The Raiders turned to their past to help lead the franchise into the future
When Las Vegas mayor Carolyn Goodman stepped to the podium at the groundbreaking for the Raiders’ new stadium, she spoke about team owner Mark Davis.
Not entirely fondly.
“I told the entire gathered audience what a hellion he was,” Goodman says.
When Goodman and her husband, former Vegas mayor Oscar, moved to the city in 1964, he had a job in the district attorney’s office, and she went to work doing P.R. for the Riviera Hotel. Two of the frequent visitors to the property were Al and Carol Davis.
“I remember in the ’60s this little, nasty kid was running around the hotel,” Goodman says, laughing. “It was sweet Mark. Now, he has come full circle. He has come back to Las Vegas, and I’m sure his father is smiling.”
Davis and the NFL have both placed a huge wager on Sin City, hoping to supersize the success of the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights in a town where winning is the No. 1 attraction. But it’s one thing to sell out a 17,500-seat arena and quite another to find 75,000 people to watch a team that might not get it done on Sunday.
Like his father, Davis was never completely in love with Oakland, and by moving the team to Moe Greene’s town, he is betting that the city’s newfound big-league personality will be enough to sustain a bottom-line winner.
The move to the desert might face some relatively long odds, but Davis’ other gamble is even bigger.
As the Raiders prepare to bid adieu to Northern California after the 2019 season, Davis has taken a 10-year, $100 million marker on Jon Gruden (above, right), who hasn’t prowled an NFL sideline since being fired by Tampa Bay in 2008 and is more well known for teaching aspiring pro QBs how to run “Spider 2 Y Banana” and for starring in Hooters commercials than he is for leading the Bucs to a win over the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII.
At Gruden’s introductory press conference, Davis crowed, “Once a Raider, always a Raider,” referencing the coach’s four-season tenure with the team from 1998-2001. He was also letting fans in both jilted Oakland and expectant Vegas know he was bringing back somebody who had embodied the Raider ethos, which was invented by Papa Al and remains ticking faintly for a franchise that has appeared in just one playoff game (a loss in the ’16 Wild Card game) over the past 15 seasons.
“Raider nation, this is a big f-ing deal,” Davis exclaimed.
It is. And it isn’t. Since the Bucs canned him, Gruden has been the White Whale for pro and college teams alike. Every hiring season has brought rumors and interest and offers. And Gruden has stayed put in the broadcast booth, the commercial soundstage and his FFCA (Fired Football Coaches Association) headquarters in Tampa every year. Until this one. Instead of following the leads of Bill Cowher and Tony Dungy, he has channeled Dick Vermeil and Joe Gibbs. He’s back in the business and hoping that a decade away from the boss’ chair won’t put him at a disadvantage in a sport that changes rapidly and is a lot harder to deal with from the locker room than the broadcast booth.
“In my heart I feel this is the thing to do,” Gruden said when asked about why the timing was finally right. “This is what I want to do, this is the organization that I want to be a part of, and I’m all in. This is something I feel deeply, strongly about and I’m going to do everything I can to hire a great coaching staff and put the Raiders back on track.”
When Vermeil returned to the NFL sidelines with the St. Louis Rams in 1997 after a 14-season broadcasting interlude, the first thing he noticed was how much bigger the players were than when he coached the Eagles from ’76-82.
“On our Super Bowl team in 1980, we didn’t have a guy over 270 pounds,” he says. “During the first evaluation period we had [with the Rams], I realized everybody in the league had bigger, stronger guys than we had with the Eagles. I had to realize that we had to evaluate them as of that time, not when I last coached.”
Vermeil doesn’t think that will be a problem for Gruden, who 10 years ago was coaching 300-plus-pound linemen and rocket-fast skill position players. The biggest issue he will have is control.
Thanks to the collective bargaining agreement between the players union and the NFL owners, there are clearly delineated times when coaches are allowed to work out players and limits on the amount of contact during practices. Vermeil says that when he took over in Philadelphia in 1976, he wasn’t going to outsmart established coaches like George Allen, Don Coryell or Bud Grant -- not to mention Chuck Noll, Tom Landry and Don Shula. “But maybe I could outwork them,” he says.
Not anymore. Everybody is on the same schedule, and while Vermeil’s legendary work ethic is still possible, 1970s labor practices don’t fly with today’s players.
“When Jon Gruden left coaching, he could control how long his team would be on the practice field, how many meetings they would have, how often they could wear shoulder pads and if they had two-a-days,” Vermeil says. “He can’t do that now. It’s all controlled by the collective bargaining agreement.
“If you lose, you can’t work harder to become a winner. You have to do a better job with your personnel and draft better. You don’t have time to develop players.”
By broadcasting NFL games on ESPN and working with quarterback prospects through the network, Gruden has been able to stay close to the strategic component of the game. He has watched practices, spoken with coaches, broken down miles of tape and remained immersed in the sport from his Tampa HQ. The game has changed in the past 10 years -- and even 10 months -- but it’s unlikely Gruden will be overmatched by its increasing complexity. And anyway, his offensive coordinator, Greg Olson, has run attacks for five different teams over the past 13 years, and DC Paul Guenther spent the last four years atop the Bengals’ defensive org chart.
As far as dealing with “today’s athletes,” Gruden shouldn’t have a problem. He may have been away from coaching, but he was extremely visible over the last decade, something Vermeil believes will help. Oh, and that big ring he owns is an asset, too.
“Jon comes with instant credibility,” Vermeil says. “People forget that he got fired by Tampa Bay. They know he won a Super Bowl. He’s been on TV and has shown he’s knowledgeable. The younger guys have seen all that and will respond.”
The biggest question isn’t whether or not he’ll be an outdated coach. It’s whether or not he was all that great to begin with. His career .540 winning percentage isn’t overwhelming, and he was just 57-55 with the Bucs. Gruden finished .500 or worse in five of his 11 seasons and was canned in Tampa after dropping the final four games of the 2008 season, ruining what looked like a sure playoff spot. The Raiders did win 12 games in 2016, and they have plenty of talent, most notably QB Derek Carr. Despite last year’s slip to 6-10, there won’t be much patience among Raiders fans for a slow start.
Meanwhile, Vegas prepares for the Raiders’ 2020 arrival with great anticipation. The city’s dress rehearsal with the Golden Knights has been a smash, thanks to enthusiastic support and great play by the team. By staging a successful expansion season, Vegas has demonstrated that the city is much more than a fun-times stopover for gamblers and pleasure seekers. Four NFL markets -- Jacksonville, New Orleans, Buffalo and Green Bay -- are smaller, and of those that are larger, none has the consistent visitor traffic Las Vegas boasts.
Vegas is all in, and by promising Gruden $100 mil for the next decade, the Raiders have leveraged themselves as much as possible on the sidelines. There is excitement, no doubt, but should Gruden fail, Davis and his franchise could find themselves with the rest of the losers on The Strip, trying to scrounge the eight bucks needed to hit the Palace Station buffet.
“We love a winner here,” Goodman says. “Gaming is about winning, and everything here feeds the insatiable appetite to have something exciting, fun and wonderful.”
Now, it's on Gruden to deliver.
-- Written by Michael Bradley for Athlon Sports
(Top photo by John Locher/AP; Jon Gruden photo courtesy of www.raiders.com)