Best. Hard Knocks. Ever.
Antonio Brown, Jon Gruden, Vontaze Burfict … that’s enough, just sign me up. A million times. The only thing that could possibly make this any better is if hometown hero Marshawn Lynch returned for one last season (not a huge leap in logic after seeing how long his previous retirement lasted). But even without Beast Mode, I’m sold. You know HBO nailed it when my mom, who has seen every episode of Gilmore Girls 30 times, brings up Hard Knocks unprompted in conversation.
Given the personalities involved, the potential for conflict and the relative high stakes—2019 will mark the Raiders’ final season in Oakland before they set up shop in Las Vegas next year—this might be the most anticipated Hard Knocks in recent memory. And that’s really saying something after the Browns put forth a compelling edition in 2018. The five-part series featured, among other training camp developments, Baker Mayfield’s RV (the de facto hangout spot for Cleveland’s quarterbacks), rampant swearing from foul-mouthed, albeit financially-savvy linebacker Carl Nassib (which earned him a rebuke from his grandmother), Jarvis Landry’s catchphrase/rallying cry (“bless em!”) and of course, our introduction to Wilford Brimley lookalike Bob Wylie and his iconic gut. Last year’s episodes also carried an emotional undercurrent as coach Hue Jackson mourned the deaths of his mother and brother, who passed away within two weeks of each other last summer.
Oakland may be a big ‘ol pot of nothing stew when it comes to its on-field product—only the Cardinals and Dolphins have lower Vegas win totals—but what the Raiders lack in talent they more than make up for in colorful personalities. And Gruden might be the most fascinating of them all. Now in his second stint with the Raiders, Gruden publicly decried Oakland’s inclusion on the upcoming Hard Knocks, but don’t buy it for a second. The only thing the Raiders coach loves more than “Spider 2 Y Banana” and answering calls on the Gruden hotline is being in the spotlight. That leading-man flair is what made him such a popular presence on Monday Night Football and why the booth lost so much when he dipped his toes back in the coaching waters last offseason (don’t even get me started on ESPN’s complete misfire pairing Jason Witten with Joe Tessitore).
Gruden’s goofy, dad charm accentuated by his gratuitous use of “man” and similar catchphrases (“I’ll tell you what” would certainly make his greatest hits album) were a staple of his MNF persona, though it seems coaching has brought out a new, brasher side of Gruden. Untethered by the restraints of the ESPN airwaves, Gruden has let it rip, executing a complete teardown of the Raiders’ organization and not making many friends along the way. It’s not unusual for a new coach to do a little redecorating but rather than fine-tuning what Oakland already had in place, Gruden took an axe to the team’s roster, coaching staff and even the scouting department while eliminating any and all remnants of the previous Jack Del Rio regime.
Gruden seems to be playing the long game, which might better explain his otherwise inexplicable decision to move on from Khalil Mack, a quarterback-devouring edge rusher right in the middle of his prime. Other highlights (or lowlights depending on your vantage point) of Gruden’s tenure include pushing out GM Reggie McKenzie and replacing him with TV analyst Mike Mayock, trading lead receiver Amari Cooper to Dallas, eliminating the team’s entire scouting presence days before the draft and then, along with Mayock, proceeding to use the fourth overall pick on Clelin Ferrell, a player many expected to go near the end of the first round. It’s too early to deem the second Gruden era a failure and clearly the 55-year-old is using every inch of the power he was afforded when the Raiders lured him out of the broadcast booth with a landmark 10-year, $100 million contract in 2018. But it’s still concerning when he makes out-of-touch remarks like “I’m not going to rely on modern technology” while griping about the Raiders’ non-existent pass-rush, a shortcoming Gruden created himself by willingly trading former Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack to the Bears. Regardless of his tactics, being a fly on the wall for Gruden’s daily interactions with coaches, players and front office staff should be a delight. If it’s anything like his riveting Quarterback Camp series (which would occasionally entail bludgeoning Carson Wentz with a pool noodle), we’re all in for a treat.
