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In Defense of Jon Gruden, a Smart GM

The Raiders’ de facto decision-maker was criticized for his preseason trade of Khalil Mack, but dealing Amari Cooper shows he may know what he’s doing long term. Can Coach Gruden make good on the moves?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“I lost my virginity to the Notre Dame fight song,” Jon Gruden told Playboy in 2003, according to ESPN’s Page 2. “There was a band?” Playboy asked.

“No, not even music,” Gruden replied. “But it was in my mind.”

Even in his most intimate moments, all Gruden does is think about football, and that must be particularly painful this season. The Raiders are last in the AFC West at 1-5 and are tied for the fewest wins in the league. They have the third-worst point differential in the NFL, ahead of only the Cardinals and historically awful Bills. The offense is ranked 28th in scoring per game and the defense is ranked 29th in scoring allowed per game. Oakland is dead last in the league in sacks and allows teams to convert on third down at the third-highest rate in football. Quarterback Derek Carr is dead last among qualifying quarterbacks in average pass length, per NFL GSIS. Entering Week 8, Football Outsiders calculates the Raiders’ playoff odds at 1-in-200 and their chances for the no. 1 overall pick at 1-in-8.

It’s easy to blame Gruden, who returned to coaching after a 10-year hiatus, signing a 10-year, $100 million contract with the Raiders in January. As a head coach, Gruden has seemingly done a poor job through seven weeks, but Gruden actually has two jobs for this franchise. In addition to being head coach, he is also the de facto general manager, and he has more control over the organization’s day-to-day operations than anyone since Al Davis. And in true Al Davis fashion, he’s used it to trade away the team’s two highest-drafted players this decade in a two-month span—and it just might be a great idea.

It’s hard to overstate what a shitshow the Raiders have been this century. The Ringer’s Mike Lombardi, who worked for the Raiders as a personnel executive between 1998 and 2007, has described Davis’s bizarre way of running the organization. Davis refused to let employees bring computers into the Raiders draft room to check who other teams had taken and refused to tell any of the employees whom he planned to pick. With that foolproof strategy, the Raiders drafted kicker Sebastian Janikowski in the first round in 2000, wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey in 2009, and quarterback JaMarcus Russell first overall in 2007, the last of which happened after Davis watched LSU blow out Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl. (On the same weekend as the 2007 draft, the Raiders traded Randy Moss to the Patriots for a fourth-round pick. Moss would set the single-season receiving touchdown record later that year.) The late former Raiders coach Tony Sparano tried burying a football at practice to exorcise the franchise’s demons.

More than anything, Davis was famous for firing people. He fired Lane Kiffin in a ranting, 49-minute press conference, excoriating his head coach in a way that would have been nothing short of legendary in a more advanced social media era. As Kiffin told Sports Illustrated, he doesn’t think too much about the rant because “Al Davis fires everybody.” The only person with a long leash was the head coach who replaced Kiffin, Tom Cable, who punched an assistant coach in the face, breaking his jaw, in what the assistant coach’s lawyer described as “a textbook case of felony assault” in 2009. Cable stayed on as Oakland’s head coach through the end of the 2010 campaign.

This is a roundabout way of saying the Raiders have never fostered a work environment conducive to things like “long-term planning.” That’s why since Gruden left in 2001, the Raiders have had two winning seasons, six last-place finishes in the AFC West, 10 head coaches, and five top-five draft picks. With the coach’s 10-year contract, Mark Davis has given Gruden something no other Raiders employee has had—the reasonable belief that he can’t be fired tomorrow.

With this newfound power, Gruden has the ability to execute a long-term plan with the knowledge he’ll be able to see it through. When Gruden got the Oakland job in January, this is how he found the team:

  • After an unexpected 12-win season in 2016, the team crashed back to earth in 2017 with a 6-10 record, the Raiders’ 12th losing season in the past 15 years.
  • Quarterback Derek Carr, who finished 19th in passer rating in 2017 (one spot ahead of Blake Bortles), was the second-highest-paid player in the league. (He’s now seventh highest paid.)
  • Defensive end Khalil Mack, coming off of a 10.5-sack campaign, wanted to be paid more than Carr.
  • The no. 1 running back (Marshawn Lynch), receiver (Michael Crabtree), and tight end (Jared Cook) were all in their 30s.
  • The only skill player of note, receiver Amari Cooper, led the league in dropped-pass percentage for the second time in three years in 2017.
  • The interior of the offensive line was among the best in football, but the right tackle position was a mess and 35-year-old left tackle Donald Penn was willing to hold out for a new contract.
  • The defense finished 29th in DVOA last season, was tied for the second-fewest forced turnovers, and was tied for 24th in sacks.
  • The franchise is relocating to Las Vegas for the 2020 NFL season.
  • A contentious negotiation over the Raiders’ lease may force the team to leave Oakland for a temporary venue next season before moving on to Vegas in 2020.

What would you do? The fans living in Oakland surely wanted the team to try to recapture its 2016 form and contend for a Super Bowl before leaving. Instead, Gruden took the more responsible course of action: a full-scale rebuild timed to peak with the first two years of the Raiders’ move to Las Vegas. As the Vegas Golden Knights proved last year, Las Vegas is a viable sports market (if you’re good quickly, at least) and building grassroots support is certainly part of Gruden’s job. The Raiders’ rebuilding window happens to align with their Vegas move, and Gruden would be foolish to change that. In true Vegas fashion, any rebuild begins with a demolition.

