Dan Campbell was a joke at first. The kneecaps line he dropped when he was announced as the new Detroit Lions head coach in 2021 was a viral meme. People laughed at his Starbucks order. All of his coaching tropes and buzzwords were just familiar noise. Campbell had everyone’s attention, but nothing changed right away. The Lions won three games in his debut season with a bottom-10 offense and bottom-three defense. They were a tougher, more competitive team, but they were still the same old Lions in the win-loss column.
Then Campbell fired offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn that offseason and promoted Ben Johnson. Over the two years in which Johnson has called plays, Detroit has the fifth-best offense by expected points added per drive and the third-best offense by points scored. Johnson fixed Jared Goff, who was widely seen as a bridge quarterback. The Lions aren’t celebrating their first playoff win in 32 years with “Ja-red Goff! Ja-red Goff!” chants without Johnson. The league noticed. Johnson had three head coach interviews in the offseason immediately after the Lions’ offensive resurrection in 2022, and now he has five lined up this offseason.
The Las Vegas Raiders could have sought to replicate the Lions’ success by hiring Johnson. Instead, they didn’t even interview him; the Raiders hired their version of Campbell, Antonio Pierce, a longtime NFL player with nine games of interim head-coaching experience
So many coaches who have previously worked with Pierce have praised his mentality, leadership skills, and ability to communicate with players. It’s a lot of the same things that were said about Campbell when he was hired. Pierce is a no-frills motivator. He says everything players want to hear, and players want to perform their best for him.
The Raiders won five of their last nine games under Pierce, who was promoted from linebackers coach after Josh McDaniels was fired on Halloween. That run included a 42-point nail in Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley’s coffin and an upset win over the Kansas City Chiefs on Christmas Day. Pierce galvanized a locker room and a coaching staff that had all but given up. For the first time in a long time, the Raiders were playing inspired ball and seemed to be forming an identity—one of toughness and pride—and team owner Mark Davis jumped at the opportunity to keep it that way.
Pierce becomes the second coach hired this cycle, joining New England’s Jerod Mayo, who, like Pierce, is a former NFL linebacker who was promoted from within and, like Pierce, was hired without much of a search. Two years ago, Davis said the process that led to hiring McDaniels and general manager Dave Ziegler was “exhaustive” and “extensive.” This one, probably less so.
Rather than pursuing celebrated offensive play callers like Johnson, Tampa Bay’s Dave Canales, or Miami’s Frank Smith; respected defensive coordinators like Baltimore’s Mike MacDonald, Cincinnati’s Lou Anarumo, or Dallas’s Dan Quinn; or proven head coaches like Bill Belichick, Mike Vrabel, or, hell, even Jim Harbaugh, Davis kept the interview pool to just three candidates: Pierce, longtime NFL assistant coach Kris Richard, and former Minnesota Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier. Neither Richard nor Frazier coached in 2023, so they were allowed to meet with Davis for in-person interviews earlier in the week. (Interviewing both Richard and Frazier, who are Black, in person allowed the Raiders to be in compliance with the Rooney Rule.)
The NFL’s best coaches earn buy-in from the players and their staff by winning. Players’ coaches like Campbell and Pierce can create buy-in out of the gate, before the wins even start to pile up. That zag worked for the Lions, perhaps one of the few bigger catastrophe franchises than the Raiders this century. Davis better hope it works for Pierce in Las Vegas.
Pierce can’t do it all alone. He and the new general manager, whether it’s the current interim GM, Champ Kelly, or an outside candidate, will be inextricably linked. They will be tasked with upgrading (or blowing up) a limited quarterback room, which includes fourth-round rookie Aidan O’Connell and highly paid veteran Jimmy Garoppolo. Campbell and Lions GM Brad Holmes tore theirs down to the studs, trading away Matthew Stafford for Goff, a future third-round pick, and two future firsts. Then, the Lions duo went on a spree of adding talent through the draft and free agency, something the Raiders have failed to do consistently since losing the Super Bowl in 2003.
