Rich Gannon. Tim Brown. Charlie Garner. Tyrone Wheatley. Bill Romanowski. These are my Oakland Raiders. That’s the team I came to know and the brand of silver & black football I fell in love with as a kid.
This may come as a surprise to some because I’m a young guy, just a college kid…and I think the assumption is that any 21st century kid completely missed out on the greatness of the Raiders and came up watching JaMarcus Russell and company ruin one of the most heralded franchises in sports. And yeah, that’s mostly true. I’ve said before, the only Raiders game I’ve ever had the privilege to go to was during a 4-12 season. I was there for Russell and Lane Kiffin and Nnamdi Asomugha and the years of Darren McFadden injuries, I saw the entire tragedy. But I’m a 21st century kid, and you know what I was there for every bit as much as the golden years of SpongeBob Squarepants and the Gameboy Advance? A golden era of Oakland Raiders football led by Jon Gruden. One of the best Christmas gifts I ever got was a full Raiders uniform with the #81 on it for Tim Brown. I had the helmet and everything, I was Tim Brown in the backyard. My first authentic NFL jersey was a #12 Rich Gannon. He was my guy, he was the NFL MVP at the time (now how many of you honestly remembered that). It wasn’t a good team in the early 2000’s. It was a great one.
I predominantly want to talk about Jon Gruden’s return to the Raiders and what that may mean for the team in 2018 and beyond but I’m not quite done with Gruden’s first stint yet. See, I don’t think people realize how great those Raider teams were and take the time to remember exactly how they were stopped from winning a Super Bowl. Allow me to jog your memory. In 2000 they made it to the AFC Championship where Rich Gannon was literally bounced from the game early in the 2nd quarter by the Ravens’ Tony Siragusa (who was later fined for the dirty hit). In 2001 they lost to the Tuck Rule which doesn’t even exist anymore and that really needs no further explanation. People do seem to remember that one. In 2002 the team Gruden built was piloted by Bill Callahan, who stuck to Gruden’s exact blueprint and finally broke into the Super Bowl…only to meet Gruden himself, coaching Tampa Bay, who knew exactly what to expect from the Raiders on every single play.
That three-year stretch is one of the most under-appreciated runs by a team in NFL history. By my calculations the Raiders could very easily have been champions all three years had they not run into utterly dumbfounding circumstances all three times. If you’ve ever seen the NFL Network series The Missing Rings you know they talk about teams that should have won the Super Bowl…but it’s usually one year where something crazy happens to prevent it. Like the ’98 Vikings with Morten Andersen’s missed kick in the NFC Championship for example. Even the infamous early ’90’s Bills really only ran into ill-fate once with Scott Norwood’s missed kick in the ’90 Super Bowl. All three years after that they ran into a team in the Super Bowl that was very clearly better than them. The early 2000’s Raiders however, ran into circumstances that are almost impossible to believe in three consecutive seasons. And they don’t even have an episode of The Missing Rings.
Now here we are in 2018 and Jon Gruden is back to right the wrongs and bring that missing ring back to Oakland (or Las Vegas, whatever). He has a team that’s shown a ton of upside and has a great young core but is coming off a season that was positively strange and frankly very bad. They took a huge step back from being a team in 2016 that looked like they were ready to become a Super Bowl caliber group. Of course now the question is- can Gruden turn the tide?
I’ll start by saying the news of Jack Del Rio’s firing hit me in all the wrong places. I was really behind what Del Rio was doing and despite a bad season, I thought he had more than earned the leeway to come back next season, especially seeing the way he’s handled himself and gelled with the team. He’s a pro and I haven’t said that about a lot of Raiders coaches in my lifetime. I was heated he got let go. So with that, I think any rumors for the new hire short of Bill Belichick would have fallen on deaf ears in my case. I had already decided they made the wrong move by firing Del Rio so whatever they did wasn’t going to be satisfactory, so naturally I grumbled about Gruden.
