Jesse Pantuosco

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The Gruden Problem

Tuesday, April 3, 2018


It’s important to remember that Jon Gruden, Oakland’s $100 million retread of a head coach, wasn’t hired to make personnel decisions. Those duties, at least in theory, should fall in the hands of long-time GM Reggie McKenzie. But in looking at Oakland’s offseason transformation, it would be naïve to think McKenzie is running the show. Gruden’s fingerprints are all over the Raiders’ new roster and that’s a problem.

 

We knew the Raiders were taking a risk in bringing back Gruden, who last coached in the NFL with Tampa Bay in 2008. In his heyday, Gruden was lauded as a coaching prodigy. He lived up to that label by winning Super Bowl XXXVII, becoming the youngest head coach in history (at the time) to hoist the Lombardi Trophy. But Gruden has never made it back to the big game—in fact, he hasn’t won a playoff game in two tries since reaching his apex in 2002.

 

While many remember Gruden as an offensive mastermind, his coaching record, particularly during his seven-year run in Tampa (he went just 57-55) says otherwise. The 54-year-old has rehabbed his image in subsequent years with his stellar analysis on Monday Night Football as well as his enlightening Quarterback Camp series on ESPN. He may have been an engaging television personality—hence his endorsements with Bridgestone, Corona, Dunkin Donuts and Hooters, among others—but Gruden was merely an average NFL coach the first time around. Even his lone Super Bowl came on the strength of a stacked roster he inherited from Tony Dungy.

 

Giving full roster control—and $100 million—to an average-at-best coach who hasn’t been behind an NFL sideline in a literal decade seems like a reckless misstep for a team that looked like it was finally onto something after making the playoffs in 2016. But here we are, living in Gruden’s warped football dystopia, where long-snappers and converted fullbacks reign supreme.

 

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Let’s look at the damage, shall we? Gruden did get one thing right this offseason. While not necessarily an upgrade on T.J. Carrie, who departed in free agency, Rashaan Melvin was a solid addition to the Raiders’ secondary. A late bloomer, the 28-year-old was in the midst of a career year with Indianapolis in 2017 before a nagging hand injury cut his season short. But aside from that peace offering, Oakland’s offseason has been one head-scratcher after another.

 

Exhibit A: Doug Martin. It’s true that Martin was a first-team All-Pro with the Bucs in 2015. It’s also true that he has statistically been the league’s worst running back over the last two seasons, finishing dead last in yards per carry in both 2016 and 2017. On top of that, Martin turned 29 in January (that’s still younger than incumbent, Marshawn Lynch) and is coming off a PED suspension that cost him the first three games of 2017. The fact that Martin has a legitimate chance to start next season would be reason enough to question Gruden’s judgment, but it gets worse. Rather than staying the course with Michael Crabtree, who has led the Raiders in receiving touchdowns each of the last three seasons, Oakland sent the former first-round pick packing and replaced him with an even older Jordy Nelson, who is coming off a career-worst year in Green Bay.

 

Breno Giacomini did more than earn PFF’s worst tackle grade last season. He earned PFF’s worst grade of ANY player at any position. DeShone Kizer, Brett Hundley, Breshad Perriman—all of them looked like world-beaters compared to the Hindenberg known as Breno Gomes Giacomini. Naturally, he’s the current front-runner to start at right tackle for Oakland. And while division-rival Kansas City was putting the finishing touches on a three-year deal with playmaker Sammy Watkins, the Raiders were busy making Andrew DePaola one of the league’s highest-paid long-snappers. Neat.

 

How about Keith Smith? Ever heard of him? He’s a former linebacker who logged 128 snaps at fullback for the Cowboys last year. By the grace of God, the Raiders decided to give him a two-year, $4.2 million (*immediately spits out drink*) contract. Oakland already had an established fullback in Jamize Olawale (he’s since been traded to Dallas), but when Keith Smith is available, you don’t walk to sign that man—you RUN. The same goes for Josh Johnson, a 31-year-old journeyman the Raiders signed to compete with Connor Cook for backup reps behind starting quarterback Derek Carr. Johnson, a fifth-round pick of Gruden’s ’08 Bucs, last attempted an NFL pass in 2011, though he did have a few kneel-downs for the Bengals in 2013. Did I mention Gruden stole his own son Deuce away from the Redskins (coached by Gruden’s younger brother, Jay) to be the Raiders’ new strength and conditioning coach? That must have been an awkward phone call. Sorry, bro. It’s just business.

