Column: Raiders should view exit of Jon Gruden as opportunity


Whoever leaked Jon Gruden’s inflammatory emails may have done the Las Vegas Raiders and their owner Mark Davis a big favor.

Gruden resigned last week after his racist, homophobic and misogynistic private comments of several years ago, when he was ESPN’s analyst on “Monday Night Football,” were made public.

We’ll see what the Raiders can do without Gruden, but it wouldn’t be a huge feat to exceed the .415 winning rate and 22-31 record his program compiled in the past three-plus seasons.

For Davis, getting out from under a heavy contract that ran through 2027 represents an opportunity to find better value for the dollar. The Gruden Raiders went 4-12, 7-9 and 8-8, never making the playoffs, and were 3-2 this year when the coach stepped down.

The 53-game performance didn’t approach Gruden’s previous chapter with the club. Back then, between 1998-2001, his four teams produced a combined win rate of .594 and two playoff berths in 64 games.

The 10-year contract worth up to $100 million Davis issued Gruden to persuade him to leave his broadcasting job in 2018, presumably empowered Gruden to not only coach the Raiders but have final say on their personnel moves.

Davis believed, in other words, that Gruden could do for the Raiders what Bill Belichick has done for the New England Patriots.

It didn’t pan out, for the same reason Las Vegas casinos rake in hordes of chips every day.

The odds were stacked against Gruden, who for all his famously obsessive film study, didn’t have a scouting background on par with that of many successful NFL general managers. Most NFL owners deem the two jobs too big for one man. Besides, the roles of head coach and GM had become only more complicated during Gruden’s nine years of broadcasting. Analytics — a field Gruden has fired — has become a bigger piece of the puzzle than when Gruden coached the Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers between 1998-2008.

Gruden the past three years reaffirmed his reputation for offensive expertise. Quarterback Derek Carr’s performance improved, and Gruden additions Darren Waller, Kolton Miller, Henry Ruggs and Hunter Renfrow joined Carr in forming a good nucleus.

A .415 win rate can’t be labeled a success, however.

“It’s hard for me to give Gruden a passing grade, because it never took hold of what I expected,” former Raiders All-Pro tackle Lincoln Kennedy said by phone Tuesday.

Kennedy, who played for Gruden’s Raiders between 1998-2001 and observed Gruden 2.0 as a radio broadcaster, said Gruden’s trades of two stars he inherited — Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper — were defensible because they created the opportunity to build essential depth and roster balance. Kennedy withheld final judgment on the much-panned selection of end Clelin Ferrell fourth overall in the 2019 draft, saying Ferrell belongs at defensive tackle.

“But,” he said of Gruden’s record on personnel moves, “it’s got to work. If you’re going to do these moves,, it’s got to pay off. You’ve got to have wins, you’ve got to be chasing a championship. The reason it worked for Belichick is because they were perennial playoff teams if not Super Bowl teams.”

What’s next?

In the team’s first game without Gruden, the offense caught Kennedy’s eye. I have noted a “counter trey” run and a distinctive screen that contributed to the 34-24 victory at Denver.

“Those are all true bonuses that I did not see in Gruden’s tenure,” he said. “More importantly,” the former lineman added, “Derek Carr has had even more control of the offense in the check-with-me system.”

Kennedy likes special teams coaches as potential head coaches, noting they develop relationships with players on offense and defense.

If the Raiders were to reach the playoffs this year under longtime special teams coach Rich Bisaccia — a victory Sunday as a three-point favorite against the Philadelphia Eagles would send them into the bye week with a 5-2 record and in sole possession of first place in the AFC West — it wouldn’t bother Kennedy if Davis removed Bisaccia’s interim tag as head coach.

With 11 games to go, it’s a mystery what the Raiders will become under the 61-year-old Bisaccia, who can lean on veteran coordinators in Gus Bradley (defense) and Greg Olson (offense).

Looking backward, Kennedy is still trying to reconcile what he knew of Gruden firsthand and the private emails that revealed a different Gruden.

“I was stunned,” said Kennedy, a graduate of San Diego Morse High. “I was stunned because in my 24 years of being around Gruden or knowing Gruden, I never heard that type of rhetoric. I never heard that type of conversation or had been involved with that. I’m still trying to process all of it. Because in all honesty, I don’t know if I know the true person who Jon Gruden is or who Jon Gruden is to me.”

As the shock waves of ouster-by-email recede, the Raiders should view Gruden’s exit as an opportunity.