Whether you’re a fan of Gruden’s shtick or find it hokey and disingenuous, there’s no denying his larger-than-life personality has shaped the Raiders, for better or worse. Of course, if there’s anyone in Oakland who can match Gruden’s intensity, it’s Antonio Brown, who arrived in the Bay only after setting fire to every relationship he built over his nine-year run in Pittsburgh. Brown followed the blueprint laid out by Terrell Owens, Chad Johnson and countless other high-maintenance receivers, dividing what was already a toxic locker room with his diva antics. The seven-time Pro Bowler didn’t handle his deteriorating relationship with the Steelers (Ben Roethlisberger and JuJu Smith-Schuster were both targets of his criticism) with much decorum, but his methods worked as he eventually landed with the Raiders, who upped his annual salary to an eye-popping $16.7 million.
Brown seemed pleased with his landing spot but the soon-to-be 31-year-old has proven to be a ticking time bomb. He’s never had a coach as demonstrative as Gruden (Mike Tomlin seemed to have little influence over the Steelers’ locker-room happenings) and if Brown thought Roethlisberger’s play wasn’t up to snuff, wait until he gets a load of chronic underachiever Derek Carr. His whole head might explode.
Brown’s dynamic with Gruden will undoubtedly be must-watch television, though the showdown I’m really looking forward to is AB’s inevitable encounter with former Bengals agitator Vontaze Burfict. If you recall, Burfict—who has gained a reputation as perhaps the league’s dirtiest player—has gone out of his way to hurt Brown on numerous occasions, including once when he concussed him during a playoff game. Burfict’s head-hunting cost Brown the next game, which Pittsburgh lost to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Broncos. The latter incident took place over three years ago, but that doesn’t mean Brown, owner of a boulder-sized chip on his shoulder, will let bygones be bygones. And wouldn’t you harbor animosity toward the jerk who knocked you out cold in one of the biggest games of your career?
As if they needed another pot stirrer, the Raiders also enlisted the services of Richie Incognito, a pariah most known for his bullying scandal that derailed both he and Jonathan Martin’s careers. Incognito landed on his feet after his exile from the Dolphins and wound up earning three consecutive Pro Bowl nods as a Bill, but that hasn’t stopped the unpredictable 35-year-old from ruffling feathers both on and off the field. Incognito will have competition for the villain role in Oakland—Brown took a heel turn during his final days in Pittsburgh while the reckless Burfict has never shied away from controversy. But Incognito, who has worn out his welcome at every stop on his NFL path, might be the most abrasive of the bunch.
There will be other beats to follow—Derek Carr’s tenuous status as the team’s franchise quarterback, rookie Josh Jacobs trying not to fall under the weight of expectations, Nathan Peterman’s elusive quest for redemption on the heels of a historically disastrous tenure in Buffalo (a comedy of errors immortalized by the great J. Peterman). All are plot points worth exploring, but the rug that ties the room together is Oakland, the city the Raiders are abandoning after this season.
It’s understandable why the Raiders would jump ship. The Oakland Coliseum is a decrepit mess and being able to plant their flag in Vegas, a relatively untapped sports market with limitless earning potential, was too good an opportunity to pass up. But for anyone who appreciates nostalgia (Nutmeggers like myself are still licking our wounds over the loss of our beloved Hartford Whalers 22 years ago), the Raiders’ exile from Oakland is a tragic loss. It’s a pain the community has felt before—the Raiders defected to Los Angeles for a spell in the 80s and early 90s—but that doesn’t make it hurt any less. We all know the Raiders are still in the initial stages of a lengthy rebuild and face an uphill climb to reach the playoffs in a division inhabited by the likes of the powerhouse Chiefs and Chargers. But maybe if the stars align, Gruden and his band of disciples can sprinkle the Coliseum with a touch of silver and black magic, for old time’s sake.