In my defense- it’s been long years since I’ve thought about Gruden the coach. I mean it’s been a decade since the guy has been an NFL head coach, I was like 10 years old the last time he was a coach in the league. My mind is in Gruden the broadcaster mode. The guy that yells funny things during the Monday Night Football broadcasts and talks about “Spider 2 Y Banana” with the quarterbacks in the NFL Draft. That Gruden. So the obvious question coming off that train of thought is, can Gruden still coach? After all, not a lot of head coaches have taken that long a leave and come back. For years people have thought coaches like Tony Dungy and Bill Cowher would come back and take another head coaching job but it hasn’t happened and those rumors slowly died off. People have finally accepted they’re not coming back. That’s where my mind was with Gruden. Rumors had been out there for years but I didn’t think he was budging from his comfy MNF spot as the highest paid on-air personality at ESPN. Of course we all know by now the Raiders made sure the pay isn’t an issue, but the hiatus still might be.
Dick Vermeil proved it can be done very successfully when he returned from a 15-year hiatus (1982-’97) to lead the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl title and had some successful seasons at the helm of the Kansas City Chiefs as well. That’s rare though. Joe Gibbs, a three-time Super Bowl championship coach, had much less success after 12 years away from the NFL (30-34 record and two playoff appearances in four seasons during his return). The return experience went even worse for coaches like Mike Ditka and Art Shell but honestly the sample size for this type of thing is very small. These extended leaves are pretty rare. What encourages me about Gruden specifically is that he has at least been very plugged into the league, we know this for a fact. He’s around the NFL, watching tape and seeing games in person every week and has been for the last 10 years straight. He hasn’t really spent time away from football and I think that bodes well for his return to the sideline. In fact, it may have even given him the opportunity to see the game from a different perspective and see different coaching styles from a birds-eye view, which may really work to his advantage if he comes back with a refined coaching strategy.
Now what about Gruden’s personality and methods? The NFL is a different league from the one he coached in in 2008, players are different. Society is different, the world has changed. I know this is big talk but that’s what we’re here for, we want to dissect to the realest levels. Gruden is going to be coaching in more of a players league than the NFL has ever been and I truthfully don’t know if he’s ready for that or not. Because of Gruden’s energy and passion I think he can easily be mistaked for a player’s coach and that’s not who he is. He’s in-your-face. He’s a light you up in film session in front of the whole team guy. Things are going to be his way 24/7 and if you’re not ready for that it will hit you the wrong way. Some of his former players have even expressed sentiment that Gruden’s personality can grate on you and there are questions of whether or not his style can gel in a 2018 locker room.
My thought about this is that there is going to be some dissension at first and there are going to be some players who aren’t with the program. They will be shown the door. For example, I don’t see Marshawn Lynch being on the roster by next season. Lynch is on his own program and he’s not going to be “embarassed” by Gruden or anyone else. Gruden won’t have guys who march to the beat of their own drum, only his drum. But I think the players who care about winning above all else and buy into the new system from day one will prove to be right in step with the new regime. Once Gruden has some time to add a few of his own touches to the roster as well, I think he will have every opportunity to put together a good team of players who want to play for him.
Above all these factors, there was one thing that swung me over to Gruden’s corner. I was watching the clips from his introductory press conference and listening to what he had to say in interviews following being hired and I realized he has specific passion for this Oakland Raiders job. We all know Gruden has a fire inside for the game of football that will never die but what I didn’t understand is that he has a true passion for the Raiders. He lights up talking about the opportunity to return to the town that raised him as a coach, saying he never wanted to leave in the first place. He says he wants to relish these two years in Oakland and bring great football back to the city. The dude is absolutely fired up to be back. He wants to succeed so bad I can just feel it. I see him talk about it and I believe it. And if there’s one common denominator I can draw between Gruden and Dick Vermeil, it’s that passion. Vermeil loved football, he loved his players, and upon his return to the game it was entirely evident that his energy was powering his teams. I see that potential in Jon Gruden. His energy can carry the Raiders to new glory.
Just like it’s 2001.