OAKLAND, Calif. — Jon Gruden marched down the narrow hallway at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum in silence, his piercing blue eyes only diverting away from his feet to briefly give a security guard a respectful head nod.
This was Monday night, just minutes after the Oakland Raiders’ disappointing 33-13 loss to the Los Angeles Rams, and although the Raiders’ $100 million man tried to remain calm afterward, the way the corners of his mouth repeatedly crept back — a surefire sign of annoyance — betrayed him while he faced the media following his first game as a head coach in 10 years.
“Obviously,” Gruden said, “I don’t think it was a smashing debut by any sense.”
For all the hype entering the matchup, a 20-point home loss to the Rams wasn’t what anyone had in mind for Gruden’s debut, least of all Gruden. In every sense of the word, it was a disappointment, coming nearly 10 days since the Raiders traded defensive star Khalil Mack.
But it’s important to remember that it wasn’t a disaster — you can save that term for Matt Patricia’s debut in Detroit, where the Lions were embarrassed at home by 31 points against a team that went 5-11 last season. If you dig deeper into Oakland’s loss, there are reasons for hope as the Raiders’ season moves forward.
For one, take a look at Oakland’s first-half game plan. Gruden said the Raiders moved the ball “exceptionally” in the first half, and while that’s a bit of hyperbole, they actually did do pretty well. The game plan early on was solid, and creative – not bad for a guy out of coaching for a decade — as the Raiders marched down the field early to jump out to a 7-0 lead on their first possession, capped by a 10-yard Marshawn Lynch touchdown run only four minutes into the game.
“Lets you know what we’re capable of,” quarterback Derek Carr said.
Indeed, the Raiders outgained the Rams’ 254-98 in the first half, thanks in large part to the success they had using “22” personnel (two running backs and two tight ends). This took the Rams a bit by surprise, several players said, because it has been years since a Gruden-coached offense took the field for a regular-season NFL game and it’s impossible to know how his philosophy might have evolved.
“First half, we were kinda freestyling,” Rams cornerback Aqib Talib admitted. “We didn’t have tape on them. We didn’t know what they were going to do at all.”
But once the Rams got to halftime and made adjustments to counter the Raiders’ “22” personnel set, the fun time was over in Oakland, at least for the Raiders.
For the Rams’ defense, which forced three turnovers, the fun was just beginning, and most of that came at Carr’s expense. Carr was solid in the first half, completing 20 of 24 passes for 199 yards, but he completed only nine of 17 passes for 104 yards after the break, a performance that included two ugly, game-clinching interceptions that sent silver-and-black-clad fans to the exits in droves.
Some fans started to filter out after the first one, which came midway through the fourth quarter on a floater Carr lofted to linebacker Cory Littleton when he tried to pull the throw back after starting his motion.
“One of the dumbest plays you could ever have,” Carr said. “I knew what I should have done as soon as that play was over.”
The Rams added a field goal that increased their lead to 26-13 with about three minutes left, but all hope immediately went down the drain on the next drive when cornerback Marcus Peters undercut a drag route by tight end Jared Cook and took it to the house for Carr’s first pick-6 since 2015.
“A gift, basically,” Carr said.
But while the evaporation of the Raiders’ offense in the second half was discouraging, it’s also not terribly surprising. That’s what often happens when teams face a defense with several blue-chip players and an elite coordinator in Wade Phillips. The Rams seized control of the game as soon as Phillips was armed with a better understanding of Gruden’s scheme.
“Against that defense, it’s not always gonna be like the first half was,” Carr said. “They didn’t have film on us.”
With the defensive front of Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh and Michael Brockers taking over — Oakland finished with 95 yards on 23 rushes — and the elite cornerback duo of Talib and Peters limiting wideouts Jordy Nelson and Amari Cooper to four catches and 32 yards, the only options the Raiders could turn to reliably were tight end Jared Cook, who exploded for 180 yards on nine catches, and their running backs, who combined to catch 13 passes for 60 yards.
That’s, um, not enough to win against a defense of this caliber.
Fortunately for the Raiders, there are reasons to think things might get better. For one, they might not face a defense of this caliber again this season. To get the edge over the Rams’ defense, opposing teams will likely require playmakers at every skill position, plus a stout offensive line, to crack 20 points against Los Angeles.
It’s also worth noting the Raiders are still installing Gruden’s offense, which includes his famous 15-word play calls. That means the more comfortable his players grow with it, the more concepts they can conceivably execute, which will only make the offense more customizable, depending on the opponent.
Perhaps most important: judging by the look on Gruden’s face after the game Monday night — restrained but annoyed — it’s hard to imagine that a man who was once famous for his 12-hour workdays won’t make some adjustments that will allow him to better take advantage of the ways the Rams countered his offense in the second half.
Want proof? The corners of Gruden’s mouth puckered when asked how it felt to be back on the sideline again.
“It’s great … [but] it’s not time for that anymore,” Gruden said, the agitation still seeping through. “It’s about getting this football team better. And it wasn’t good enough tonight.”
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