The Washington Post Sunday
The Raiders still matter. (That’s bad.)
Lawsuit and concerns about Gruden’s role keep dismal Oakland relevant
As the NFL season winds down and Jon Gruden’s first year back in coaching comes to a close, the Oakland Raiders still matter. Unfortunately for them, it’s for all the wrong reasons.
“We’re 3-10,” Raiders owner Mark Davis recently said at an owners’ meeting in Texas, “but for some reason we’re still relevant.”
The Raiders still matter because they, along with the league and its 31 other franchises, were sued by the city of Oakland, which is seeking damages and alleging that the team’s pending move to Las Vegas violates antitrust laws.
The Raiders still matter because, even in mid-December, no one seems to have any idea where they’ll be playing next season.
The Raiders still matter because the two standout players they traded this year, pass rusher Khalil Mack and wide receiver Amari Cooper, have helped their new teams, the Chicago Bears and Dallas Cowboys, become playoffbound NFC heavyweights.
The Raiders still matter because they just fired their general manager, Reggie McKenzie, in a move that made official what was already apparent: Gruden has the power on the football side of the operation. And that’s important because it’s clear that Gruden, and probably Gruden alone, will decide what to do with the three first-round picks that the Raiders possess in the 2019 draft, including one from the Bears in the Mack trade and one from the Cowboys in the Cooper deal.
Is Gruden having that kind of authority over the roster a good thing for the Raiders? Davis handed Gruden a 10-year contract worth an estimated $100 million to leave ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” broadcast booth and return to the sideline. And while the intensity and trademark “Chucky” grimace remain, little else that Gruden has done this season has been reminiscent of the Super Bowl-winning coach he once was.
Asked recently to evaluate Gruden’s first season, Davis said, “It’s not over.”
Technically, that’s true. The Raiders have three games left, beginning Sunday at Cincinnati. They actually are coming off their best victory of the season, an improbable triumph over the Pittsburgh Steelers at home this past Sunday.
But the competitive portion of the Raiders’ season ended long ago, amid their 1-8 start. That raised questions about whether Gruden, who had last coached in the NFL with the 2008 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, still had it.
The decisions to trade Mack and Cooper certainly haven’t helped. Mack, a former defensive player of the year, is the centerpiece of a superb Chicago defense that has the Bears atop the NFC North. Cooper, a two-time Pro Bowler for the Raiders, has been a key part of the Cowboys’ turnaround that has them leading the NFC East.
Maybe the Raiders were, as they have said, unable to meet Mack’s contract demands. Perhaps Cooper simply did not fit into Gruden’s offense, as Davis has suggested. Cooper has said that Davis was behind the trade with the Cowboys, but would Davis have overruled his $100 million coach if Gruden really wanted to keep Cooper? That seems implausible. Whatever the case, the Raiders now are in the position of having to hit — and hit big — on their first-round picks just to break even. And it’s Gruden who will make the calls.
“One of the issues that we have right now is that, when you’re dealing with player personnel and general managers, they’re on a different schedule than the football team is,” Davis said of the Raiders’ GM search. “The general manager’s season ends basically in April and May, after they’ve drafted the players and gone through the first series of free agency. So right now there’s a lot of people that are on other teams that may be suitable for the Raiders. But we can’t talk to them. We won’t be able to talk to them until May or so. So right now, we’re limited to talking to people who are not on other teams or in the college ranks or something of that nature.”
Of the decision to fire McKenzie, Davis said: “I don’t want to get into the decision-making process. I’m so grateful for everything he’s done for our organization. He came into a very tough situation and was very unselfish, didn’t make the quick moves or things that could have maybe looked good for the short term. He tried to create a long-term plan. He really did a really good job of getting the [salary] cap and everything in good [shape]. I can’t say enough about him.”
The Raiders are engulfed in uncertainty. At this point, there is no way of knowing whether the Christmas Eve game against the Denver Broncos will be the final game they play in Oakland. Davis did not rule out playing another season in Oakland, even with the lawsuit, before the move to Las Vegas in 2020. But he also did not rule out playing in San Diego; Santa Clara, Calif.; San Antonio or even a temporary site in Las Vegas.
And, wherever they play, there is no way of knowing whether the team the Raiders put on the field will be any better than this season’s version.
In Gruden they trust? The Raiders don’t have any other choice at this point, do they?