The Secret Genius of Jon Gruden
Full disclosure, I am a life-long 49er fan. That being said, I have watched the Raider organization operate across The Bay and can also feel as though we are looking into a mirror. It is obvious to any NFL observer that this era of Raider football is more uncertain than any team in recent memory.
At the center of this nucleus is head coach Jon Gruden, who went straight from the television booth to the Raiders sideline, fresh off a 34-3 Monday Night beatdown by the 49ers and their 3rd string quarterback Nick Mullens in Week 9.
Many of the team’s critics are wondering aloud if Gruden is worth even a fraction of the $100 million over 10 year contract that owner Mark Davis has agreed to give him. There are daily rumblings and media leaks that Gruden has lost the locker room. The recently traded Amari Cooper is having a mini-resurgence for Dallas and was at the time a very unpopular move in the Raider locker room, but came with a high price tag of a coveted first round pick in return. So here’s where things get tricky.
Gruden has quietly become the master of not tying the Raiders up to large long term contracts while using his perceived ‘overpriced’ assets to acquire multiple high draft picks which will be be under long term team control on a rookie salary scale.
The biggest and most blatant example of this philosophy came early in the season when the Raiders refused to come to terms with future Hall of Fame defensive lineman Khalil Mack, instead letting him go to the Chicago Bears that netted them two first round picks and a handful of mid to late round selections.
Mack is now the backbone and unquestioned leader of the Bears defense, but it came at a steep price. Chicago’s front office are committed to paying $141 million over 6 years, a number that would likely cripple the Raider’s future cap flexibility.
All in total, the Raiders have five first round picks in the next two NFL drafts in large part to the strategic moves that Gruden has orchestrated. Raider GM Reggie McKenzie is also making high-level decisions behind the scenes, but everyone in that organization knows that Gruden is steering the ship and there is only one throat to choke for owner Mark Davis.
Davis himself is a fascinating study in the hierarchy of today’s NFL owner landscape. Today’s NFL owners are billionaires and leaders of some of the nation’s largest Fortune 500 companies. Other owners are successful real estate developers and oil tycoons.
Davis is the only owner who doesn’t own or run another business outside of the Raiders. Needless to say, he must be more wise with his financial decisions and cannot afford to overpay for talented players who don’t necessarily translate to wins in the record column.
Rewinding back to the 49ers game, which was also the last time the Raiders would play their cross town rivals in the state of California with their impending move to brand new stadium in Las Vegas after next season. The bigger picture implication that many fans openly discussed was that the loser of this game would likely be the favorite to finish with the worst NFL record and receive the number one overall pick or at worst second overall selection.
This game would be unceremoniously dubbed, the ‘Bosa Bowl,’ as in Ohio State’s monster defensive pass rusher Nick Bosa. With an NFL pedigree as the younger brother of Chargers second year top pick Joey Bosa, Nick has the potential to be a key contributor and long term, low cost replacement for Khalil Mack.
Even in the likely scenario that the New York Giants were to finish with a worse record and receive the number one pick, they would likely be in the market to draft a franchise quarterback as they passed on Sam Darnold earlier this year to draft the favorite for Rookie of the Year Saquon Barkley. This time they will not be given a free pass not to draft the best signal caller available, which this year could turn out to be Oregon’s Justin Herbert. This sets up the Raiders in the perfect place to draft Bosa with the second overall pick.
The selection of Bosa could potentially set off a domino effect of moves in the draft that will have Gruden’s fingerprints all over them. This type of strategy by an organization was most recently executed by the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers and their former GM Sam Hinkie. Since fired, his strategy to propel the 76ers back to prominence in the East was to tank during the regular season resulting in the best odds to receive the top overall pick in the NBA Draft Lottery.
If Gruden’s long term strategy is to execute the most epic tank job in recent NFL memory in order to acquire coveted draft picks and build the team from the ground up in his image, then he is on his way to succeeding in spectacular fashion. As the Raiders move to Las Vegas looms, the organization from the top to bottom will be be forced to go all in on Gruden’s vision, which for the better or worse will be a roll of the dice.