Last weekend, Jon Gruden approached his team, after The Wall Street Journal published a 10-year-old email of his, to try to own his mistake. He told the players the message in the email—the one that referred to NFLPA chief DeMaurice Smith with a racial trope—was wrong. And that there was no place for it. And he apologized for it.
He then turned the team’s focus toward the Bears.
The Raiders would lose the game, and Gruden would lose his job a day later, with a follow-up report from The New York Times revealing more offensive emails of Gruden’s, emanating from the league’s investigation into the Washington Football Team. Now, where Gruden failed, there lies real opportunity for Raiders interim coach Rich Bisaccia, GM Mike Mayock and their staffs, and for the once-proud franchise to come out of a pretty dark week.
In fact, if you know the way business has been done the last few years in Oakland and Las Vegas, you know the deal. While the weekend’s mea culpa came at a point where it was too late for Gruden, it’s leading into a shot that’s right on time for Mayock and Bisaccia.
Do not take this as a repudiation of Gruden’s coaching ability, because that’s not what it is. For his faults over the last three and a half years, and there were plenty, the one thing that was always there was just that: The guy can coach. But the environment in the building was a different matter altogether, with Raiders HQ having become the sort of place where few knew what to expect from one day to the next.
That’s what happens when one man, and one man alone, seizes control of everything.
The entire operation begins to reflect his personality.
So now, in a certain way, a cloud should lift off the building, and the Raiders have the chance to paint the sky beneath it. The canvas is open for Bisaccia and Mayock, and owner Mark Davis, too.
Can they reinvent the Raiders on the fly? Over the next three months, they’ll try.
If not, another opportunity for the franchise will be waiting.
It’s been a busy week in the NFL, but we will do some looking forward to the weekend for you in the GamePlan. Inside the column, you’ll find …
• The best of just an O.K. slate, with a couple of nontraditional powers topping the list.
• A good test for a certain coaching staff.
• My (still bad) gambling advice.
First, though, we have to look back.
A few months ago, I was talking to a coach who was describing the Gruden era Raiders culture to me, and he took his right hand, held it flat, then went up and down with it, in the sort of motion you’d make to mimic a roller coaster. One day, he said with his right hand held high, things were great. The next, he continued, sending the hand on a downward slope, would be an entirely different deal.
That wasn’t just the mood, either. It spilled over into different facets of the organization, too. If a coach saw a street free agent he thought could help, he’d go to Gruden, then be told to go to Mayock, only to wind up back with Gruden, who wielded final say. The roster could change year to year, month to month or even week to week, based on Gruden’s whims, and player development became a challenge as a result.
Then, there was the presence of director of football research Dave Razzano, seen as Gruden’s personal operative going all the way back to 2018, and a thorn in the side of personnel people in the building starting when Reggie McKenzie served as GM over Gruden’s first 12 months on the job.
Navigating all of this was a lot, for a lot of people. And there was only one person commanding the power to change it.
He’s now gone.
So right there is the immediate opportunity for Mayock and Bisaccia. The coaching staff is full of Gruden’s closest confidants, guys like Bisaccia and offensive coordinator Greg Olson, but those guys know the score here, too—the best path forward is to get guys rallying around one another, and that can happen by unifying the building in a way that Gruden either couldn’t or just didn’t want to.
The Raiders are 3–2. They have 12 games left. They are, believe it or not, a game ahead of the reigning AFC champion Chiefs in the West and just one back of the Chargers. They have a good, solid nucleus that’s growing up and now has experience playing together. The quarterback’s playing well. The offensive line turnover has gone well. The receivers are maturing. The defense, while still a work in progress, is better.
This is a team that can be the first set of Raiders to make the playoffs in a half decade.
So whereas usually a franchise that fires its coach in-season is playing out the string thereafter, with players’ eyeing their offseason plans, and coaches and scouts’ updating their résumés, the guys in Vegas have a very real opportunity here. And those look like this …
Mayock: Rumors were rampant in league circles in the spring that there could be changes in scouting postdraft. Mayock and his staff survived. So now the third-year GM has a chance to bring the building together, and bridge together scouting and coaching in a way that hasn’t existed within the Raiders since well before Gruden returned in 2018.
