On Monday Night Football against the Saints, the Raiders were trailing 10–0 in the second quarter before a 10-play drive brought them to the New Orleans 3-yard line.
Las Vegas lined up with a tight end on each side, Josh Jacobs deep in the backfield and fullback Alec Ingold wedged in the middle, completing the jumbo goal line I-formation set. If you listened to Jon Gruden’s introductory press conference and subsequent combine press conference a few years back, where he lamented the surge in analytics and promised to bring back the 1990s, this is sort of what we all had in mind. Quarterback under center. Telegraphed handoff coming. Rehearsed sneer coming from the sidelines.
But just before the snap, Darren Waller, a third tight end in the formation, stood up from his wide right position on the line and shuffled back toward the quarterback, drawing cornerback Janoris Jenkins with him. Waller then pivoted back toward the right side and snapped into a horizontal sprint—a modified version of the sprint motion concepts that have become increasingly popular in the NFL over the past few seasons (or, as some coaches would probably say, cyclically popular). Jenkins followed, while a few members of the Saints’ front seven began to tighten to the line, showing blitz.
As Derek Carr snapped the ball, all eyes followed Waller. Ingold stuttered toward a block before veering out on nearly the same route Waller was running, just at a shorter depth. He was wide open with five yards of field on both sides of him and a clear path to the end zone—this against one of the best defenses in football. Including Ingold's touchdown, the Raiders would go on to score six times in their next seven possessions.
The play was one of several small moments of brilliance on Monday from Gruden, who, after reemerging on the coaching scene after a decade-long hiatus in 2018, appeared destined for a run of staleness in his second act with his beloved former franchise. He was doing what he always did—chasing low-tread veteran stars and alienating quarterbacks at full throttle. The Antonio Brown trade nearly derailed a season. Various whiffs up the Tom Brady and Kyler Murray trees ruffled feathers. He traded Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper, both of whom made Pro Bowls in each of the two seasons following the deal.
For a while, it felt and looked like the Raiders hired a guy who played a coach on television.
Monday’s win, though, might have been the moment that all of Gruden’s grand visions and plans took hold; the moment the breadth of his study of the modern game during his hiatus actually found traction on the roster he was trying to build. There were obviously glimpses of brilliant play design over the last two years, but there may not have been the ability to implement all of it.
His usage of Waller alone on Monday was worthy of attention. The former sixth-round pick was targeted 16 times and caught 12 balls, achieving releases from the backfield that both allowed him to enter into his route at full speed and impact oncoming defenders enough to provide Carr with the requisite time to throw the football—a maddening combination that is hard to defend, especially now that Las Vegas has complementary options in the receiving game.
Carr finished the week fifth among all quarterbacks in defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA), a statistic that takes into account situational football as well as opponent strength. He ranked seventh—ahead of Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson, Drew Brees and Tom Brady—in effective yards, which is another stat that measures a player’s value over a replacement level quarterback. He is fifth in percentage points above expected completion percentage, meaning that only four other players—Russell Wilson, Lamar Jackson, Gardner Minshew (coming into Week 3's TNF game) and Philip Rivers—are throwing better balls right now.
It all folds into the Gruden fever dream Raiders fans had when the coach was reintroduced three years ago. He would reenergize the roster. He would turbocharge the quarterback and, once in a while, he would win games like he did Monday night over the Saints with a mix of polish and panache.
It begs the question—one that has some fascinating implications for a bustling AFC West—have Gruden's Raiders arrived?