- Based on his ESPN commentary, Jon Gruden’s feelings about Khalil Mack have varied over the past four seasons. Listen closely, and you may hear the future Raiders’ head coach sending a message about his opinion on the pass rusher since the end of last year.
When Jon Gruden was an analyst for ESPN, we took most of his hyperbole-tinged analysis with a grain of salt. He liked something about everybody in the NFL, and only rarely was he truly critical of players or coaches. But now he’s a head coach again, in charge of the Oakland Raiders, and every move he makes can be scrutinized through the lens of his takes on ESPN.
Here’s an especially relevant one. From draft day in 2014: “He reminds me of Sio Moore,” Gruden said of Khalil Mack, whom the Raiders drafted with the fifth overall pick. Moore was then a promising third-round pick of the Raiders who had success in 2013 as a rookie, but he wasn’t the sort of player to whom one commonly compares a top-five draft pick. Gruden went on to say he thought the Raiders should have drafted Johnny Manziel. “Everyone must know something I don’t,” he said.
Gruden, we later learned, implored the Raiders to take Manziel at a time when he’d publicly acknowledged that if he returned to the NFL, his preference would be to coach the Raiders.
What followed over the next four years was a string of hot-and-cold Gruden analysis about Mack. Gruden and ESPN Monday Night Football broadcast partner Sean McDonough called two Raiders games—one in 2016 against the Texans in Mexico City and another in Week 16 of the 2017 season against the Eagles in Philadelphia, a week before Gruden announced that he was returning to the NFL to coach Oakland. Out of Gruden’s last broadcast for ESPN came one observation that may have foreshadowed what was to come. (In case you haven’t heard, the Raiders executed the blockbuster trade of the year in sending Mack, the two-time All Pro and 2016 Defensive Player of the Year who had missed all of Oakland’s preseason, to the Bears for two first-round picks.)
Gruden spent time with Mack in practice the week before the 2016 game in Mexico City, and the two chatted about the last time Mack faced Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler—Mack sacked Osweiler five times. (Mack was incredulous that Denver only blocked him one-on-one most of the game, and so was Gruden.) “I love watching Khalil Mack practice,” Gruden said on the MNF broadcast. “He sets a tone for the entire organization with how he practices.”
Mack sacked Osweiler once in Mexico City at the end of the second-quarter, and came away with a handful of impressive stops in a 27–20 Raiders win. When he stuffed Braxton Miller on an option handoff out of the wildcat formation, Gruden was thrilled. “You don’t want to run that at Khalil Mack. He eats wildcats for breakfast,” Gruden said on the broadcast. “You can’t judge a great player on sacks alone, and Mack made a great play right there.”
A year later, when Oakland visited Philadelphia, Gruden was far less complimentary of Mack. Eagles tackle Lane Johnson was called for two holding calls while facing Mack, but Gruden gave Johnson the matchup win in a 19–10 Eagles victory.
“I thought Johnson was in great shape,” Gruden said while watching a replay of one of the holding calls. “You’re gonna see Khalil Mack jump. I didn’t see anything there. Yeah, I think Johnson has done an excellent job against Mack tonight. I’m surprised they don’t move Mack over to the other side against the backup left tackle being that Johnson is indeed a Pro Bowler. Take a look at Lane Johnson, the right tackle, working against Khalil Mack tonight. He’s done an excellent job keeping his quarterback clean in one-on-one pass protection.”
I attended that game, and I don’t think any fair-minded analyst came away thinking Johnson did an “excellent job” on Mack. An excellent job simply can’t include two holding penalties against the same player. Mack earned the second-highest PFF grade on the team that night. He clearly won this matchup.
Context is key here. The Raiders were out of the playoff hunt after going into the 2017 season as an AFC West favorite and supposed Super Bowl contender. At this point in the season (Week 16), Gruden was either thinking seriously about taking the Oakland job, or already in verbal agreement with the team.
Was Gruden sending a message to Mack—and Raiders fans—with this statement? Could Gruden have wanted the world to know he didn’t hold Mack in as high regard as the rest of the NFL community did and does? And that he wouldn’t be willing to make him the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL?
ESPN’s Paul Gutierrez asked Gruden in March to define one of his catchphrase categories for players, “Gruden Grinders.”
“I just like guys who love to play. Guys that will compete. Guys that will play for nothing. We haven’t signed a lot of household names around the league, but we, I think, have brought in guys that are going to be consistent, everyday grinders, man. Guys that are going to compete their ass off and fight for inches and know what to do and set a tone.”
Guys that will play for nothing.
Mack heard that loud and clear, man.