Jon Gruden is the master of the soundbite, thanks to his natural charm and years of polishing his delivery during his previous employment as an NFL television analyst.
So it came as no surprise that, when asked how involved he plans to be in personnel matters, the new Raiders coach lobbed the first thorny question gently onto a nearby flower bed. He plans to work together with general manager Reggie McKenzie, he said, adding that, “We aren’t always going to agree, and Reggie will probably win.”
“Look at the size of the guy,” Gruden cracked, referring to the former NFL linebacker who is substantially larger than his playing weight (240 pounds).
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But when the laughter dies – and it already is subsiding – the Raiders have several imminent issues to resolve. What happens with free agent running back Marshawn Lynch? Is there a cure for the dropped pass syndrome that afflicted the wide receivers last season? How best to bolster the offensive line, find playmakers on defense and obtain some much needed resolve and pass rushing up front?
First, though, there is this: Who makes these decisions? Who really makes these decisions?
Gruden, of course. Team owner Mark Davis expects more from his 10-year, $100 million investment than someone who designs plays, cusses up a storm on the sidelines, works into the wee hours, develops quarterback Derek Carr into a more explosive threat, repairs the defense, all while keeping the good folks in Oakland entertained before the Raiders abandon them for Las Vegas in two years.
Davis is not his father. He wants a friend, an older brother. He wants a lot. He wants Gruden to be the front man, the voice of the franchise, the pretty face the television cameras chase; to be the person he relies on to make major decisions, to counsel and console him in the late hours, to provide a connective tissue he hasn’t had since Al Davis passed away in 2011; to be a composite of the white knight and the man in the black hat, the one who hires and fires, and makes all the tough calls, including whether this arranged marriage with McKenzie is going to survive.
“They’re working their arrangement out,” Davis said at Tuesday’s news conference, sounding hopeful. “They’ll figure it out. Reggie wants to win. Jon wants to win. And I want to win.”
In a conventional professional sports organization, the GM is the key figure, the final arbiter, and the coach is an interested participant who operates as something of a sounding board with an opinion. Across the bay, 49ers GM John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan were hired a year ago, eased into this type of arrangement, as the saying goes, as collaborators for the greater good.
Other franchises strike their own deals, investing enormous personnel clout in coaches such as New England’s Bill Belichick and Seattle’s Pete Carroll, to name a couple.
Yet Davis’ decision to invest so heavily in Gruden comes with several red flags. For all his charisma, celebrity stature, Raiders success and a Super Bowl ring with Tampa Bay, he can’t answer any “what have you done for me lately” inquiries to satisfaction. It has been 16 years since he coached the “Tuck Rule Game” in New England – the game a young Tom Brady morphed into Tom Terrific – and nine years since he left Tampa Bay with a 57-55 record.
While his broadcasting duties undeniably afforded unique opportunities and uncommon access to practices, strategy sessions, personnel evaluations, scouting combines, as well as his own respected “QB Camp,” that’s still nine years removed from calling the plays. He returns to an NFL with restrictions on tackling techniques, practice lengths, the use of pads, modern medical protocols, and with social media only a click away.
Yet again, he need not be alone in this. McKenzie, who signed a four-year contract extension through 2021, could prove to be a major asset, sort of like a left tackle protecting Gruden’s blind side. The Raiders’ poor draft and disappointing 6-10 finish notwithstanding, the sixth-year GM, who was Executive of the Year in 2016, has done an excellent job clearing cap space and managing salaries, and deserves credit for drafting Carr, Khalil Mack and Gabe Jackson in 2014 and Amari Cooper a year later.
Additionally, who better than the no-nonsense McKenzie to offer insight about Lynch, whom Gruden has yet to meet?
Gruden is the man, but that doesn’t mean McKenzie can’t assume a meaningful role. It will come down to the human factors, as usual. To the dynamic in the room, to the degree of trust among the power brokers, to whether Gruden listens as well as he speaks. Once this little back-room drama is resolved, we will learn a lot more about Gruden, his Raiders, and what he has planned for his encore.