Raiders owner Mark Davis should stop fretting about his team winning its first football game of the season. His team is 0-4. So, no, this is not the year of the great turnaround. This is last year, the year before that, and the year before that.
The pattern isn’t pretty. The trend is pretty pathetic, actually, which is why Davis should let Reggie McKenzie monitor the current mess and spend every waking hour in pursuit of the individual who would immediately restore credibility and provide a dynamic Bay Area alternative to the 49ers’ Jim Harbaugh.
Jon Gruden. There he sits, in one NFL broadcast booth after another, analyzing, chatting, charming. But does he really want to spend the rest of his career dressed in suits, his boyish features caked in makeup, while reading teleprompters and staring into cameras? The only time he gets his hands dirty these days is when he takes out the garbage.
If you are Davis right now, two days removed from the Raiders firing yet another coach after consecutive 4-12 seasons and a winless record into the bye week, you know what you have to do. You pay off Dennis Allen, thank interim coach Tony Sparano for taking the job on a temporary basis, and go get Gruden. Rejection is not an option. As the late Al Davis might have advised his heir, had he been able to set aside his massive ego for an entire conversation and for the sake of his franchise, “Don’t allow history to repeat itself. Don’t make the same mistakes I did. Just win, son.”
For those paying attention – and social media has been sizzling with the topic in the aftermath of Allen’s ouster upon the team’s return from London – the Raiders and their telegenic one-time coach remain the match made in football heaven. Or call it a rematch, if you will, one that for years has intrigued the younger Davis.
Moments after McKenzie formally introduced Sparano as interim coach, Davis was cornered by a group of reporters at the team’s headquarters in Alameda. When asked if he planned to approach Gruden about a possible return, he was evasive and rambling, but not enough to discourage speculation.
“He may reach out to me,” said Davis, coyly. “I may reach out to him. I may reach out to anybody.”
That was Tuesday. On Wednesday, chatter about a possible Gruden-Raiders reunion became so intense that Gruden issued a statement suggesting he has the best seat in the house and isn’t interested in standing on the sidelines.
“I’m not thinking about coaching,” Gruden said in a statement released by his employers at ESPN. “I’m thinking about heading to Washington, watching the world champions and my brother coach.”
But worth noting is this: Gruden never said never. Like any slick attorney, or someone who can easily afford said slick attorney, he parsed his words, leaving something to the imagination. For long-suffering Raiders fans, this non-denial denial was the best news they’ve heard in years.
Long shots occasionally score. In this situation, the DNA could prove to be a plus. Before his franchise became a running joke, a former American Football League Commissioner named Al Davis helped persuade Joe Namath to sign with the New York Jets, which hastened the AFL-NFL merger. And conflict in sports isn’t always a terminal disease. Though the elder Davis and Gruden clashed almost from the start, the Raiders reached the playoffs in their final two seasons together (2000 and 2001). Ironically, after the late owner traded his young coach to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the ensuing offseason, they met again in the playoffs, this time on opposite sidelines.
With Bill Callahan wearing the headset and Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon enduring an unusual, utterly miserable afternoon, the Bucs won the 2003 Super Bowl in a 48-21 rout. Payback was hell – blue-eyed little Chucky sticking it to the old man – and the ensuing seasons proved to be even worse. The Raiders haven’t produced a winning record or reached the playoffs since that 2002 season. The past decade instead can be characterized by front office instability, ill-advised free-agent signings, terrible drafts, though rookie Derek Carr has shown enough promise these past few weeks to hint that the quarterback drought might mercifully, maybe, be nearing its end.
And all those coaches? In the post-Gruden era, the Raiders have auditioned Callahan, Norv Turner, Art Shell, Lane Kiffin, Tom Cable and Hue Jackson – who compiled a respectable 8-8 record but was dumped by McKenzie in his first act as general manager. The next man up was Allen, who was a goner after the loss in London, and who bequeathed the position to his line coach Sparano, who barring an improbable turn of events, would be wise to rent, not buy.
If Mark Davis truly wants to pull off a fast one, to come up with the best sales job of his career, he should be talking to Gruden as we speak, quietly, persuasively, relentlessly. He should promise the sun, the moon and the stars, the very keys to the franchise: Input on the selection of the next general manager; influence on personnel decisions; the power to overhaul the culture of a famously paranoid organization; a thick, lucrative contract with long-term security.
Davis also should remind Gruden that there are dozens of broadcasters with pretty faces holding microphones and staring into cameras. Elite NFL coaches are the few and the formidable. Once, he was among them.