What the Hell Are Jon Gruden and the NFL's Raiders Doing Right Now?

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystMarch 16, 2018

OAKLAND, CA - NOVEMBER 18:  Former head coach of the Oakland Raiders and now ESPN Monday Night Football Analyst Jon Gruden looks on during pre-game warm ups before an NFL football game between the New Orleans Saints and Oakland Raiders at O.co Coliseum on November 18, 2012 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

We all had a nice little laugh when Jon Gruden talked about bringing football back to 1998.

The new head coach of the Oakland Raiders made that comment during his NFL Scouting Combine press conference. He seemed nostalgic for simpler times while referencing the year when his first stint as the Raiders' sideline boss began.

Much has changed in two decades around the NFL. Or in one decade, which is the amount of time since Gruden last wore a coach's headset.

For reasons only clear to him, it seems he was serious about climbing into his football time machine. We know this because of more than just his words (and the comedy routine in Indianapolis). Now his actions are doing the talking, and they're much louder—and just as baffling.

The Raiders made a series of moves Thursday that came straight from Gruden's 2008 blueprint—or, worse, 1998. Add them up, and all that's left is a dark cloud of confusion.

First the Raiders signed free-agent running back Doug Martin, who's now two years removed from relevance. Then they signed an aging and slowing Jordy Nelson, which apparently meant fellow veteran wide receiver Michael Crabtree became expendable, as he was released.

The latter two moves—which amount to replacing Crabtree with Nelson—strain the mind most, so let's dive in.

Cap management was also involved here, as the Raiders saved just over $7.7 million in cap space by releasing Crabtree, according to Spotrac. But those savings were transferred over to Nelson with his two-year deal worth $15 million, as first reported by his former teammate, James Jones. The Raiders are making a statement: They believe the former Packer is a better use of their money and precious cap space.

Which is bizarre thinking since Nelson turns 33 in May and flatlined in 2017. Crabtree, meanwhile, is two years younger (he'll turn 31 shortly after the 2018 season begins), and he has his name in the same sentence as Antonio Brown over the past three years, as NFL Research noted:

Crabtree did fade during the most recent of those three seasons, finishing 2017 with 618 receiving yards, his lowest single-year total since 2013.

However, even in a down season, Crabtree still found ways to make a significant contribution in a key role. That includes his red-zone effectiveness but also how reliable he remained as a tenacious pass-catcher amid heavy traffic.

He has always grappled and clawed to win battles, all the while leaning on sheer physicality and bitter determination. That desire didn't go away in 2017, a season in which he secured 38.2 percent of his attempts at contested catches, according to Austin Gayle of Pro Football Focus. He led the Raiders by a wide margin, with fellow wideout Amari Cooper far behind at 20.0 percent.

Although Crabtree might be losing a step as he begins to age, he's still one of the league's better possession receivers. Crabtree has excelled overall in that role during his time in Oakland. Since 2015 he's led the team in passer rating when targeted (89.5) as well as percentage of passes caught resulting in a first down or touchdown (34.4), as Gayle also noted.

Nelson, meanwhile, has more than just age against him. He plunged even further than Crabtree in 2017, finishing with 53 catches for 482 yards, a tiny average of 9.1 yards per grab.

The easy escape hatch for him is to blame Brett Hundley, the Packers' backup quarterback who torpedoed the offense while filling in for an injured Aaron Rodgers for much of 2017.

Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

But Hundley's constant sprayed balls and wobbly throws to nowhere sure didn't seem to impact Davante Adams much. He took over as the Packers' top receiver and ended his 2017 season with 74 receptions for 885 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Nelson was already starting to spiral down the Packers' receiving depth chart before his season ended one game early due to injury. He was targeted a mere 88 times in 2017, a dramatic fall from the 152 balls thrown in his direction during the 2016 season.

So Gruden, who said during his introductory press conference that personnel moves would be a "collaborative effort" with general manager Reggie McKenzie, was part of the decision-making process that ended with discarding the Raiders' best receiver in several critical areas and bringing in the Packers' worst pass-catcher—who, again, is two years older.

That's just where the eyebrow furrowing begins with the Raiders and their new direction under Gruden. Adding Martin to a backfield that already features Marshawn Lynch, who will turn 32 years old in April, is truly a step back to 2008. Or at least 2012, as Gruden seems determined to assemble the best fantasy football backfield from that season.

The quick assumption was that Martin's addition would lead to Lynch's departure. But as NFL Network's Michael Silver reported, Lynch isn't going anywhere:

The Raiders also have Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington on their running back depth chart, both of whom are talented and capable of sprinting free for chunk gains, but they haven't shouldered a workload of any significance. Neither back has logged even a 100-carry season.

Which means much will be expected of Martin, and relying on him hasn't been wise. He's redefined the phrase "wild inconsistency," with two 1,400-plus yard rushing seasons scattered between four others in which the 29-year-old didn't even hit the 500-yard mark.

He's been plagued by injuries throughout his career, missing 28 regular-season games over six years, including four in 2017 due to a suspension. This also isn't a case when the Raiders should be hoping for the 2015 or 2012 version of Martin—when he recorded 1,673 and 1,926 yards from scrimmage, respectively—to magically appear.

As Warren Sharp of Sharp Football Analysis noted, that would require far too much squinting and praying. Martin has been dead last in, well, pretty much everything since 2016:

Gruden essentially declared himself the enemy of analytics, or any form of advanced statistical thinking. In doing so, he became a caricature of the NFL's old guard, the men who shake their fists at the kids these days who dare to be curious and look at the game from a different angle.

Gruden doesn't have to fully embrace a fresh way of thinking, and expecting that isn't realistic. But to be a competent coach in the current year, and not 1998, he needs to treat analytics as another tool among the many in his toolbox to build a successful on-field product.

Anything less is senselessly stubborn and reckless.

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