With Jon Gruden set to sign a record contract with the Oakland Raiders, Mark Davis has pushed all his chips to the center of the table.
Every offseason since Jon Gruden joined ESPN, there have been rumors that he would one day return to the sidelines. He has been linked to nearly every notable coaching vacancy of the past decade — NFL and college alike. And every offseason, the same things would be said — “this time feels different” to “he’s got that itch”, and so on.
So when rumblings of Gruden potentially returning to the NFL arose for the ninth consecutive offseason, it was difficult to take those rumors seriously.
But this time really was different.
We’re days away from the rumors coming to an end once and for all. Mark Davis is about to make Jon Gruden the highest paid coach in NFL history, thanks to a Godfather offer of 10 years, $100 million.
This is an unprecedented move and the ripple effect this will cause will be massive. Say what you will about the man, but Davis has officially changed the game.
Now, the big question that remains to be seen is will it all be worth it? With this type of commitment, multiple Super Bowl rings will be the expectation.
In the short-term, Gruden will have to guide the Raiders back to the playoffs for only the third time since he was sent packing in early 2002. The first two times didn’t end so well for the Silver & Black, and he’ll be tasked to make sure the third time is the charm.
Coming off a forgetful year in which Oakland regressed to 6-10 following a 12-4 outburst in 2016, it will be an uphill battle to immediately right the ship. There is reason to believe Gruden will be able to do it, and there is reason to believe why he can’t.
To start, there is excitement around the main pieces of his reported coaching staff — OC Greg Olson, DC Paul Guenther and STC Rich Bisaccia.
Even with the underwhelming addition of Olson, this won’t be nearly the same situation as when he was here the first time around. This will Gruden’s show — it will be his offense and he will be calling plays.
Olson will be there to help implement Gruden’s offense, and thanks to their familiarity from working together, this will be a seamless process. So Olson will be an offensive coordinator only in title, and truthfully, his work as a QB Coach is notable. Carr in his rookie season, Jared Goff this year and even Blake Bortles had a quality year when Olson was in Jacksonville.
Plus, Rich Gannon is expected to join as the actual QB Coach, so the trio of Gruden, Olson and Gannon will be the best offensive coaching Derek Carr has had in his career by a landslide.
On the defensive side of the ball, Guenther comes as a highly regarded defensive coordinator. The Bengals have often flirted near the top ten in many defensive categories during his tenure, and they have usually thrived in the takeaway department.
Bisaccia is one of the best special teams coordinators in the NFL and was with Gruden for his entire tenure in Tampa, so he is someone that could also serve as an assistant head coach as well. Bisaccia’s special teams units consistently rank in or near the top ten, per Football Outsider’s advanced metrics.
The rest of the staff will be filled out in time, and the one looming question is who the offensive line coach will be. Bill Callahan and Jeremiah Washburn are off the list, and there are no names currently linked by insiders. Perhaps Aaron Kromer can join Olson from the Rams, and he too was on Gruden’s staff in Tampa Bay. And maybe Charles Woodson could join as a DB Coach, but feels like more of a pipe dream than an actual possibility.
There is obvious concern about Gruden being away from coaching since the end of the 2008 season. A lot has changed since then, but his time spent at ESPN has kept him up to date. Not to mention the insider access he’s gained over the years, it wouldn’t be surprising if he had an encyclopedia’s worth of information on every team in the league. Before he’s announced as the head coach on Tuesday, he’ll be gaining insight on the divisional rival Kansas City Chiefs.
Gruden has had this entire time off to build a playbook and get prepped for his eventual return — especially if he knew that he would always be back one day. Now it’s just a matter of executing.
Going back to the mega-deal that Gruden is poised to sign, Davis is all-in on his dream candidate. In a relatively short period of time, Mark has now relocated his team to a city that critics, myself included, said he would never move to — and he got a handout of $750M to do it. And now he’s gotten the coaching candidate that many critics, myself included, said would never come back.
Reggie McKenzie will stick around, but there are mixed reports out there on whether or not his role will be diminished. Gruden certainly will have some say in personnel, and there may be a few other personnel guys joining the team. But if the next draft class doesn’t pan out, McKenzie’s seat will certainly get quite hot. If that happens, that is going to put Davis in a very tough spot. Especially considering Gruden isn’t the guy you want making roster decisions, and he’d be the easy pick to assume that responsibility.
Regarding the money, coaching salaries have zero effect on the salary cap and it’s Mark’s money to spend, so it’s a moot point to get up in arms about what Gruden will be paid. The bigger sticking point here is the length of the contract and the level of commitment being made as a result.
If the unfortunate happens and the team struggles for multiple years, at what point does Mark Davis fire Gruden? With 10 years and 100 million invested, can he even afford to fire him at all? That’s the scary part — this deal seems like a point of no return. 10 years, for better or for worse, of the return of Chucky. But if Gruden brings even one Super Bowl to the Raiders, it will all be worth it for a fan base that has yearned for a competitive team to cheer for since he left.
So get your popcorn ready for Tuesday. And who knows…maybe get your popcorn ready for Hard Knocks in the summer. Because the Raiders are once again center stage, and the dream is they’ll be on another stage hoisting a Lombardi in the near future.