Gruden took immense heat for the cold way he blew up the team even before the Cooper and Mack trades. Gruden released popular punter Marquette King and veteran receiver Michael Crabtree, and traded receivers Ryan Switzer and Cordarrelle Patterson. He waged an open war on lame-duck GM Reggie McKenzie’s draft picks, waiving or trading Oakland’s second-round picks from 2015 (defensive tackle Mario Edwards), 2016 (defensive end Jihad Ward), and 2017 (safety Obi Melifonwu), and putting their 2016 first-round draft pick (safety Karl Joseph) on the trade block. Entering the season, the Raiders had the oldest roster in the league.

In a vacuum, many of these moves are puzzling, but in the context of the Raiders’ situation, many of them make sense. Getting a first-rounder for Cooper, who is owed more than $13 million next season before hitting free agency in 2020 and has been one of the streakiest players in football, is a great trade for a team that was clearly not going to give him a big contract after next season. Cutting Crabtree and then signing Jordy Nelson was considered perplexing at the time, but Crabtree and Nelson have posted similar stat lines this year, and Crabtree was considered a potential distraction even before Gruden was hired. Even King has had the worst punting season of his career after signing in Denver this year. (Though some things remain the same for the Raiders, as Gruden has brought Cable back as offensive line coach.)

Even the Mack trade to Chicago on the eve of the season is defensible from a long-term view. The trade, considered lopsided at first, was comically exacerbated by Mack’s torrid start on national TV in the first two weeks of the season, but that stretch was partially aided by his competition. Four of Mack’s five sacks and three of his four forced fumbles in 2018 have come against DeShone Kizer, Sam Bradford, and Ryan Fitzpatrick, none of whom are known for pocket awareness. Mack is an exceptional player in his prime, and the Bears were wise to trade for him while the rest of their front seven is stacked. But the Raiders may also have made the right decision to avoid putting a second $120-million-plus contract, occupying 12 percent of their cap, on their books in the middle of a rebuild. (Not to mention rumors about potential cash-flow problems limiting the Raiders’ chances at a deal.)

As Gruden has reminded everyone multiple times since trading Mack, it’s hard to find a pass rusher, which is why the rebuild may begin on the defensive line. The Raiders now have three first-round picks in a draft in which defensive linemen fill more than half of Mel Kiper Jr.’s Big Board. (Oakland also has an additional Chicago first-rounder in 2020.) While quarterbacks on rookie contracts have become the go-to source of financially efficient production for NFL teams (see Jared Goff, Patrick Mahomes II, and Carson Wentz), pass rushers on rookie deals are the next best bargain (Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt, near the top of the sacks leaderboard, has a $2.1 million cap hit this year). If the Raiders are able to snag two pass rushers in the draft who will combine for less than half of Khalil Mack’s 2019 cap hit, it might look like a savvy trade by the time the Raiders get to Sin City (and if the Bears make an NFC championship game, it will have worked out for them too).

If it made sense to get rid of Mack, a decision on Carr may not be too far off. According to Spotrac, should the Raiders cut Carr after June 1 this offseason, as the Cowboys did to Dez Bryant, they could save $20 million on their 2019 cap and eat $7.5 million in dead cap money. Carr, like the Raiders, hasn’t returned to anywhere near his 2016 level of play, which earned him acclaim (and a $125 million contract). While Gruden waffles between stanning for his quarterback and throwing him under the bus, McKenzie said after the Cooper trade on Monday that nobody was untouchable. Gruden may love Carr, but it may be harder to pass up a true Gruden Grinder™ to begin the Vegas era if he can find one in the draft.

Of course, rebuilding the Raiders means Gruden needs to actually hit on the five first-round draft picks he’s collected for the next two years, and he’s already off to a mixed start on scouting. First- and third-round tackles Kolton Miller and Brandon Parker have struggled in pass protection, ranking 64th and 66th among 79 qualified tackles in pass blocking, per Pro Football Focus. Rebuilding also means developing talent, which is something Gruden never truly demonstrated an ability to do in his previous coaching life, when he won a Super Bowl in his first year with Tampa Bay on the back of a pre-existing Hall of Fame–caliber defense that slowly eroded until he was fired. Thus far, Gruden has shown he can do a lot of breaking down, but has yet to build anyone up outside of his old TV show.

Gruden clearly has the gall to make the unpopular choices, but the next question is whether he has the humility to accept that he needs help. Gruden is doing the work of a head coach, coordinator, and GM all at once, and whether it is delegating tasks on the personnel side, relinquishing play-calling duties to his offensive coordinator, or submitting to the analytics-department revolution (or all of the above), Gruden needs to hand some responsibility off or risk doing three jobs poorly. If he does turn the Raiders into a coherent organization no longer beholden to the whims of one man, Oakland could be striking an all-7s jackpot by the time it gets to Las Vegas. With a 10-year contract, Gruden can afford to dance to the beat of a different drummer. Like the Notre Dame fight song, the music is in his mind.