Roughly 20 months ago, in the lead-up to the 2017 NFL draft, one particular league analyst had an infatuation. He laid eyes on a quarterback he was convinced fit the mold as a mature, pro-ready starting quarterback. So much so, when the analyst spoke to other members of the media, he was practically bursting, describing this prospect as a player who loved the game, could command men, read a defense and adjust to any scheme. A guy who should have been no lower than a second-round pick.
“He can memorize, he can execute any play you dream up, and he loves it,” the analyst said. “I’m smitten with him a little bit as a player.”
The hype volume was a 10 out of 10.
The quarterback was Nathan Peterman.
And the analyst was Jon Gruden.
That’s probably something to keep in mind, as former Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie’s office is packed up and shipped out. Gruden has gotten precisely what he asked for when it comes to power and control. Let this be the moment when there is no more denying it: Gruden pulls all the levers and flips all the switches. Regardless of how he wants to frame his role in the personnel decisions – and he nonsensically continues to downplay it – there is no more hiding, pretending or deflecting. From Day 1, Gruden has been in control. As for McKenzie, one league source put it bluntly on Monday, “He was never anything more than a figurehead.”
That ended when McKenzie stopped playing the game this week. He has known for months that he wasn’t going to be back in Oakland next season. His friends across the league knew it. The agents and other executives who called him knew it. No matter how much they tried to avert their eyes to the awkwardness, there was no getting around what McKenzie told one longtime friend in the league back in September when the two were discussing a personnel decision – McKenzie’s hands were tied and it was Gruden’s show.
Now you should know it. No matter how many times Gruden tries to insult your intelligence by acting like he’s not in control of who the next general manager will be. And no matter how badly he wants you to think he didn’t know McKenzie’s firing was coming, with embarrassing “I know nothing” moments like this assertion from Monday:
“Well, we won a game last night and I went home,” Gruden said. “Obviously there was a meeting last night, and changes have been made. I respect everything this organization is about. I can’t exactly answer why the change was made last night, but changes were made. …
“We all work for the same man.”
You could fire off 10,000 eye-roll emojis and still not come close to an emotion illustrating how implausible (and insulting) that statement is. It’s troubling Gruden doesn’t have the self-awareness to recognize, “Yeah, there’s just no way people are going to buy this. I might as well just own it.”
Instead, he stood up Monday and appeared to put the responsibility on team owner Mark Davis. That makes sense because Davis is the only other person in the franchise who could semi-plausibly take some blame. At least, until the next general manager is installed with Gruden’s approval. Time will tell who that will be, but personnel men across the NFL all seem to agree that the next GM will share two traits: They’ll have some kind of career ties to Gruden’s West Coast system and they’ll be pliable to his whims.
One name that continues to get connected with Gruden across the league is New York Jets head of player personnel Brian Heimerdinger. He has spent years learning under Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan, whose experience with the Gary Kubiak-era Houston Texans leans into a lot of West Coast offense concepts. That system-related trait will be important, along with a willingness to step into a personnel department that is still believed to be behind the financial and facilities curve, at least until the relocation to Las Vegas is complete.
One pressing question will be whether Oakland’s GM opening is a coveted job, largely because Gruden will continue to be the puppet master. Regardless of his denials, everyone across the league knows McKenzie wasn’t making decisions for the Raiders following Gruden’s hire. It’s part of why he removed himself from the charade, declining to stay aboard despite knowing he could have remained for a little longer. If he wasn’t allowed to be a general manager beyond the title and was headed out the door anyway, there was no use in playing the part anymore.
The next GM? He’ll be hired to be what McKenzie wouldn’t be: Someone who will take the players Gruden wants and get rid of the ones he doesn’t, while feigning that he shoulders the responsibility (and blame) if it goes wrong. The kind of guy who comes in handy when the head coach falls in love with, say, Nathan Peterman as an NFL quarterback.
All of which brings us back to the real pressing concern for Oakland. Consider what Gruden said about Peterman nearly 20 months ago and digest the fact that this is the guy who will be picking players for the Raiders with all these fancy new draft choices:
“He is buttoned up all the way,” Gruden said of Peterman in April of 2017, while doing a conference call as part of his ESPN duties. “He is sharp. He is in the channel, I think, of success. I think he’s going to be a real good pro quarterback. I just have a real confidence in that. … He’d allow us to do just about anything in the game plan. I think he throws the ball pretty darn good. He’s athletic and very, very sharp. I think he’s a lot like [Cincinnati Bengals quarterback] Andy Dalton. He reminds me of Dalton so much coming out of TCU. I’d probably go with Peterman if I had to play him in a few months.”
Considering Peterman was an unmitigated disaster with the Buffalo Bills, that’s a deep hole. One that has only a handful of explanations: Gruden didn’t believe any of those things and was hyping Peterman for some unknown reason; Gruden’s evaluation of Peterman was horribly wrong; or the Bills ruined Peterman, who despite Gruden’s second-round assessment lasted until the fifth round of the 2017 draft … and he hasn’t been picked up by a team since his release one month ago.
Whatever the explanation, there’s one personnel phrase Oakland fans should memorize and apply vigorously over the next few seasons – “Evaluate the evaluator.” Gruden’s history suggests he’s not always a good evaluator of talent. And if that’s legitimate, it will show over the next few seasons. The key will be refusing to let him lay the blame on the next GM, or the team owner, or whoever else he chooses.
None of this suggests McKenzie was doing a great job in recent years. Some of his recent talent evaluations clearly had holes. But he was certainly capable of finding stars. Two of them shipped out by Gruden this season – outside linebacker Khalil Mack and wideout Amari Cooper – have helped completely reshape the NFC playoff picture. A third who was released, safety Obi Melifonwu, has done nothing but impress the New England Patriots and is already being factored into the team’s long-term plans.
When it came to that trio, which featured an average age of 25 between them, Gruden didn’t have the patience (Cooper), didn’t want to spend the money (Mack), or didn’t believe the talent (Melifonwu). But tight end Jared Cook? The guy who turns 32 in April?
“Hopefully [his next contract] is on a high priority,” Gruden said Monday. “Whoever the general manager is, we’ll show him some tape of Jared Cook.”
No need, of course. The next general manager is Jon Gruden, no matter who gets Reggie McKenzie’s job. That means Jared Cook’s future Raider employment looks to be very secure. And Nathan Peterman’s future prospects are probably looking a lot better, too.
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