Gru­den not afraid to get too close

De­spite 2-10 record, Oak­land coach still en­cour­ag­ing play­ers, hav­ing fun

The Mercury News - - Sports - By Jerry McDon­ald jm­c­don­[email protected] ba­yare­anews­group.com

ALAMEDA >> When the Raiders close the book on a for­get­table 2018 sea­son, they’ll have done two things that late owner Al Davis never be­lieved were nec­es­sary.

The first is fos­ter­ing an en­vi­ron­ment con­ducive to team chem­istry, and the sec­ond is es­tab­lish­ing a chain of com­mand. Jon Gru­den is re­spon­si­ble for both, and it has noth­ing to do with his self-char­ac­ter­i­za­tion this week that “I’m a grouchy son of a bitch.”

Grouchy Gru­den is the guy with the fa­cial ticks in­ter­spersed with looks of dis­gust and dis­tain on Sun­days, mo­ments that are solid gold for cam­era­men who are ze­roed in on the side­line.

Gru­den’s in-week de­meanor, by con­trast, is pretty much the same as it’s al­ways been even as the Raiders be­gin the fi­nal quar­ter of the sea­son Sun­day at the Coli­seum against the Pitts­burgh Steel­ers with a 2-10 record.

As the Raiders were do­ing their pre-prac­tice stretch­ing Fri­day be­fore prac­tice, Gru­den went through his usual rou­tine. He walked among the rows of play­ers, check­ing in with a hand­ful of them in­di­vid­u­ally. In al­most ev­ery in­stance, the player is left with a smile and a chuckle as Gru­den moves to his next tar­get.

Some­times it’s small talk about some­thing off the field, but it al­ways comes back to foot­ball. A re­minder, per­haps, of some­thing that showed up on film and needs to be cor­rected.

“Coach Gru­den is a unique per­son. He’s re­ally a funny dude,” run­ning back Jalen Richard said. “He’ll talk about some­thing you did in prac­tice yes­ter­day and say, `Man, get your (stuff) to­gether.’ He’ll mess with you. That’s why you see us laugh­ing. He’ll have those lit­tle con­ver­sa­tions to make sure ev­ery­body is straight.

“That’s what a leader is sup­posed to do — to let you know he’s not wor­ried. He’s still hav­ing fun, he’s still en­joy­ing it, even though we’re not where we want to be. If he’s do­ing that, then we should still be work­ing and hav­ing fun too.”

De­fen­sive line­man Fros­tee Rucker said Gru­den’s pre-prac­tice rit­ual is about “check­ing in, re­con­firm­ing. Re­it­er­at­ing things. We’re still here. We’re still bat­tling. Let’s have some juice to­day. I’ve been on teams where the coach doesn’t frat­er­nize with the guys or talk to `em at all. Gru­den’s thing is to make sure he’s con­nect­ing.”

Quar­ter­back Derek Carr, whose en­thu­si­asm knows no bounds, con­ceded he has felt dark clouds hov­er­ing in past sea­sons.

“I’ve seen times early in my ca­reer when I’m like, `Why is ev­ery­body so sad?,’” Carr said. “We are play­ing in the NFL.”

While the Carr-Gru­den re­la­tion­ship has been psy­cho­an­a­lyzed through the won­ders of game-day video, Carr said he finds their daily in­ter­ac­tions en­joy­able. Raiders de­fen­sive line­man Fros­tee Rucker says he and his team­mates are “still here” and “still bat­tling.”

“His voice, his jokes, his love for foot­ball, it never gets old,” Carr said. “At the same time, he gets his point across. He has not changed since I met him at the (Gru­den) quar­ter­back camp. He hasn’t changed since April. And he hasn’t changed since the sea­son hasn’t gone how he wanted.”

Out­side the team fa­cil­ity, Gru­den’s re­turn has been mocked and panned. It goes with the ter­ri­tory for a coach who re­ceived a long-term con­tract af­ter nine years in the broad­cast booth. It will likely con­tinue through­out the off­sea­son and into train­ing camp — all the way up to the point where the Raiders look like a team ca­pa­ble of be­ing 10-2 rather than 2-10.

But within the walls of Har­bor Bay Park­way, which has seen many a sea­son rid­den off the rails with dou­ble-fig­ure losses, there’s a much dif­fer­ent feel. Much dif­fer­ent than last year’s 6-10 face-plant, com­ing as it did af­ter a 12-4 sea­son.

Coach Jack Del Rio never en­vi­sioned be­ing fired, but he knew owner Mark Davis

was go­ing to in­sist on some changes in his coach­ing staff. The ros­ter and the staff seemed to look askance at each other from the mo­ment the Raiders got worked over by Wash­ing­ton in Week 3.

At this point, a 2-10 team would nor­mally find play­ers in a self-preser­va­tion mode, avoid­ing eye con­tact and sim­ply hop­ing to get through the fi­nal four weeks be­fore the night­mare is over.

The Raiders have 16 play­ers on in­jured re­serve, ty­ing Wash­ing­ton (and Gru­den’s head coach brother Jay) for the most in the NFL. Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper were traded for draft picks. There have been some ugly losses, none more so than a 34-3 hu­mil­i­a­tion against the 49ers.

If there was a time for Gru­den to erupt, that was it. It never hap­pened.

“I mean, I want to have fun do­ing this,” Gru­den said. “This is a great time, I think. The Raiders, we’re try­ing to bring the right kind of peo­ple that can build a cham­pi­onship team again. That in­cludes the rook­ies. That in­cludes the veter­ans. There’s a good ca­ma­raderie, a good morale here.”

Ca­ma­raderie and morale were al­ways low on the list of Davis, the man who hired Gru­den to be a head coach for the first time in 1998. In one of the fas­ci­nat­ing post press-con­fer­ence scrums af­ter the hir­ing of yet an­other new coach, Davis told re­porters he didn’t be­lieve in locker room chem­istry.

Davis rea­soned that chem­istry was some­thing that was talked about when a team wins, and that it re­ally played no role in suc­cess or fail­ure. You win, peo­ple say you have it. Lose, and you don’t.

The other thing Davis said pub­licly was he didn’t be­lieve in a chain of com­mand, and he was fine with ev­ery­one be­ing a lit­tle un­com­fort­able about the process and their role in it.

Chain of com­mand for the Raiders be­came crys­tal clear the mo­ment Mark Davis con­vinced Gru­den to re­turn.

“There’s a cer­tainty that he’s not go­ing any­where,” Rucker said. “That’s one thing we know. So you have to trust the process, and these guys are think­ing they hope to be here when it gets turned around. And it will be turned around.”

When and if that oc­curs is when we’ll know if 2018 meant any­thing at all be­yond an­other lost sea­son.

• Guard Kelechi Osemele (toe), run­ning back Doug Martin (knee) and wide re­ceiver Seth Roberts (con­cus­sion pro­to­col) re­mained ques­tion­able to face the Pitts­burgh Steel­ers.

JOSE CAR­LOS FAJARDO — STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

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