As eccentric as Brown can be, Gruden couldn’t have predicted the strange types of drama he already has presented. Frostbitten feet? An existential crisis over a new helmet? Brown is every bit the headache the Pittsburgh Steelers traded. And if we can assume the healing of his feet — which Brown colorfully described as “circumcised” and “born again” during the most recent HBO “Hard Knocks” episode — the 31-year-old figures to remain the ultra-productive playmaker who has finished with no fewer than 101 receptions, 1,284 yards and eight touchdowns in his past six seasons.
Gruden, the old coach who traded the best of his new tricks during his disastrous NFL return last season, deserves the headache. He acquired Brown partly because his decisions had left the roster desperate for a player capable of making a superstar impact. Now he needs a fruitful relationship with the diva receiver to erase the notion that his coaching style and tastes have become too antiquated for the modern NFL.
That was the concern entering into the 2018 season, after Gruden signed a 10-year, $100 million contract and resurrected his coaching career after nine years in television paradise. It’s amazing that Gruden is still just 55, but while his energy and charisma are intact, there was either something off about his team building feel last season or his torch-the-roster actions as the coach/unofficial general manager in Year 1 were necessary to expedite the improvement of a Raiders team that had talent but no flexible route to sustained success.
A year ago, Gruden and the Raiders traded their best player, outside linebacker Khalil Mack, rather than persist during a complicated contract negotiation. It seemed like a premature deal, shipping Mack to Chicago for two first-round picks. The Bears went on to pay Mack record-setting money for a defensive player, and he made their defense dominant again.
Back in Oakland, Gruden alternated between defending the decision and grumbling about lacking a pass rush. Then, in the middle of the 2018 season, he traded another prominent player, wide receiver Amari Cooper, to Dallas for a first-round draft pick.
It led to jokes that Gruden managed to make the Bears and Cowboys playoff teams while watching his own squad go 4-12. And it contributed to the perception that this version of Gruden — older and even pickier — cannot tolerate today’s stars, which would guarantee the failure of his ballyhooed reunion with the Raiders.
The truth probably resides in a gray area. But now Brown is here to provide the greatest test of the coach’s patience and ability to bring out the best in entitled star players. Finding a way to manage Brown is essential to the relaunching of Gruden’s career. It is the most important player-head coach relationship he has ever had.
On the surface, that might seem like too grand a statement. Gruden turned Rich Gannon into an MVP during his first stint in Oakland. He won a Super Bowl with Tampa Bay after gaining the trust of a defense-centric locker room full of characters and future Hall of Famers. He is tasked with fixing talented quarterback Derek Carr. Nevertheless, the Brown-Gruden dynamic rises to most significant because Brown is so mercurial a personality (ask Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin), so electric a player and so capable of elevating or ruining a team. And Gruden, no longer a sure thing, could set back the franchise’s rebuilding process — and his personal, out-of-retirement validation — if this partnership ends badly.
Brown is also a truth teller; many of his issues with the coddling of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger were spot on, even though he chose inappropriate methods to express discontent. To coach Brown, Gruden must be at his best. It requires being tough but flexible. It requires the delicate balance of appreciating Brown’s attributes — legendary work ethic, artful route running, impeccable hands — while massaging his issues and being prepared to handle absurd situations. And Gruden must do this after trading draft capital for Brown and guaranteeing him $30 million in a new contract.
The fact that Brown reportedly considered retirement and walking away from all the money over his displeasure with new NFL helmets should scare the Raiders. But to his credit, Gruden dealt publicly with the situation as well as any coach could. He defended the receiver during his temporary absence from the team and his NFL grievance. It could mean much to building trust.
“I support this guy,” Gruden said late last week. “I think that’s what needs to be said.”
Gruden also properly channeled his frustration over Brown’s feet. He is frustrated about the situation and loss of preseason time, but he is compassionate toward his player.
“I don’t know what anybody’s writing or anybody thinks, but this foot injury wasn’t his fault,” Gruden said. “This was a total accident. It really wasn’t his fault, and it’s a serious injury. I know some people are smarting at it, but it’s really not a laughing matter. The guy was hurt. He’s innocent. He didn’t do anything wrong.”
They’re an odd couple, Brown and Gruden. With the Raiders using the draft and going young, the receiver is also a peculiar fit on the roster. Brown is here to be a security blanket for Carr. He is also here because Gruden is too competitive to endure a rebuild without taking a few risks to circumvent a long process.
If Gruden can make it work with Brown, he will catch up to this game that supposedly passed him by. He won’t be the old coach who stayed away for too long. Brown has his born-again feet. Getting through to him would be Gruden’s born-again feat.