DuJuan Daniels, Walt Juliff, Dwayne Joseph and Jim Abrams are among those whom Mayock brought to Vegas in 2019, and all would be key to that effort.
Fact is, all are now fighting for their jobs. And while Mayock and his group can’t make a huge impact in player acquisition between now and the end of the season, they can do their part in improving the working relationship between the two main cogs of the football side of the building. Which would either help Bisaccia hang on to his new job, or make Davis consider pairing a new coach with them, rather than starting over entirely.
Bisaccia: In his 20th season as an NFL coach—all 20 have been spent with special teams coordinator in his title—Bisaccia has a rare shot for someone his age, to basically force a team to consider him for a head-coaching position. If the team gets to 10 or 11 total wins and makes the playoffs (and 10 wins would require only a 7–5 record the rest of the way), could the Raiders walk away from the status quo? Maybe. Maybe not.
The one thing I do feel confident saying here is the players will play for Bisaccia. As a special teams coach, he touched more people on the roster than anyone outside of Gruden and, of course, the strength and training staffs. And, as I understand it, the players love him, something that Mayock himself confirmed in his press conference Wednesday.
“I don’t see a vacuum of leadership,” Mayock said. “I want to be very clear about that. Rich Bisaccia is the best leader I’ve ever been around.”
So where normally the idea of hiring a 61-year-old special teams coach as your head coach would be bonkers, Bisaccia, by virtue of the timing of all this, has a path toward landing the job full-time. He just needs to win.
The players: This is obvious. For four of the six highest-paid players on the team—Derek Carr, Yannick Ngakoue, Cory Littleton and Clelin Ferrell—2022 is a contract year, meaning they’ll be looking for extensions in the offseason. Maxx Crosby, Josh Jacobs and Johnathan Abram, all from Mayock’s first draft class, are in the same boat. On top of that, the young guys are playing to get into the playoffs for the first time in their short careers.
There shouldn’t be any lack of motivation there.
So the 63-year-old GM and 61-year-old interim coach should have an engaged group to make their respective cases over the next three months.
That brings us to Mark Davis and the franchise itself. The Raiders last went to the Super Bowl after the 2002 season; they’ve made the playoffs only once since and this is Davis’s 10th full season at the helm (he took over midway through the ’11 season, when his legendary father Al passed away). He’s hired two general managers and three head coaches, and the team is 64–97 since his father’s passing.
And yet, even if perception hasn’t improved, the state of the Raiders has in certain areas. The Raiders are, from a stadium and revenue standpoint, in the best place they’ve been in a generation, and maybe ever. The football product has actually steadily, if slowly, started to ascend, too, with respectable marks of 7–9 and 8–8 the last two years, and the aforementioned core of young players.
That said, understandably, Davis isn’t happy right now. When asked about the Gruden situation by ESPN’s Paul Gutierrez, he responded, “I have no comment. Ask the NFL. They have all the answers.” My interpretation is that Davis doesn’t think the league’s tactics would’ve been the same if his last name were Mara, Jones, Kraft, Hunt or Rooney. He’s probably right. He’s also done plenty for the NFL of late, in stepping aside in Los Angeles, then landing one of the most team-friendly stadium deals of all time in a new market for the league.
But, angry as he might be, there’s an opportunity here too.
Davis gets the shot to hit the reset button. Forever, the franchise has leaned back on the Raider family to make hires. Gruden was certainly one, initially a find for Davis’ father, and long a target before coming back in 2018. Team president Marc Badain was another, having first worked for the team, like Gruden, in the ’90s—Badain was actually an intern for the Los Angeles Raiders in ’91, and eventually succeed Amy Trask as the chief executive.
Within months of each other, both of those guys were ushered out of the building. Which gives Davis the same sort of opportunity as Mayock and Bisaccia.