Whomever the Raiders hire at general manager will need a Holmes-esque run for multiple offseasons to right the ship in Las Vegas, and Pierce will need his version of Johnson and other topflight coaches on his staff. Retaining defensive coordinator Patrick Graham is a start, as the Raiders ranked 27th in points allowed per drive in Weeks 1-8 under McDaniels; they ranked second in the same statistic in Weeks 9-18. Graham recommitted to the players under Pierce’s leadership, and the players responded.
And maybe that’s all that matters. Speaking the language of the players, installing a mini basketball hoop, endorsing wrestling matches, and lighting victory cigars can make all the difference when everything sucks. And, boy, have the Raiders sucked.
The Raiders haven’t won a playoff game in 21 years; only the Miami Dolphins (23) have a longer active streak. The Raiders’ point differential over the past 20 seasons is negative-1,814, which is more than 300 points worse than the 31st-ranked Cleveland Browns. And the Browns are the only team with more losses than the Raiders in that same two-decade stretch. Pierce and Kelly will be tasked with turning around a team that has tried to turn around over and over for 20-plus years. No team in the NFL has had more head coaches than the Raiders (13) this millennium, and that’s without double-counting Jon Gruden’s two separate stints (1998-2001; 2018-21). McDaniels was only the latest disaster in what has been a relentless series of disasters. I should know.
“RUSS-ELL! RUSS-ELL! RUSS-ELL!”
I was 13 years old. Of course I chanted it, too. JaMarcus Russell was the quarterback of the future. The 2007 no. 1 pick was the Raiders’ savior waiting in the wings. (An older man who wore a silver and black Elvis costume to every game and bought weed off my dad told me so!) Russell was going to put an end to the Kerry Collins–Andrew Walter–Aaron Brooks–Daunte Culpepper–Josh McCown era. My dad and I, two sad season-ticket holders, along with every other Raiders fan, chanted Russell’s name at the Oakland Coliseum all the way up until he made his debut in Week 13 of his rookie season.
Play-action fake to Justin Fargas, rollout, and a 16-yard strike on the move to wide receiver Jerry Porter along the sideline. That was Russell’s first play. The roar of the crowd was probably the loudest thing I had ever heard in my lifetime up to that point. I cried happy tears for a second.
You know the rest of the story. Russell flamed out of the league in three years and solidified himself as one of the biggest busts in NFL history. The Raiders continued to miss on quarterbacks, coaches, and any draft pick they could get their hands on. The coaching staff and roster turnover was unprecedented. So much changed, but the results remained the same. The only constant was failure (and 49ers fans bullying me at school).
In that span of darkness, there have been other “RUSS-ELL!” moments. Other flash-in-the-pan heroes with silver-and-black capes who failed. Tom Cable, a different interim head coach turned head coach, was highly regarded by fans for a brief moment after punching an assistant coach in the face in 2009 and going 8-8 in 2010. That same season, journeyman quarterback Bruce Gradkowski won over Raiders fans’ hearts with a comeback win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Another journeyman quarterback, Jason Campbell, had moments in 2010 and 2011. Wide receiver Jacoby Ford had a moment. Jack Del Rio went for two that one time. Quarterback Derek Carr put together an MVP-caliber season (before breaking his leg on Christmas Eve on the only sack left tackle Donald Penn allowed all season) in 2016. Gruden at least played the nostalgia card well before resigning after The New York Times detailed emails of him using homophobic and misogynistic language. Rich Bisaccia, another interim head coach, won a Week 18 game over the Los Angeles Chargers to secure a playoff matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals in 2021 (I was there, too!). So many different moments, and nothing to show for it.
Pierce has won over the players. He has quickly established a Raider Way people didn’t know still existed. He’s smoked cigars no Raiders head coach has smoked in more than 20 years. His rendition of the iconic “RAIDERS” war cry is as good as any I’ve heard before. But I have heard it before, the same way I heard “CA-BLE” and “BRUUUCE” and “RUSS-ELL.” You’re a hero until you’re not. Raider Nation will curse Pierce’s name as quickly as they cheered it if he doesn’t win, and he won’t win on vibes alone. Pierce is more than a sound bite. He is a lot of what Campbell is to the Lions. But it’s not enough. Pierce won’t win without talent at the player and staff levels and culture. Until then, he’s just another moment.