There were few hints as this NFL season began that the Oakland Raiders would be anything but dreadful again. They were coming off a pitiable 4-12 season in Jon Gruden’s return to coaching last year after leaving the “Monday Night Football” broadcast booth. Their offseason addition of wide receiver Antonio Brown came undone amid the drama of Brown’s ailing feet, helmet grievances, a practice field clash with General Manager Mike Mayock and social media antics.
Any notions that the Raiders would be improved in Gruden’s second season, with Brown gone and pass-rushing sensation Khalil Mack long gone after being traded before the 2018 season, seemed like delusions.
And then came Monday night’s 24-16 triumph at home over the Denver Broncos. The Raiders not only won, they won in impressive and promising fashion, with a solid performance by quarterback Derek Carr being bolstered by contributions from newcomers and youngsters. Rookie tailback Josh Jacobs looked like a legitimate centerpiece runner. Free agent addition Tyrell Williams resembled a deep-threat receiver capable of replacing Brown as the No. 1 wideout.
Things get tougher this weekend as the Raiders prepare to host the Kansas City Chiefs and the league’s reigning MVP, quarterback Patrick Mahomes, in their Week 2 game Sunday. But former Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon said he already has seen enough to be convinced that this team, even after a training camp spent in front of the “Hard Knocks” cameras followed by the chaos of Brown’s exit, is progressing toward better times.
“I think it’s an absolute,” Gannon, now an NFL analyst for CBS, said by phone this week. “He wasn’t really with them all of training camp. This team got better without him. So much was made about him and everything that happened. There was ‘Hard Knocks’ and all that. And a lot of people overlooked the fact that this team got a lot better.”
The victory Monday gave Gruden perhaps the first chance of his second go-round with the franchise for a told-you-so moment.
“What happened here the last couple days may have been big news to some,” he said after the game. “But there were no distractions. I think you could tell that. ... Our team was ready to roll. ... I’m never going to bring it up again. That incident, whatever you call it, had nothing to do with our team’s focus or preparation. That’s it. End of story. Sorry.”
The narrative in training camp was that the Pittsburgh Steelers, after trading Brown to the Raiders in March, would benefit from a calmer atmosphere without Brown and departed running back Le’Veon Bell. It would be addition by subtraction. But few figured that would apply to the Raiders when they accommodated Brown’s request last Saturday, made via Instagram, to be released, ending his tumultuous stay without playing a regular season game for the team.
“I think a couple weeks ago, they still felt like they were going to have him,” Gannon said. “But Jon has always been able to shift gears quickly. Their top target in free agency was Tyrell Williams. They’ve got a feature back. Derek Carr was really good [Monday] night. The offensive line played well. I thought they were the better, more physical team, and I think most people would agree.”
Gruden was subjected to plenty of criticism, ridicule and derision last season after being lured back to the sideline by Raiders owner Mark Davis with a 10-year contract said to be worth $10 million per season. He traded Mack, a former NFL defensive player of the year, to Chicago, strengthening a defense that carried the Bears to the NFC North title. He traded wide receiver Amari Cooper to Dallas last October, helping the Cowboys take the NFC East crown.
The one NFL franchise not benefiting from Gruden’s return to coaching, it seemed at the time, was the Raiders.
“It comes with the territory,” Gannon said. “There was so much made last year about Jon coming back and restoring the Raider tradition and all that. The reality was, that was a bad team. ... He’s turned over the roster really quick. I know Jon’s getting it where he wants it now. ... They were criticized so much for the Mack trade. But how many games would they have won last year even if they’d had him? If you tie up all that money in one person, how do you address the rest of the roster?”
The Raiders began this season with a dozen rookies on their roster, and 11 were active on game night against the Broncos. Thanks to the Mack and Cooper deals, the Raiders had three first-round picks in this year’s draft. Gruden and Mayock, the former draft analyst for the NFL Network hired by the Raiders on New Year’s Eve, used those choices on defensive end Clelin Ferrell, Jacobs and safety Johnathan Abram.
The Ferrell pick at No. 4 was surprising and drew criticism as being a draft-night reach. But all three first-rounders had their moments Monday night. Jacobs ran for 85 yards. Ferrell had a sack. Abram was credited with five tackles and a pass breakup, although he also suffered a season-ending shoulder injury.
The Brown travails certainly weren’t forgotten. But at least Gruden and the Raiders could begin to move on.
“As much as people talk about it — I mean, my God,” Gruden said after the game. “I feel like someone is smashing my temple on the side of the head. Get over it, man. It’s over. We were good in the preseason without him. We’re going to be fine without him. We wish him the best. But we gave it a shot. Now New England gets their turn. Good luck to them. But I can’t just deal with it any more, really. Sorry.”
The Steelers began their season with a lopsided defeat Sunday night at New England. They, rather than the Raiders, looked like the team that truly missed Brown in Week 1. So far, at least, it is the Raiders and not the Steelers who are making that addition-by-subtraction thing work.
“They’re bigger and stronger on both sides of the line,” Gannon said. “They’re faster. The three draft picks, they all played well [Monday] night. I give Derek Carr and Jon Gruden a lot of credit. This team is a lot better than a year ago. I’m not going to say how many games they’ll win or that they’re gonna go to the playoffs or anything. But they’re a lot better.”
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