Every mistake, every loss, every disjointed personnel crossroads – the grandeur of the Jon Gruden introductory news conference from last January crawls a little closer to Oakland Raiders infamy. Not because of the ownership-commissioned hype video, which now feels comically awkward to watch. Not because of the overly optimistic sales pitch from team owner Mark Davis, punctuated by “Raider Nation, this is a big f’ing deal.” Not even because of the staggering start that has followed.
The infamy of that moment last January lies in the reality that to actually get to the majestic beginning promised by ownership, the Raiders are going through an unfathomable ending. Every. Single. Week. The big hello season of Gruden in 2018 has morphed into the big goodbye for seemingly everyone else. And when this finally shakes out – for better or worse – we’ll see that from the moment Gruden stepped in the door, nobody outside of Davis was safe.
Not general manager Reggie McKenzie. Not the remainder of the personnel department. Not the high-priced young stars, like All-Pro “program guy” Khalil Mack. Not the affordable old stars, like Michael Crabtree. Not any draft pick prior to the 2018 class. And not even presumed franchise quarterback Derek Carr, who is absolutely in the midst of a job interview and has a contract that can easily be shed starting this offseason.
Given all of that perspective, it turns out Davis was right. Hiring Gruden was a big f’ing deal. Because Gruden gladly embraced the green light to remodel a seemingly well-positioned franchise. And he’s not even close to being done, with an opportunity to gut the remainder of the Oakland roster between now and March – effectively shifting toward a Las Vegas renaissance in 2020.
That’s where Sunday’s report about former first-round picks Amari Cooper and Karl Joseph is coming from – the reality that NFL teams are painting the Raiders as being completely open for business as the Oct. 30 trade deadline nears. But the reality is the Cooper and Joseph trade report may not have gone far enough. According to two league sources who spoke with Yahoo Sports on Sunday, the Raiders appear to be open to having conversations about virtually any veteran not named Carr. And if things don’t start clicking with Carr by the end of this season, his availability may be the next story in Oakland, too.
As one league source framed it Sunday, if the Raiders were open to dealing the best player on their roster – Mack – anyone outside of Carr is subject to being moved. Especially if a player is coming up for a contract extension and doesn’t appear to be worth the kind of money he’ll seek. Which would explain the “pocket listed” availability of Cooper, who, despite having an up-and-down season, is expected to seek a massive contract extension this offseason. One that undoubtedly puts him in the realm of the league’s highest-paid wide receivers – a bracket that sits somewhere between $15 million-$18 million per season.
For teams, “pocket listed” availability is a term for players who aren’t necessarily being actively shopped around the league, but whom a team is willing to talk about if there is an interested party calling. Initially, Mack was a nonstarter when teams called the Raiders. As his holdout dragged on, his availability moved into the “pocket listed” category, where it took only two first-round picks to get a conversation going. Cooper is squarely in that category, where the length of the talk is largely dependent on the price being forwarded in an inquiry.
As it stands, Cooper is heading toward playing under a fifth-year option in 2019 that will pay him $13.9 million, which may already be too rich for Gruden’s taste when compared against Cooper’s injury-riddled production in his past 20 NFL games (960 receiving yards and eight touchdowns). He was knocked out of Sunday’s game with a head injury.
Those numbers are important because Gruden didn’t want to pay Mack a huge extension at a time when his numbers and impact placed him amongst the league’s elite. Cooper’s production isn’t anywhere near as impressive, yet some other teams will unquestionably value him as one of the best young wide receivers in the game.
Translated, it’s pretty simple: If the Raiders weren’t willing to pay Mack when he deserved to be amongst the league’s elite in salary, why would they change their tune for Cooper, who hasn’t been nearly as consistent over the length of his career?
Of course, that didn’t stop Gruden from giving a somewhat soft answer when he was questioned about Cooper’s trade availability following Sunday’s 27-3 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. While he could have simply come out and said, “No, Cooper isn’t available to be traded,” he laughed and gave an answer that felt, at best, like an awkwardly soft commitment.
“I don’t know. No, I haven’t heard that,” Gruden said when asked about the report that Cooper and Joseph were available on the trade market. “You know, I’m not, I’m not, you know, I’m just, uh, sorry to have to deal with a lot of these reports. But, uh, I just hope Amari’s OK [from his concussion suffered Sunday]. Like I said, he’s going to be a big part of our pass offense.”
“He’s going to be a big part of our pass offense” touched off a round of “Gruden-denied-Cooper-is-available” responses – when in reality, that’s not what Gruden said.
This is what all Raiders fans should take away from this season: The franchise can be divided into two categories – words and actions. Davis had hopes flying high about Gruden being a big f’ing deal back in January, but failed to relay a reality that a tear-down process was going to take place. Gruden took all sorts of opportunities to talk about how he was going to work hand-in-hand with McKenzie, then greenlit a trade that sent McKenzie’s best-ever draft pick out of town. And now reports are coming out that two more of McKenzie’s first-round picks – Cooper and Joseph – if not the majority of the roster, also are available to interested parties.
If you’re trying to work hand-in-hand with the current general manager but don’t seem to have the same kind of value on his most highly drafted players, there is a significant problem. And that is exactly what sets up the next several months, in which Gruden will have the opportunity to take the Oakland Raiders rebuild as far as he wants.
McKenzie? He’s signed through 2020 but also on a deal that was supposed to pair him with Jack Del Rio … not Gruden. Cooper? His possible lucrative contract extension will be a more difficult call than the money the Raiders wouldn’t give Mack. Carr? He’s not playing well enough to justify a contract that calls for him to be one of the top five or six quarterbacks in the NFL. And he’s easily cuttable or tradable this offseason, when his salary-cap hit shrinks to $7.5 million (but also frees up a ton of money starting in the 2020 offseason that leads into Las Vegas).
If that sounds like an organization that could be blown up and rebooted at any moment, it’s because that’s exactly what the Raiders are. And the fate of that decision lies in the hands of Jon Gruden. Aside from Davis, he’s the safest and most powerful guy in the building.
Just like it has been since Day 1.
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