Jon Gruden and his Oakland Raiders traveled to England last week where they got thumped 27–3 by the Seattle Seahawks. The Raiders did nothing well, and after failing to top 20 points in a game for the fifth time in six contests, Oakland fell to 1–5 on the season to own a share of the worst record in football. The scoring difference in their last two games (both losses)? 53–13.
“You know, got to do everything better,” Gruden said after the game with his trademark smirk peeking through. “And it all comes back to me.”
It was coachspeak, and it’s possible—if not probable—that Gruden only meant it halfheartedly. But these Raiders are Gruden’s Raiders, for better or worse. And Gruden’s Raiders are tanking in 2018.
Gruden will never say as much, of course; the problem with tanking is that you cannot say you’re tanking, and, in truth, tanking may not even be a sound strategy at all. But with a move to Las Vegas looming over Oakland, Gruden absolutely cannot admit to the Raiders tanking one of their last seasons in the Bay Area.
“I hear the hatred out there, some of the rumors that we are tanking it to get a first-round pick or a higher pick,” Gruden said Tuesday. We are not getting up at 4:00 in the morning to tank it. Ain’t nobody tanking it.”
But the evidence makes the contrary clear. My pal Andy Benoit detailed the myriad issues with the 2018 Raiders here so I won’t belabor the on-field issues. And I agree that even if Oakland had paid Khalil Mack they still wouldn’t be a winning team. But that doesn’t make it any less maddening when Gruden bemoans the lack of a pass rush on his team as he has multiple times this season, including as recently Oct. 8.
“We got to get more pressure on the quarterback, we got to force them to make some bad decisions,” Gruden said without a hint of irony. “We got to make that guy unload it when he doesn’t want to, we got to disrupt the timing, we got to knock them off the spot, we have to do better.”
Trading Mack was the clear first sign of tanking. Players play to win, but if you get rid of your best players, you’re left with a roster that cannot win. So out goes Mack and—what do you know?!—receiver Amari Cooper and safety Karl Joseph reportedly go on the trading block a month later.
The next step in tanking for a coach or top personnel guy, which Gruden has become, is to play the young guys. The Raiders entered 2018 with the oldest opening day roster (players’ ages averaged 27.4 years) since at least 2012, but they’re already burning through their rookies, playing as many as eight at key positions in their Week 5 loss to the Chargers. “They’re still learning,” a coach can say as he fails to put the team in a winning position, all while the franchise creeps through autumn on its way to a top-three draft pick.
“I’m excited about the rookie class. I’ve been accused my whole life of hating rookies and liking old players, and now I’m playing 10 rookies,” Gruden said Tuesday. “What do you say to that, America?”
There’s an ingenious site that has sprouted up in recent days. IsGrudenGoneYet.com shows you how much time is left on his 10-year, $100 million contract while counting how much money he’s made in the time that you’ve been on the site. It only takes one disgruntled—if not clever—fan to make this site, so to extrapolate this with a majority of the fan base would be unfair. But faithful Raider Nation must be growing weary of the team hurtling toward its 15 non-winning season in the past 16 years. The Raiders likely have just one season left in Oakland before moving to Las Vegas in 2020 (though even that’s murky), and owner Mark Davis has to be worried about a lameduck season or two in Oakland.
Recall Houston in 1996. Notoriously cheap Oilers owner Bud Adams had struck up a deal to take his franchise to Nashville. Houstonians responded by not showing up to home games in the 1996 season, and the Oilers’ average homegame attendance ranked last at 31,825 people. The Astrodome was so empty that fans in the stands could hear conversations on the field.
“The oddsmakers say it's worth three points at home,” Oilers coach Jeff Fisher told The New York Times in 1996. “What I can say is that when half the fans are booing and you lose, you say it has something to do with it—but if you win it has nothing to do with it. I think our fans are frustrated and are not coming out because they know they're going to lose their football team in a couple of years.”
Is that scenario possible with the rabid Oakland fans? Maybe not, but Davis can’t take that chance. Admitting to tanking means you aren’t Committed To Winning™. What fan wants to buy in to a team that doesn’t put winning above all else?
And Davis needs fans to literally buy in: Visit the website of the stadium for the Las Vegas Raiders, the team sure to be built in Gruden’s image with a bevy of draft picks in 2019 and ’20. Scroll the home page and you’ll be directed to PLACE A DEPOSIT seven (SEVEN!) times to secure your personal seat license for your spot in the desert.
That $100 million contract isn’t going to pay for itself.