“It’s fine to say Mayock can hold down the fort,” said a rival executive with knowledge of the Raiders’ inner workings. “But the president is gone, the head coach is gone, maybe the GM, too. This is a great chance to reshape the franchise. I know Mark’s been thinking about how to do it. This is his shot to.”
The exec then brought up the 2020 reboot in Washington, where owner Daniel Snyder, finally feeling the embarrassment of two decades of failure, conducted a teardown, and reshaped everything around new coach Ron Rivera and president Jason Wright, suggesting Davis should consider doing the same.
What everyone seems to agree on is that he at least needs to get started on that—even as he gives Mayock and Bisaccia their chance to win him over. And he can start with how the franchise’s legacy should play into all of this.
At this point, it’s probably right to look aggressively outside the family for a strong face of the franchise type, whether that be the next coach or GM. At the same time, it’d make sense to honor the Davis legacy by looking hard at diverse candidates, given that the Raiders were the first franchise to hire a Black coach (Art Shell), hire a female chief executive (Trask) and win a Super Bowl with a nonwhite head coach (Tom Flores).
So what can begin now? First, Davis can start doing background work and vetting candidates. Second, he can hire a president to replace Badain. There, it’d be worth gauging interest with female (NFL EVP Renie Anderson and Seahawks CRO Amy Sprangers are two names I think would fit) and Black (San Antonio Spurs EVP Brandon Gayle came to pro sports from Facebook and is well regarded) candidates, while also kicking tires on those with experience in these sorts of roles (like ex-Texans president Jamey Rootes).
That president could then jump in and help vetting the coach and GM. Maybe, from there, the Raiders could try to do something splashy (could they try to pry Mike Tomlin from Pittsburgh?), or go the route that teams like their old neighbors in California have, in trying to find their own version of Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan or Brandon Staley.
Either way, the shot is there for Davis to launch the next Raiders era.
Of course, before then, Mayock and Bisaccia will get the shot to do that on their own. And looking at what’s around those guys? It’s not a bad shot for those two to have.
They’ll just to have to turn the page a lot better than Gruden could.
FIVE STAR MATCHUPS
1) Cardinals at Browns (Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET): Now, we get to see how Arizona plays as the big dog in a big game, and how the Browns are after having hit a little adversity. And getting to see ex-college teammates Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield go shot-for-shot again, and this time in a game that really matters (they met in 2019 when both teams were struggling) gives this one a fun story line from the jump.
2) Chargers at Ravens (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET): The Chargers looked capable of contending for a Super Bowl last week against the Browns, and this week will provide them with another test—with a cross-country trip to face a perennial contender in a hostile environment. And seeing Derwin James chase Lamar Jackson around for three hours should be entertaining, too.
3) Packers at Bears (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET): On paper, the Bears actually have the formula to beat Green Bay—they bring a top-10 defense and a top-10 running game, equipped to grind down the pace of play and limit possessions, and their pass rush has the juice to take advantage of the Packers’ offensive line issues. But mapping all that out and actually winning the game are two different things. At any rate, this is the sort of stage where we should get to find out a little something about Justin Fields.
4) Bills at Titans (Monday, 8:15 p.m. ET): The Bills are going from trying to win a Formula 1 race last week to engaging in a tractor pull this week, and it’ll be interesting to contrast how Leslie Frazier’s rapidly improving defense can adapt from defending Patrick Mahomes one week to defending Derrick Henry the next. Also worth noting: The Titans routed the Bills 42–16 almost exactly a year ago.
5) Seahawks at Steelers (Sunday, 8:20 p.m. ET): This is one of those games that’s interesting because the loser will be in trouble at 2–4. Seattle’s made the playoffs eight of the last nine years. Pittsburgh’s been in the postseason five of the last seven years. And both have bigger questions at quarterback than they’ve been used to having to answer for a long, long time. It should be a fascinating night, even if these aren’t vintage Steelers and Seahawks teams.
