Jon Gruden – Crazy Like a Fox, or Just Crazy

The molting of the Raiders roster continues apace under first-year retread Jon Gruden.  Weeks after flipping defensive and offensive cornerstones Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper for high draft picks, Oakland sloughed off defensive end Bruce Irvin, cutting the veteran outright.  

The rapid change has spooked some Raiders faithful.  Why is Chucky Gruden behaving like a corporate raider (pun intended) stripping his club, which won 12 games in 2016, of so many key assets?  He’s not looking to flip the club for a quick profit. On the contrary, he has a ten-year contract in his pocket. Does Gruden have a plan?

A quick search for precedents, inside the NFL and in other major sports, finds that Gruden has a historical opportunity unique to the league. Can he exploit it? The answer is at least two years away. What we can do today, is examine the nature of what we think is the Raiders’ blueprint.

The Jimmy Johnson Template

Gruden’s race to the bottom recalls Jimmy Johnson’s first season in Dallas.  JJ inherited a 3-13 club that had a lot of age and little talent. After picking a quartet of starters in his first draft, led by future Hall of Famer Troy Aikman, Johnson accelerated the rebuild by flipping Herschel Walker, the lone Pro Bowler on the ‘88 Cowboys roster, for a king’s ransom (three 1st rounders, three 2nd rounders, a 3rd rounder and five vets off the Vikings roster).  The double drafts from ‘90 through ‘92 helped the Cowboys jump from 1-15 in Johnson’s first year, to a championship in that final double-draft year.

Gruden appeared to have Herschel Walker on his mind when he dealt his defensive leader Khalil Mack to Chicago for two 1st round picks, a 3rd, and a 5th.  Weeks later, top wideout Amari Cooper was shipped to Dallas for another 1st rounder. Gruden will now have three 1st rounders in the 2019 draft and two more in 2020.  

The differences in these analogies comes in options.  Jimmy Johnson started his rebuild in 1989, five years before the salary cap era commenced.  The NFL had an abridged version of the free agency coaches and general managers enjoy today, the short-lived “Plan B” system, which allowed clubs to expose 37 players on their active rosters and exposed the rest to opposing teams.  

That could produce a down-roster gem every now and then (Johnson plucked tight end Jay Novacek from the Cardinals this way) but the only quick paths to respectability were through trades and the draft.  

Gruden is giving himself the draft-based, Johnson option with these deals, but why would he abandon a club that had a far deeper talent pool than Johnson’s did?  The answer may come from a closer view of the contracts Gruden’s GM Reggie McKenzie has presented him.

The George Allen Template

In the spring of 1971, Redskins owner Edward Bennett Williams lured George Allen away from the Rams and tasked him with keeping the team in the winner’s column. Washington had fallen into disarray in the ‘50s and ‘60s but had been revived in 1970 by Vince Lombardi, who succumbed to cancer after one year at the helm.

Allen informed the Redskins faithful that “the future is now” and took an anti-Johnson approach.  He dealt four of his top five picks in the ‘71 draft, most to his former employer the Rams, to acquire veteran defenders familiar with his system.  Tackle Diron Talbert, linebackers Jack Pardee and Myron Pottios, and safety Richie Pettibone stepped into the ‘71 starting lineup.

Allen delivered.  The Redskins made the playoffs in his debut season and advanced to the Super Bowl in ‘72, where they lost to Don Shula’s 17-0 Dolphins.

Allen’s approach appears distant from Gruden’s approach if you consider that “the future is now” means this year.  If you re-define now as 2019, a plan emerges. The 2018 Raiders entered the year with one of the highest payrolls in the game.  They had only $6.3 million in space available, with extensions to Mack and Cooper on the immediate horizon. Oakland’s had may have been forced later, rather than sooner, as they would have had to choose between one of the two to extend.

Now, the Raiders will enter 2019 with one of the biggest cap bounties in the league.  They’ll have over $77 million with which to shop, assuming no more contracts are pared or restructured.  Only four team project to have more.

Gruden’s spring will see him doff his George Allen hat the week free agency ends.  Think of the players he could select from to replace Mack – Jadeveon Clowney, Demarcus Lawrence, Ezekiel Ansah, Frank Clark.  Gruden hinted that he will be a player last week when he tweeted that opposing players have told him they would love to play for the Raiders.  Gruden certainly didn’t initiate any such contact, as that would constitute tampering, but it’s a near certainty that prospective free agent’s agents have let the Raiders know they’re ready to be courted.

Once Chucky does his veteran shopping, he can put on his Jimmy Johnson hat and spend the first of his high-pick bounties.  And if the Raiders show some restraint, they can repeat this talent two-step in 2020 as well.

The George McPhee Template

McPhee, the general manager of NHL’s Las Vegas Golden Knights, raised the bar for general managers in all major sports last year when his Knights advanced to the Stanley Cup finals in their inaugural season. McPhee took advantage of an expansion system that protected far fewer players on an established team’s roster than in previous expansion drafts.  McPhee used leverage superbly. He was able to draft players off a team’s roster and deal them to opponents, catalyzing trades. He was also able to get compensation, in players and draft picks, for agreeing not to draft exposed players a team wanted to keep.

The Knights’ start affects Gruden and the Raiders because they will set up shop in Vegas next fall.  In one respect Gruden can punt on 2018 because he manages a lame duck Raiders organization, playing out its final season in the Oakland Coliseum.  Their future really begins next year, when their new fans get their first up-close look at the Raiders, and they’ll be expecting a Knight’s-like liftoff.  A deep salary cap budget and a loaded draft pick offer them a chance to replicate McPhee’s start.

Does Gruden Have the Eye?

The Raiders are set up to win the NFL’s 2019 pre-season. Their move will generate headlines. They promise an aggressive free agency campaign and they’ll have more picks than any other team in the league.  They’re set up to make a massive improvement, with Gruden’s hand-picked players, if he shows a Jimmy Johnson-like eye for talent.

That last qualifier has to give the Raiders partisans some pause.  Gruden coached the Buccaneers from 2002 through 2008 and worked with team architect Rich McKay in 2002 and 2003.  The Bucs won the Super Bowl that first season but the core of the squad had been assembled by McKay when Tony Dungy ran the team.  The Bucs drafted poorly after McKay left for Atlanta. Only 2008 first rounder Aqib Talib qualifies as a top hit.

Gruden’s inability to develop a young quarterback to succeed Brad Johnson saw his later Bucs teams fizzle.  Gruden tried building his offense around Chris Simms but got one playoff season from Simms the younger. Gruden was running retread Jeff Garcia as his quarterback when his Tampa tenure ran down.

Gruden at least has that vital piece, in QB Derek Carr.  If Gruden can protect him, and use his assets to build around him, the Raiders Vegas rise can be meteoric.  With ample cap space and draft picks, the future could be now and extended. But if Gruden repeats his Tampa habits, the Raiders partisans are looking at an extended run of 2018.

They’ve already suffered enough.

Rafael Vela

Rafael Vela

Senior Analyst SportsTalkLine at Sports Talk Line
Started covering Dallas Cowboys @ TheBoys.com in '95 and '96. Two more stops along the way and here I am. Senior Analyst for SportsTalkLine.com
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Rafael Vela