A few weeks ago, Hue Jackson was preparing to dig into a massive plate of meat at Everett and Jones, an upscale barbecue restaurant in downtown Oakland, when the Raiders' rookie coach saw a familiar face and did a double-take.
There, at a nearby table, was Jim Harbaugh, the San Francisco 49ers' first-year coach and another E&J aficionado. The carnivorous coaches exchanged pleasantries before Jackson laid down some good-natured smack-talk.
"What are you doing over here?" Jackson asked Harbaugh. "This is my city now. Get back to where you belong. I gotta pay a toll to come see you. You don't have to pay a toll to see me. That's how it is."
Recalling the encounter last month, Jackson flashed his gap-toothed smile and kept the brash words coming.
"We're getting ready to do something special," Jackson said. "I just feel it. Jim Harbaugh's across the Bay. Hue Jackson's on this side. I want to own the Bay Area. So does he. That's what it's all about.
"I have high expectations. I'm not backing down from that. Why would I? Some people think you shouldn't make a bunch of noise. I look at it the other way: I talk boldly and carry a big stick."
After a quarter-century of traversing the country's football fields in a rapid-fire manner that even an Army brat would regard as transient, Jackson believes he has found a home in Oaktown, where Raiders owner Al Davis gave him his first head-coaching opportunity after firing Tom Cable last January. Like Harbaugh, the former Stanford coach who was the country's hottest candidate before taking the Niners' job a couple of weeks before Oakland filled its opening, Jackson has some serious swagger and doesn't make much of an effort to conceal it.
More significant to Raider Nation, Jackson also has some similarities in temperament to a certain Monday Night Football analyst who once roamed the Oakland Coliseum sideline with a trademark scowl and presided over a series of tough, competitive teams.
After all, the two men have some history.
"Jon Gruden raised me as a coach," says Jackson, who shared an office with Gruden in 1989 when they were assistants at University of the Pacific, Jackson's alma mater. "You've got to understand, a lot of my belief system stems from him. A lot of my quirkiness, my energy and my understanding of Xs and Os come because I shared an office with a guy with so much passion, who showed me how to put that passion toward something I love."
Says Gruden: "I'll tell you what a good job Hue and I did – UOP dropped football [in 1995]."
On a more serious note, Gruden calls Jackson "an enthusiastic guy who has paid his dues and worked for a lot of people. It's amazing the amount of stops he's made. Hopefully he takes advantage of this opportunity."
Given a chance to revive the Raiders' flaccid offense after arriving as Cable's offensive coordinator a year ago, Jackson delivered in a big way. The Raiders finished sixth in the NFL with 410 points in 2010, more than doubling their previous season's output. He played a significant role in excavating Oakland from the hole that began forming following the 2001 season, when Gruden, fresh off a devastating overtime playoff defeat to the eventual Super Bowl champion New England Patriots in the infamous Tuck Rule game, was traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Successor Bill Callahan took the Raiders to the Super Bowl the following season in San Diego, where Gruden's Bucs administered a silver-and-black shellacking that still stings a famished fan base. Things got worse, and quickly: From 2003-09, the Raiders lost 11 games or more for an NFL-record seven consecutive seasons, and along the way Davis lost patience with coaches Callahan, Norv Turner, Art Shell and Lane Kiffin.
Last year Oakland finally returned to respectability, falling short of the playoffs with an 8-8 record but sweeping all six games against AFC West opponents. Davis nonetheless fired Cable, who had embarrassed the franchise with a string of off-the-field incidents and whose loose leadership style was cited by the owner in the news conference announcing Jackson's hiring.
Davis concluded that Jackson has a better chance of restoring the Raiders to prominence – and though the 82-year-old owner and I have had our differences over the last two decades, I completely agree.
I haven't made any formal predictions yet for the 2011 season, largely because my editor hasn't forced me to, but I'm going to throw one out there before the preseason games begin: The Raiders will win their division and they're going back to the AFC championship game for the first time since 2003.
You heard me.
So did Jackson in our recent conversation, and I wasn't sure how he'd react to my enthusiasm. Plenty of coaches – especially rookie coaches – would cringe at the mere suggestion of hype, or even reasonably high expectations.
Jackson, 45, embraces them like NFL commissioner Roger Goodell hugging drafted players on the Radio City Music Hall stage during a lockout.
"I share my vision with everyone in the organization," Jackson says. "We have an expectation of greatness, and we're not gonna back down from that. We can't hide behind excuses – the lockout, losing a player, whatever. My expectation is to win every game I coach.
"There are head coaches in this league, they don't want that challenge. I'm not afraid of that. I've seen this business turn people upside down, sunny-side up and bring them to their knees. I'm gonna attack this thing."
One obvious source of Jackson's confidence: His team is better than most outsiders realize. Sure, we perpetually hear about the Raiders' wealth of talent, and it has become an empty cliché. Obviously, succeeding in the NFL goes beyond size, speed and strength. Still, Oakland's roster has a lot of that, and that makes Jackson's heart race with excitement. For every big name like Pro Bowl defensive lineman Richard Seymour, there are three potential studs whose names you may not even know.
Opposing players, coaches and personnel executives know all about the Raiders, however. "You better know they know," Jackson says, "and they're scared, for this reason: This is a giant. We have, in my opinion, some of the greatest talent in the world. But as we know, talent does not win football games. And what I have to do is convince this talent on a daily basis that they can do what it takes to win football games. If I can do that, I can awaken this giant."
