal as a backdrop, those two statements are illuminating.
Jon Gruden’s vision is the most important in the franchise.
It’s important Jon Gruden gets the players he wants and builds the team he wants.
Now is where we get to the opacity. If Gruden’s vision is most important and the overriding marching order is to get Gruden what he wants to build his team, why is Mack a Chicago Bear?
Nobody really knows because unless the Raiders are in a rebuild, nobody can adequately explain how this trade – that also landed the Raiders a third-round pick in 2020 and sixth-rounder in 2019, while giving up a second-rounder and conditional fifth-rounder in 2020 – fits into the plan.
Teams don’t add a bushel of veterans to fill holes in order to win games now, which Gruden did this offseason, but then support that “win now, build now” mantra by trading away their best player for two first-round picks that won’t see the field or meaningfully contribute anytime soon. If anything, this is a trade that Oakland Raiders fans should hate and Las Vegas Raiders fans should love, because even in the best-case scenario, the fruits of this moment won’t come until years later.
Maybe three or four years from now, Gruden can look back at this moment with his trademark smirk and deliver some of his salty rebuttals to those who question this moment. Or maybe this turns out to be the moment he took the first wrong turn on his way to a now-unavoidable crash. Either way, we’re all in the same place we’ve been since January.
Watching Gruden at the controls, left to guess where this is all going.
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