- The Oakland Raiders have made several questionable moves since hiring Jon Gruden to be their head coach.
- Over the weekend, the Raiders traded their best player in Khalil Mack.
- Trading Mack, along with several other moves, had the NFL world questioning their decision-making and valuing of draft picks.
- Gruden is an influential voice on the team, and some in the NFL wonder if it needs to be balanced by others.
Just days before the start of the 2018 NFL season, things are looking rockier than ever for Jon Gruden and the Oakland Raiders.
In the months since luring Gruden out of the booth with a 10-year, $US100 million contract, the Raiders have made a series of puzzling moves that have left some wondering if Gruden’s been out of the league too long to have such an influential voice in an organisation.
The deal that could define Gruden’s tenure
The most significant move, of course, was the Raiders’ decision to trade star defensive end Khalil Mack to the Chicago Bears on Saturday. Mack had been holding out for a record-setting contract, and evidence mounted over training camp that the two sides were not close on a deal.
The Raiders’ return was high – two first-round draft picks – but the NFL world has nonetheless questioned the deal.
First, Mack is one of the three best pass-rushers in the league, a former Defensive Player of the Year entering his prime. To give up on arguably the team’s best player over money, particularly after lavishing quarterback Derek Carr with a five-year, $US125 million contract, is a questionable method of team-building.
But there is also some question of the deal itself. The Raiders also sent a future second-round pick to the Bears to discount the two first-rounders. That makes the Bears unequivocally the winners of the trade – they got an elite talent and a future pick to ease the pain of giving up two firsts.
On Sunday, Gruden addressed the media about the trade and made several comments that only added to the confusion.
Gruden at once said that the negotiations with Mack were a “daily” topic within the Raiders, that he wasn’t involved in the day-to-day talks with Mack, and that the team made a decision to deal Mack to the Bears as one.
Gruden also suggested that it would be economically challenging to pay Mack top dollar while paying Carr at top dollar. He said the team has future free agents to take care of as well.
As NBC’s Peter King wrote, with the salary cap rising $US10 million nearly every season, the two combined deals of Carr and Mack would have made up about 21% of the Raiders’ salary cap – hardly a back-breaking number, especially if both are franchise players.
The Ringer’s Robert Mays said on “The Ringer NFL Show” podcast that there were mumblings that Mack was not impressed with Gruden, to say the least.
“What I’ve heard from people who have been around the Raiders in the past that apparently when they came to Mack with an extension, he was so turned off by Gruden. That it really did put a painfully and irreparably sour taste in the mouth of both those parties when they were talking,” Mays said, adding: “Apparently it started off on such a bad note, that it was going to be really hard to come back.”
Furthermore, there’s the question of how the locker room will respond. Players were clearly shocked by the trade. Carr and linebacker Bruce Irvin both tweeted versions of “No way” (Irvin’s was more explicit) when the deal was reported. Others in the Raiders locker room were taken back, too.
“Shocked,” linebacker Jelly Ellis told The Athletic’s Vic Tafur. “A lot of people calling and texting me, ‘Say it ain’t true.’ But it was true … It was true.”
“I was looking forward to lining up with him,” veteran defensive end Frostee Rucker told Tafur. “But this is the business. We had a whole camp to make sure we were prepared without him.”
As King also noted, it’s possible that the trade has ramifications around the team. From King: “Gruden had to make this call. And the locker room is thinking, ‘If Khalil Mack, probably our best player, isn’t worth 10 per cent of the cap through his prime, then who are they going to pay around here other than the quarterback?'”
Other moves lost in the Mack trade
The Raiders made several other head-scratching moves this weekend that were overshadowed by the Mack deal.
On Saturday, the Raiders cut wide receiver Martavis Bryant from the team. The Raiders traded a third-round pick to the Pittsburgh Steelers for Bryant in the offseason, hoping to add a needed vertical threat to the offence.
There have been rumours of a pending drug suspension for Bryant, his third in four years. Perhaps the Raiders knew he would not be playing for them for a long time, so they cut ties now. Regardless, it’s a questionable use of resources to trade for a player then cut him before playing a snap.
The Raiders also gave a sixth-round draft pick to the Buffalo Bills for backup quarterback A.J. McCarron. Gruden explained on Sunday that the Raiders’ staff had some familiarity with McCarron (as did he from his “QB Camp” series) and they wanted to bring him in to back up Carr.
It’s a low-cost move, but still, one that raised some eyebrows. First, backup quarterback E.J. Manuel had played well in preseason and was cut to make room for McCarron. Second, McCarron just lost a quarterback battle on the Bills to rookie Josh Allen and second-year quarterback Nathan Peterman. Now, because of the late timing, if Carr gets injured, the Raiders’ backup will be a quarterback who did not have a full training camp in Gruden’s notoriously demanding system.
These moves only compounded an offseason that saw the Raiders get older at several skill positions. They signed wide receiver Jordy Nelson, 33, and running back Doug Martin, 29, after they were cut by the Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, respectively.
They also didn’t do much to address a defence that ranked 29th in defensive DVOA, and that was with Mack.
Gruden, of course, is not the sole decision-maker (he’s not even the GM), but many in the football world believe his influence is still powerful.
The Athletic’s Tim Kawakami argued that Gruden needs another evaluator by his side to control his impulses.
Kawakami also noted that things don’t seem to be shaping up well for GM Reggie Mackenzie, noting that many of his recent draft picks are already gone and that the roster is thin.
If the Raiders do look for a new GM, it suggests Gruden will continue to have an influential voice in the organisation (natural, given the investment in him). Given the moves the team made this offseason, it’s worth wondering if the Raiders need someone to balance out Gruden’s decision-making.
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