 

So how did the Raiders, pray tell, afford such lavish expenditures? Easy—they unloaded a pair of All-Pros. It’s boilerplate stuff, really. What could go wrong trading return man Cordarrelle Patterson (second-highest kick return average in NFL history) to the Patriots? Or cutting punter Marquette King (third in net punt average last season). Who needs that guy, right? The Raiders also declined to re-sign Sebastian Janikowski, he of 414 career field goals including a 63-yarder, an NFL record at the time, in 2011.

 

Right about now you’re probably wondering what in God’s green earth this Gruden fella is up to and I don’t blame you. I’ve found myself pondering the same thing. It’s one of the five stages of Gruden Grief. While the inner workings of Gruden’s brain will always be a mystery to us (I’m imagining a 24-hour loop of Spider 2 Y Banana), reports from beat writers Bill Williamson of RaidersSnakePit.com and Vic Tafur of The Athletic give us a window into the coach’s thought process. According to Tafur, there were “whispers of King’s personality not clicking with Gruden’s” while Williamson agrees that Gruden wanted to send a “message” by showing King the door.

 

This is a side of Gruden we didn’t see on MNF. Gruden was overwhelmingly positive as a television analyst but now that the man has a football team to run, he’s not messing around. Part of the fun of football Twitter is overthinking things and the outcry over King’s release is a prime example of us doing just that. King is certainly an upper echelon punter and a boon to Oakland’s special teams unit, but at the end of the day, he’s just a punter. Life will go on.

 

The problem isn’t King—it’s Gruden’s outdated, ego-driven approach to team building. You can make the argument, as many Gruden supporters already have, that King’s release was a cap-saving move (it freed up $2.9 million). Those same sheep will argue that King’s four personal fouls over the last two seasons were a detriment to the team. But if Tafur and Williamson’s reporting is accurate, the real reason the Raiders cut King was because of his colorful personality and the threat it posed to Gruden’s hardnosed, no-nonsense style of coaching. King isn’t a disruptive player—he’s good at his job and likes to have some fun. But Gruden wouldn’t know the difference.

 

Gruden said at the NFL Combine that he wants to bring the Raiders back to 1998 by playing a throwback brand of football. That’s almost as cringe-worthy as Bill Polian saying Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson should switch positions because he’s too small (6’3”/211) to play quarterback. Wake up, guys. This isn’t 1998. It’s 2018. Gruden can scoff at analytics all he wants but the reality is, forward-thinking teams like the Patriots and Eagles are the ones having success while members of the cocoon, as Evan Silva calls it, are being left behind.

 

Is it any wonder the Browns went 0-16 last year with defensive coordinator Gregg Williams trotting out the same ineffective defense week after week, regardless of opponent? The Patriots and Eagles were chameleons, routinely exposing their opponents’ weaknesses with exhaustive game-planning. We’re not even three months into the Gruden Era in Oakland—the second Gruden Era, I should say—and the man in charge has already admitted he’s not willing to play ball. Rather than adapt to an ever-changing analytics-driven landscape, Gruden is going to do things his way, which apparently means dumping a pair of All-Pro special teamers and a proven touchdown scorer in favor of a backup QB he coached 10 years ago, a running back who can’t play anymore and the worst tackle in football by a landslide, according to PFF.

 

There’s something to be said for unpopular personnel decisions. Bill Belichick makes them all the time. He traded Chandler Jones when it was time to pay him. He dealt Jimmy Garoppolo when it became clear that Jimmy G and Tom Brady could no longer coexist. He benched Malcolm Butler in the Super Bowl and let him walk in free agency. LeGarrette Blount, Jamie Collins, Dion Lewis, Logan Ryan … the list goes on and on. Those are tough moves to make and not all of them have worked in New England’s favor. Belichick’s decision to exile Butler may have cost the Patriots a Super Bowl this past season. But when you’ve won over 200 games and seven Super Bowl rings, you tend to get the benefit of the doubt. If Gruden was expecting to get that kind of leeway after spending a decade up in the broadcast booth, he’d better think again. This is the NFL, the ultimate “what have you done for me lately” league. The answer: not much.

 

As badly as Gruden squandered free agency, the Raiders still have some intriguing pieces. Carr is being paid like a franchise quarterback, even if he didn’t play like one last year, while pass-rusher Khalil Mack continues to be an unstoppable supernova. And despite frequent lapses, Amari Cooper remains one of the most promising young receivers in football. There’s no telling what could happen in a wide-open AFC West. But if Gruden can’t get with the times, 2018 could pass the Raiders by.



Jesse Pantuosco is a football and baseball writer for Rotoworld. He has won three Fantasy Sports Writers Association Awards. Follow him on Twitter @JessePantuosco.
Email :Jesse Pantuosco



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