If the Oakland Raiders aren’t tanking games this season, they’re doing an incredible job of impersonating the Titanic. They’re going down after running themselves aground.
It is hard to believe that less than two years ago these same Raiders – well, actually not these same Raiders – were 12-4 and heading into the playoffs under the direction of head coach Jack Del Rio and general manager Reggie McKenzie. Now Del Rio is gone and while McKenzie remains most of the players he’s brought in the past six years have been purged by Del Rio’s replacement, Jon Gruden.
While it’s true the Raiders slipped to 6-10 last season, a slide that led to Del Rio’s dismissal in favor of a guy who hadn’t coached in a decade, that team was beset with injuries, internal problems resulting from quarterback David Carr’s refusal to take a knee during the National Anthem and a growing sense of ennui.
Gruden signed a 10-year deal reportedly worth $100 million to leave ESPN’s television booth for the sidelines and immediately went to work dismantling McKenzie’s creation in what many believe has become a power struggle over who will control the Raiders’ future. That, of course, assumes they have one.
Both Gruden and McKenzie deny any such power struggle but Gruden has gotten rid of over a dozen of the players McKenzie drafted in less than a year, including trading away the team’s best defensive player, Khalil Mack, and best receiver, Amari Cooper. Gruden also moved former Pro Bowl left tackle Donald Penn to right tackle to make room for one of his rookies, Kolton Miller.
Penn later went down with injuries and has been replaced by another Gruden rookie, Brandon Parker. In Oakland’s last game 10 days ago in London, Carr was sacked six times playing behind those two guys in a miserable 27-3 loss to Seattle. That brought to 17 the number of times Carr’s been sacked in six games. In 2016 he was sacked 16 times all season.
McKenzie drafted 50 players since his arrival in 2012 until Gruden arrived and took over the joint last offseason. Of those 50, only eight remain on the roster of Gruden’s Raiders and only two start. If that’s not a takedown of the team McKenzie built it’s a good imitation. It’s also become a poor imitation of an NFL team.
The dumping of Mack and Cooper for three first round picks has convinced many in Oakland that Gruden has given up on this season and may be in the process of giving up on Carr, who only 18 months ago was being touted as the league’s next great quarterback. That’s before Gruden showed up with an offense that allowed him to throw beyond five yards in that loss to Seattle less than a half dozen times.
Gruden bristles at any suggestion he is not trying to win this season, which may well be the last the Raiders play in Oakland even though the team’s state-of-the-art stadium in Las Vegas won’t be ready until 2020.
“I’ll say this, we aren’t tanking anything,’’ Gruden grumbled recently. “I hear the hatred out there…We are not getting up at 4 o’clock in the morning to tank it. Ain’t nobody tanking it.’’
With the trading of the 24-year-old Cooper to Dallas this week for a No. 1 pick less than two years after he posted back-to-back 1,000 yard receiving seasons, Gruden is having a difficult time convincing the players in his own locker room of that, not to mention Oakland’s loyal but skeptical fans.
One player anonymously told The Athletic this week, “Many of us realize we won’t be here next year. We’re just waiting to see if we will be here next week. You have to wonder if we’ve been playing for draft picks all along.’’
In other words, Jon Gruden may insist he’s not tanking the season, but his own players have their doubts. They’ve also begun to wonder how long McKenzie can keep insisting he and Gruden are on the same page when day after day the names on the page are not the players McKenzie drafted.
“Gruden and I, we work together very well,’’ McKenzie recently insisted. “Let’s get no mistake about him pushing me out. That’s not happening.”
Perhaps not but his players are being pushed out at a staggering rate. They may work well together but obviously Gruden has concluded the players McKenzie likes don’t work for him. If not, how much longer can the guy who picked them work with him?
The dismantling of a team that went 12-4 only two years ago has been precipitous and the results predictable. Oakland is 1-5, its locker room is in turmoil and the point differential between what they’re scoring and what they’re giving up is -66, third worst in the league. They have become the Raiders of the Lost Season, a team adrift, a ship taking on water while Gruden fiddles while insisting, “We’re trying to stay competitive and figure out a way to compete this next game.’’
The way to do that, if that really was his aim, is not to trade away his best defender and best receiver and put in front of his young quarterback two rookie tackles who appear far from ready to play in the National Football League. You look at those decisions and the gutting of McKenzie’s roster and there are only two explanations. Either the Oakland Raiders are tanking the season or they don’t know what they’re doing.
Or maybe both.