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FOUR THINGS TO FOLLOW
The coaching matchup in Foxboro. Usually, when the Cowboys and Patriots lock horns, it lands on the NFL’s marquee. It’s less the case this year than it has been in a long time. And to me, just looking at the matchup itself, Dallas’s talent level is in a different stratosphere than New England’s. I’m not sure there’s a position group on the field where you’d pick a Patriot before you’d pick a Cowboy (with the possible exception of tight end, and even there Dalton Schultz is coming on). And that makes this an interesting spot for Dallas coach Mike McCarthy. He’s been criticized plenty, even through his team’s 4–1 start, and he heads into Foxboro with the better team. He beat a Super Bowl champion Patriots team as Packers coach. Can he make it look easy this time, in Foxboro? Or will Bill Belichick level the playing field?
The Jaguars going into the bye week. For a few years, going to London was a curse for coaches on unstable ground (Oakland’s Dennis Allen and Miami’s Joe Philbin were actually fired on the flights home), and there’s been plenty of speculation as to Urban Meyer’s staying power in Jacksonville. For reasons I laid out in my mailbag, I think it’s too early to be writing his ticket out of town. However, it has been a long couple of weeks for that team, and the U.K. trip can be taxing on its own. And waiting for the Jags in London will be a 1–4 Dolphins team that’s better than its record and desperate for a win. I’m interested to see what Jacksonville looks like under those conditions.
Can the Broncos stop their skid? I understand that Denver leveled up in competition the last two weeks, playing the Broncos and Steelers, after beating the Giants, Jags and Jets in September. So the two-game slide they’re riding into Sunday’s home date with the Raiders wasn’t wholly unpredictable. But given what Vegas has been through, this is one that Vic Fangio’s crew has to have. And especially because within the six games after this one, the Broncos will get the Browns, Cowboys, Chargers and Chiefs. Which will be a tough go for a staff that very much has to keep the team in contention, if they want to keep their jobs in 2022.
Can the kickers rebound? Last week, kickers across the NFL missed 13 extra points, which is a single-week record for the Super Bowl era (dating to 1966). They missed 13 field goals on top of that. In the Bengals-Packers game, Evan McPherson and Mason Crosby combined to miss five potential game-winners in the fourth quarter and overtime, before Crosby won it for the Packers with a 49-yarder. Ka’imi Fairbairn and Nick Folk combined to miss the first three extra points of Texans-Patriots. Tristan Vizcaino missed two extra points that put the Chargers at risk in their thrilling win over the Browns. And Indy’s Rodrigo Blankenship had a likely game-clincher blocked Monday night, which opened the door for Lamar Jackson to win the game at the wire for the Ravens. So was that a one-week blip? Or will we see more of it this week?
TWO BEST BETS
Season record: 2–8 (Things keep getting worse. Feel free to fade these picks.)
Rams (-9.5) at Giants: Matthew Stafford and crew are coming off their mini-bye, and looking to keep pace with West-leading Cardinals. And I’m not sure the Giants have the horsepower to keep up.
Panthers (+1) vs. Vikings: This seemed too easy. Why would Carolina be a home dog to the Vikings? Almost seems like a setup. Am I getting set up? No, really … is this a setup?
ONE BIG QUESTION
What does the 2022 draft’s quarterback class look like?
The answer: not very good.
“It’s a very thin class,” said one NFC executive who’s been keeping close tabs on it. “It’s far off from where it was last year.”
Liberty’s Malik Willis is the one who’s lived up to expectations. North Carolina’s Sam Howell looks like he might just be a guy, rather than a first-rounder. Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler got benched. Georgia’s JT Daniels has been hurt. Nevada’s Carson Strong and Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder have their advocates, but it’s hard to say whether they’re much more than, say, what Kellen Mond or Kyle Trask or Davis Mills were last year.
And while this is bad news for quarterback-needy teams, it should be good news for the Texans and Niners, and maybe the Packers and Seahawks, and any other team that could be peddling a veteran quarterback this spring. Because absent a surge from one of the guys named above, the trade block could well prove to be the place to shop for a quarterback in the 2022 offseason, which would make for a seller’s market.