To Jackson's credit, he seems to have a knack for getting skilled players to shine, with halfback Darren McFadden a prime example. The fourth overall pick in the 2008 draft, McFadden struggled through a pair of injury-plagued seasons before Jackson arrived and asked him what plays he liked to run. McFadden's answers influenced Jackson's game plans, and he was one of the NFL's most improved players – he ran for 1,157 yards and averaged 5.2 yards per carry in 2010 after managing just 357 rushing yards on a 3.4 per-carry average the previous season.
"I watched Darren on tape after I got here," Jackson recalls, "and I said, 'What's going on with this young man?' He had terrific speed and incredible acceleration, but he slipped down a lot, fumbled too much and didn't run through tackles. It's been documented that I sat him down and asked him, 'What do you do best?' I wanted to give him ownership. He looked at me like, 'Coach, please.' But I was serious. And it was my job to put him in those situations and get the most out of him."
Jackson believes quarterback Jason Campbell will make a big jump in 2011. Acquired in an April 2010 trade with the Washington Redskins, Campbell blossomed down the stretch after a miserable start and, says Jackson, "is that close to becoming all that I want him to become."
Granted, it's not merely a matter of players producing. Jackson understands that a culture change is required for a franchise that continues to preach "Commitment To Excellence" but has been almost a self-parody for the better part of the decade.
For what it's worth, I think he's got the right personality to conquer this uniquely challenging vocational endeavor.
In other words, his self-assuredness and legitimate gratitude for the opportunity combine to make him the type of coach who can succeed working for Davis.
In the past, coaches who've openly clashed with the legendary owner (Mike Shanahan, Kiffin) have failed as miserably as those who've adopted a more sycophantic approach (Joe Bugel, and arguably Shell). The ones who've thrived (John Madden, Tom Flores, Gruden) have projected an aura of supreme confidence while remaining respectful and inclusive toward the boss. Jackson, who calls Davis "Coach" but behaves as though he's very much in charge of the team, seems to me to be a guy who can straddle that tenuous line.
"A lot of people make way too much of Al Davis and the personality it takes to work for him," Gruden insists. "When I was there, we won because we had a lot of good players. You don't win because of personality. You win because of playmaking.
"Hue's personality and his approach fit a lot of places. I think he's proven that. Look at his résumé. He's worked his way up to this position."
Jackson's NFL stops have included Baltimore, Cincinnati, Atlanta and Washington; he served as offensive coordinator for the latter two teams. Among his college jobs were consecutive coordinator stints at Cal and USC. He scoffs at the perception in some quarters that he's an opportunist who has always had an eye on the next opening: "People say, 'Why did you move so many different places?' I say, 'Why not?' I'm not a job-jumper. Are you kidding me? That's how I acquired those skills for this situation today."
In January 2007, Jackson tried through a third party to get Davis to consider him for the head-coaching opening that ultimately went to Kiffin. It took four years, but he finally got the gig he wanted, and he has approached it as a personal calling. Jackson has made a point of getting out in the Oakland community, from attending an elementary school playground dedication to watching native Andre Ward defend his world boxing super middleweight championship. Says Jackson: "There's more to being head coach of the Raiders than sitting in a chair."
He seems to have sincere regard for Davis – and no desire to keep his boss at bay. "That's the wrong way to deal with anybody, in my opinion," Jackson says. "Obviously he's the owner. He has final say, and I respect that. But that doesn't mean I have to be agreeable. When he's right, he's right. When he's wrong, he's wrong. Now, that said, there haven't been many times when he's been wrong."
Jackson seems to share many of Davis' basic football philosophies, from relentlessly pressuring the quarterback to building a big, nasty offensive line to using the deep ball as a weapon. The latter tenet was on display last November at the Coliseum when Jackson called a long Campbell strike to rookie wideout Jacoby Ford that set up Oakland's 23-20 overtime victory over the eventual division-champion Kansas City Chiefs.
Now that he's the head coach, expect Jackson to get even more aggressive. So far in training camp, the Raiders' practices have been perceptibly more intense than in past years. The sense of urgency he projects is palpable.
"It's time to take the next step," Jackson says. "The time is now. People say we're two players away, three players away – no, I'm preaching now."
Accordingly, Jackson isn't dwelling on the departure of star cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, who on Friday bolted for the Philadelphia Eagles via free agency. And like Gruden – but unlike so many Oakland coaches before and since – Jackson refuses to buy into the organizational paranoia surrounding penalties and league rulings that go against the Raiders.
"I've heard that said," Jackson concedes. "Every team has questionable calls. You look at them and go, 'Where did that come from?' But I don't even want to be the guy to gripe and moan 'cause that's not what I'm about. And when we become the team I envision us becoming, that stuff's not gonna matter."
If that sounds like something Gruden might have said a decade ago, it's no coincidence.
"He drove me to be hungrier, to learn the Xs and Os of the game," Jackson says of Gruden. "The challenge of my life is to be better than him."
Gruden, who once owned the Bay Area the way Jackson wants to now, says he'll be rooting for his former UOP officemate.
"He loves the grind," Gruden says. "A guy who's been to that many stops, you've got to pull for him. I know I'm pulling for him. I really am."
Call me crazy, but come January, I suspect all of Raider Nation will be squarely in Jackson's corner – and Oakland will be awash with playoff fever once more.
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