Oakland Raiders

A new-and-improved Jon Gruden? Why the Raiders coach is the same as he ever was

Raiders coach Jon Gruden encourages his team before a game against the Chicago Bears on Oct. 6 in London.
Raiders coach Jon Gruden encourages his team before a game against the Chicago Bears on Oct. 6 in London. AP

No one in the last decade has come into the NFL coaching ranks with a bigger target on his back than Jon Gruden.

Part of it was because Gruden had become a cottage industry since his first go-around. He was the crazy coach and ESPN star who pitched imported Mexican beer, chicken wings and tires for your car.

Part of it was the mythic 10-year, $100 million contract bestowed upon Gruden by Mark Davis — even if those numbers have never been verified by anyone. Gruden’s agent, Bob LaMonte, as well as Davis, love to have those numbers public. They provide a “Look what I did!” quality that is off the charts.

Since Gruden never discusses his own finances, it’s accepted as fact.

Mix in the Khalil Mack trade, as well as Gruden’s penchant for exaggerating to make a point and sometimes stretching the truth to an elastic extreme, and “Chucky” has been an easy mark for both mainstream and social media.

Now that the Raiders are 3-2 and have delivered two signature wins in his second era, it’s as if Gruden has rediscovered himself. A lost soul after nine years away, the swagger has returned and the man can actually coach again.

Take it from someone who has known him for more than 20 years, Gruden was never lost. He always knew how to coach. Last season’s deconstruction, although brutal to watch, helped set the stage for at least the potential of sustained success.

That doesn’t make Gruden a genius now that the Raiders are a game over .500 and tied with Kansas City in the loss column atop the AFC West. Rather, Gruden is an old-school football coach with values acquired through being a “piss boy” (his words) with the 49ers, a wide receivers coach with the Green Bay Packers, an offensive coordinator with the Philadelphia Eagles and a head coach with the Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

There are no guarantees the last season in Oakland will pay off in silver dollars that will fall from slot machines in Las Vegas. The schedule still suggests a .500 record would be a major accomplishment.

Gruden buried himself in football during nine years away from the sideline, seeking ideas and concepts from names big and small in professional and college coaching. All that football, including spread formations, no-huddle offenses and wide-open passing games, mostly just added wrinkles to the style of play Gruden truly loves.

That’s why the Raiders, when playing well, are running more than they’re passing. It’s why quarterback Derek Carr is content to pile up completions rather than wait in the pocket, fling it downfield and absorb an unnecessary hit.

Offensive packages that include a fullback and tight ends (plural) behind a massive offensive line are back in vogue.

Gruden isn’t averse to big plays when he’s got the personnel — which became a problem with his misplaced faith in Antonio Brown. But even if Brown was aboard, there would have been a lot more safe passes than daring ones, with a shot or two downfield per quarter and little more.

During his early days in Oakland, Gruden said, “The best thing about running for four yards on first down is you can run it again.” With rookie Josh Jacobs leading the running game, Gruden is in hog heaven — and he’s got some serious hogs up front to clear the way.

If you’re among the stat geeks imploring Gruden to open things up and throw it 20 or more yards down field consistently, get ready for a long winter.

The Raiders beat the Chicago Bears with a near-perfect plan of attack considering their injury status at wide receiver and Chicago’s penchant for rushing the passer. And stat mavens were shaking their heads at Carr’s average depth per pass.

It sounds good until you realize a well-executed crossing route with a short and less risky throw can gain as many yards as a deep heave which leaves the ball in the air longer and is more prone to being stolen by defenders.

Gruden isn’t every player’s cup of tea. While he never clashed with wide receiver Amari Cooper, Gruden never connected with him either. The weeding-out process in 2018 was considerable.

The change in Gruden has been mostly subtle. He seldom got negative with his team last season, even when it was warranted by the Raiders’ performance. He curbed some of the sarcasm.

Carr took the worst beating of his life and came away thinking things would get better.

“The cool thing about it now is I could see it last year. We’re going to be awesome. I know it,” Carr said in London after the Bears win. “I know we’ll be able to play in big games and beat people. That said, no one else believed him, except the people in our building and that’s all that matters. I think it’s carried over.”

The other change? Gruden, with some nudging from general manager Mike Mayock and the visual evidence of watching last year’s veteran players lagging a step or three behind, has embraced young players.

There are 13 rookies on the roster, and Gruden has not only accepted them, but developed them.

Gruden has made some personnel mistakes, and he’ll make some more. Yet Gruden hasn’t reinvented himself. He motivates through non-stop intensity and energy and is beholden to the same principles.

He’s the same guy. Always has been.