He has a $100 million contract, 100 percent name recognition and memories of delivering the Oakland Raiders to the closest thing to the glory days since the franchise’s actual glory days.
So, no, Jon Gruden’s debut with the Raiders on Monday night against the Los Angeles Rams is not some kind of referendum on his tenure or a must-win way to avoid some kind of immediate hot seat. Context is everything, even in the NFL, a league built on overreactive analysis and fan sentiment.
That said, Gruden certainly understands the power of a national television broadcast, and Sunday he had to feel the impact of what Khalil Mack delivered for the Chicago Bears in their 24-23 loss to the Green Bay Packers.
Mack, 27, was a Raider for the past four seasons. Now he isn’t. It was the biggest offseason move in an offseason of many for Oakland as Gruden has reimagined and re-engineered what the team is going to be.
As Mack produced a relentless pass rush, one sack, a forced fumble, a recovered fumble, two tackles and an interception return for a touchdown, the idea that Oakland ever let him go became even further questioned.
The Raiders traded Mack and a second-round draft pick to Chicago for two first-rounders. The Bears then made Mack the highest-paid defensive player in the league, giving him a six-year deal with $90 million guaranteed. Oakland wasn’t willing to pay that much.
“An astronomical number,” Gruden said, sounding more like a television personality than an NFL coach. After all, his guarantee is reportedly higher than Mack’s, which makes it truly astronomical (albeit with the caveat that there is no salary cap for coaches).
“It’s phenomenal,” Gruden said. “I think for the players, great for him, obviously, but that was something we could not do.”
The Bears could and did do it, calling Mack a game-changer. On Sunday in Lambeau, just nine days after joining camp and with the Bears uncertain about his conditioning or how many snaps he could handle, Mack proved Chicago’s point.
“Making big-time plays,” Bears coach Matt Nagy said. “Our defense will see that. Our offense will see that. We will feed off of that.”
Mack’s performance was significant enough that by the third quarter, and with Chicago holding a big, pre-Aaron Rodgers-comeback lead, NBC broadcaster Cris Collinsworth was forcefully reminding viewers that Gruden had tried to reach out to Mack during a contract dispute, which is a point of contention. That Collinsworth needed to focus on that suggests the public-relations issue Gruden is dealing with. (It’s quite possible Gruden texted Collinsworth himself to get his side of the story out there.)
Hey, don’t blame me.
Good luck with that.
Two firsts are a nice haul and may one day produce more than Mack. That’s a long way in the future though, even if they do come to fruition. Mack is creating mayhem now. Anytime on Monday when the Rams’ Jared Goff sits idly in the pocket or Todd Gurley gashes through the defensive line, the thought of what a difference Mack might have made will go top of mind. And that’s just Week 1.
Mack is just part of it though.
The Raiders traded a 2018 third-round pick to Pittsburgh for Martavis Bryant, only to waive him before the season, basically lighting that draft asset on fire.
The last week brought an avalanche of activity. Also released were defensive lineman Mario Edwards Jr. and backup quarterbacks E.J. Manuel and Connor Cook. The Raiders grabbed AJ McCarron from Buffalo to serve as Derek Carr’s insurance policy.
Just 22 of the Raiders’ 53-man roster for Monday played for the team last season. It’s a complete overhaul. It’s Chuckie’s team.
Gruden expected to be given a wide berth. He coached the Raiders from 1998-2001, twice reaching the playoffs. He was then traded to Tampa Bay, where he won the Super Bowl in his first season. He never won another playoff game though, and after the 2008 season he became a member of what he jokingly called the “Fired Football Coaches Association (FFCA),” even designing a logo and renting an office where he could watch film like he still had a job. He then morphed into a hugely successful broadcaster at ESPN for nine years.
Now he’s back in Oakland and wielding his power. The big contract. The big name. The knowledge that the team is moving to Las Vegas by 2020 at the latest, which should provide another fresh start as local fans will just be excited to have a team and not stress over every third-down conversion.
It’s the kind of situation that provides great latitude. Gruden is exploiting it. Maybe he’s building the Raiders into a future winner. Maybe he knows whatever Mack can do for him now isn’t that important in the long run.
Or maybe he and Oakland made a foolish decision by letting a major talent walk out the door for the promise of salary-cap space and draft picks.
Time will tell on all of that, but time started ticking a little louder as Mack was mauling the Packers on “Sunday Night Football.”
Khalil Mack made his statement on national television. Now Gruden gets to make his.