Jon Gruden knows what he’s doing. He has a plan.
The steps toward his ultimate goal, however, may not jibe with the expectations that he prompted when he promised last winter to restore the Oakland Raiders to glory.
The long-term vision could be partially to blame for the Raiders’ 1-5 start to the season. It’s also the reason why two of the team’s stars were shipped elsewhere, further depleting the roster while also leaving many to question his methods.
His initial steps have certainly placed Gruden in the cross hairs of the Raiders’ fan base, as well as players and analysts.
But this is the necessary evil. Gruden understands, those close to him will say.
Make no mistake. Jon Gruden, the coach, wants to win as bad as anyone during this 2018 season.
But Gruden, the personnel man, also understands that in this infancy stage of his comeback – a quest in which he’s trying to repair an organization that recorded just one winning campaign in the last 15 seasons – he must make difficult and unpopular decisions.
Trading Amari Cooper to the Dallas Cowboys this week put Gruden and the Raiders in another difficult position. Parting with one of their most gifted playmakers was a tough blow for a unit that already manages only 18.3 points a game (28th in the NFL), and it will only make life harder than it already is for quarterback Derek Carr, whom Gruden has said remains in his plans.
The Cooper trade, much like the decision to trade pass rusher Khalil Mack to the Bears before the start of the season, will loom large for the remaining 10 games and maybe beyond.
But also looming large: Gruden and Co. could control the draft next spring with three first-round picks. He and the team have the building blocks to build a contender, if they play their cards right.
This is great news for Raiders faithful, but they still can’t get over the sting of losing Mack and Cooper after Gruden brought such high expectations of a quick turnaround. In his introductory news conference, he spoke of his aspirations of bringing the city a Super Bowl title before the organization leaves for Las Vegas. But his moves have made it look as though he’s dismantling this team.
In truth, most everyone got caught up in that excitement and overlooked the fact that the roster that the team Gruden inherited went 6-10 in Jack Del Rio’s final season. Yes, the Raiders went 12-4 and reached the playoffs in 2016. But a lot has changed since then.
Gruden inherited a roster with a lot of holes and deficiencies. Of the 44 draft picks made between 2013 and 2017, only 10 remained on by Week 1 this year (though Gruden and general manager Reggie McKenzie cast off a few).
The Raiders also signed a slew of veterans, signaling to many Gruden was in win-now mode. But intentions don’t always translate into actual victories.
What’s important, though, is that those signings didn't hamstring the Raiders against the salary cap for years to come.
The same couldn’t be said for Mack's contract. As surprising as the trade was, there’s no denying that making him the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history would have significantly impacted Oakland’s future salary cap situation.
Gruden and Raiders brass believed that the $90 million in guaranteed money that Mack got from Chicago would have prevented them from loading up on talent elsewhere. They have confidence that one of those high picks can yield another elite pass rusher.
Similarly, netting a first rounder while clearing Cooper's $13.9 million salary in 2019 proved too appealing for Gruden to pass up.
Judging on these two moves, it’s clear that Gruden, who is signed to a 10-year, $100 million contract, is intent on building his roster for long-term success.
Now he not only has plenty of draft capital but also have roughly $75 million in cap space in 2019 and $125.5 million in 2020, according to overthecap.com
These resources should help enable Gruden to assemble a talented young nucleus for the 2020 season – potentially the franchise's first in Las Vegas if it doesn't head there next year – and beyond.
But what about this year? Fans and some media types will describe what the Raiders are doing as tanking. Some surmise that Gruden was determined to dismantle the existing group and then rebuild a squad that would have his finger prints all over it.
But Gruden has insisted that nobody is tanking. His tough calls have weakened his roster for the time being, but he and his assistants haven’t stopped logging long hours to game plan, nor have they stopped demanding the best from their players.
Gruden’s moves have certainly damaged his credibility in the eyes of many. One player, according to The Athletic, described the Cooper trade as “a knockout punch." But this is the nature of his undertaking. Quick fixes seem nice but are almost impossible to enact.
By 2020, however, when the Raiders are in Las Vegas with a roster fortified by high picks and free agent signings, Gruden’s initial decisions very likely will begin to make sense.
Follow Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.
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