After nearly a month of training camp in Napa and two preseason games, the Raiders returned to their team facility in Alameda for practice on Monday. But despite plenty of practices and eight quarters of what I’ll generously call “football,” we still have little to no idea of what to expect from these 2018 Oakland Raiders.
Yes, there have been some hints — it’s clear that new/old coach Jon Gruden is going to employ a zone blocking scheme in the run game, and we have a decent idea of what new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther will call for pass coverage — but more so than perhaps any other team in the NFL right now, these Raiders are an enigma.
And Gruden seems proud of that distinction, too.
So while there are two preseason games remaining — starting with Friday’s exhibition “showdown” with the Packers at the Coliseum — the likelihood is that the Raiders coach is going to continue to play his cards several layers underneath his vest until the regular-season opener on Sept. 10.
“If I told you what didn’t go … they might have all of our secrets,” Raiders quarterback Derek Carr said Monday, two days after the Raiders’ aggressively uninformative and unentertaining second preseason game Saturday. “We did not throw a lot out there. I think we’ll just continue to do that … until the regular season hits, when the wins and losses and those things are on coach’s record. I think that’s when it’ll change.”
Raiders owner Mark Davis hired Gruden and paid him a reported $100 million for many reasons — not the least of which was the coach’s engaging personality. Gruden might like to label himself a “football guy” through and through, but there’s always a bit of showman to him — that’s what made him so great on television.
Gruden has kept players off the field and his playbook basic so far in practices and preseason games. He’s keeping us guessing as to what his new offense — theoretically devised over the last decade — is, likely building to a grand reveal on “Monday Night Football.”
One last gift for his friends at ESPN? Perhaps.
But right now, the ambiguity surrounding this Raiders team is creating a football Rorschach test — come on down and project your baseless expectations onto the Silver and Black!
I can tell you what I’ve seen so far this preseason, for whatever it’s worth.
I’ve seen a team that looks significantly more professional than last year’s outfit. I’ve seen an offense that has playmakers, a ton of crossing routes, an offensive line that can manhandle the opposition but is instead cut blocking. I’ve seen an uber-talented starting quarterback who has a newfound fire to him — an MVP candidate who is being intellectually challenged for the first time in a while. I see a defense that might not be elite but is going to be well-coached and likely sound, even without Khalil Mack.
I’m seeing baseline competence, an AFC West that’s wholly available for the taking and a team that could win nine, 10 or 11 games.
Not bad, right?
But again, that’s just from practice observations — the positives are there, but success doesn’t mean much when it’s coming in an intrasquad setting.
At the same time, Gruden hasn’t put much (if anything) on tape for the rest of the league when he has to play another team. Carr has taken six preseason snaps through two games. Jordy Nelson has five snaps to his name this preseason. Marshawn Lynch has taken a grand total of two snaps, and his backup — Doug Martin — has taken four.
Gruden seems to revel in the notion that he’s keeping the entire league guessing.
“I think if you would have told me that Chris Warren would be my leading rusher and Paul Butler would be our leading receiver at this time, I would say, ‘That’s crazy. That’s unbelievable,’” Gruden said Monday. “But we don’t really want to see [our top players] a whole lot.”
And so long as Gruden is being coy, the ever-present possibility of the Raiders’ 2018 season being abject disaster will hang over this team.
No one knows anything right now — this is all conjecture and educated guessing — but when I talk about the Raiders with people whose league-wide NFL opinions I respect, far more see a five-win season than a five-loss, division-winning campaign.
Gruden’s “death to the preseason” tactics, while noble, certainly aren’t going to change anyone’s mind in that regard.
And comments about the number of castoffs that have been assembled in Oakland for what might be a swan-song season in the East Bay aren’t helping either.
Every team — even Cleveland — feels good about themselves in the preseason, but the Raiders’ outspoken confidence in this roster — one of the oldest in the NFL — and this coaching staff — led by a guy who, again, hasn’t coached an NFL team since “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” was the No. 1 movie in America — is self-incrimination waiting to happen.
“It blows my mind,” Carr said. “You see some of these guys that were on other teams that are not anymore. You’re like, ‘Man, how does that happen?’ We’re very fortunate and very blessed to have them.”
Of course, some of those re-tread players the Raiders have in key roles are rock-solid — neither Kelechi Osemele nor Rodney Hudson was drafted by Oakland — but it shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone why Gruden was able to sign players like Martin or linebacker Derrick Johnson.
As such, this summer, Pro Football Focus ranked the Raiders’ roster among the least talented in the NFL.
What have we seen this August to disprove that thesis?
Meanwhile, the Mack holdout doesn’t help anything. Yes, the Raiders’ defense has looked solid in the preseason, both in practices and games — Guenther is an excellent defensive coordinator, and the Raiders might have found steals in the draft along the d-line in P.J. Hall and Arden Key — but without the team’s best player, this defense is nowhere near optimized. Even if the Raiders can be competent without Mack in 2018, the defensive end not being in camp overshadows everything the Raiders are doing and particularly casts a pall on Gruden, who is, by virtue of *his* massive contract, the man in charge of everything in Alameda.
We can debate this 1,000 different ways, but ultimately, it’s hard to take anyone seriously as a strong decision maker when they’re yet to extend a fair-market deal to one of the NFL’s best players at a position of paramount importance, all while also refusing to listen to trade offers for the player.
It’s a mess.
Now, the Mack situation might develop clarity in the final weeks of the preseason, but don’t expect Gruden to offer clarity in other departments.
While we can see every other team in the NFL forming an identity this preseason, the Raiders are keeping everything behind closed doors. Is it all for show or for a competitive advantage? I suppose that’ll be determined by the team’s success.
What I can say is this: After months of waiting to see how this grand, expensive experiment would work, it seems as if we’ll have to wait a few more weeks to truly find out.
What a tease.