Back in January, Oakland Raiders owner Mark Davis sent a surge of excitement through the fanbase when he signed Jon Gruden to a massive 10-year, $100 million contract—easily the largest in NFL history for a head coach.
However, three months into the Gruden era, trepidation has tinged that excitement. A series of puzzling personnel moves has some wondering whether after nearly a decade in the broadcast booth Gruden's the guy to lead Oakland back to the promised land.
Is he on the verge of vaulting the Silver and Black forward, or are the Raiders at risk of stumbling backward even more after a disappointing 2017?
The latest eyebrow-raising decision came last week, when the team released mercurial punter Marquette King. Some labeled it a cost-cutting move, as releasing him saved the Raiders $2.9 million, per The MMQB's Peter King.
But others, including Vic Tafur of The Athletic, have heard rumblings Gruden wasn't a fan of King's on-field antics:
Yes, the punter is something of an odd duck. And he has indeed accrued multiple 15-yard personal foul penalties over the last couple of years.
But King is also one of the NFL's best. His net average of 42.7 yards per punt ranked fourth in the league in 2017. It's also not like there's much out there among veteran free agents this late in the game.
Were this the only head-scratcher, it could be written off. Chucky doesn't like chuckleheads. The Raiders need cap space for the knee-buckler that will be Khalil Mack's contract extension, as his deal is up after this year. Pick whichever reason works best for you.
It's just the latest one.
Last month, the Raiders cut bait on wide receiver Michael Crabtree. The 30-year-old had been Derek Carr's most reliable target over the past three seasons, piling up 25 touchdown catches over that span.
That move was also perceived as a cap-saver, as it wriggled Oakland out from under Crabtree's $7.7 million cap hit for 2017, per the NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.
The problem is Oakland gave veteran wide receiver Jordy Nelson a two-year deal worth just over $14 million shortly after.
As Scott Bair of NBC Sports Bay Area reported, Gruden talked up the Nelson signing at the NFL owners meetings in late March:
"He can still run. He's a guy we can put on the back side of [triple receiver formations]. He can win at the line of scrimmage against press coverage. He's good after the catch.
"He brings a lot of 'it' factor we need. He's unselfish. He'll block. He's excellent at uncovering in scramble drills. His work ethic and consistency is something that will benefit our football team. He's one of the free agents who will play a huge role for us."
That sounds like Nelson all right.
The 2016 version.
That Nelson caught 97 passes for 1,257 yards and 14 touchdowns. The iteration we saw last year managed a 53/482/6 stat line in 15 games—his worst showing since 2010.
Yes, the Green Bay Packers were without Aaron Rodgers much of last year thanks to his broken collarbone. But that didn't stop Davante Adams from catching double-digit touchdowns for a second straight season. For much of last year, Nelson looked every bit his age.
He'll turn 33 in May.
The former Packer isn't the only player Gruden's banking on a revival from. The coach's statement about "trying to throw the game back to 1998" received a lot of run at the combine, but per Levi Damien of SB Nation, the 54-year-old clarified he wants to bring back toughness and a between-the-tackles run game:
"If you wanna run the ball, you have to have some components to do it. Don't get me wrong, we're gonna spread the field, we're gonna have all the bubble screens and RPOs that everybody else has, but there will be a package that will involve a fullback, will involve a blocking tight end, we might even move an offensive tackle to tight end."
It would have been a dream-team backfield pairing in 2012. That's the last (and only) time the duo gained 1,000 rushing yards in the same season. Lynch quietly had a decent 2017, gaining 891 yards and averaging 4.3 yards a carry. But he'll be 32 in April, and the 29-year-old Martin hasn't averaged even three yards a carry since 2015.
This isn't to say every move the Raiders have made has been questionable (linebacker Tahir Whitehead and cornerback Rashaan Melvin were both solid pickups that didn't break the bank), but at the offensive skill positions, Gruden's putting an awful lot of eggs in an old basket.
Never mind that we haven't seen Gruden formulate an offensive game plan or make play calls in a decade—an eternity in the NFL. There's still a place for old-school power football in the 21st century, but coaches who don't change with the sport don't have much success.
The list of head coaches who have succeeded after long layoffs is a lot shorter than that of those who came back and flamed out. For every Dick Vermeil, there's a Joe Gibbs or Art Shell.
There's also the matter of Oakland's 23rd-ranked defense—a unit that looks no better than it did when it last took the field. Whitehead's a serviceable NFL linebacker with 100-plus tackles each of the last two years, but he's even more of a liability against the pass than NaVorro Bowman was in 2017.
The secondary, on the other hand, gained a decent cornerback in the 28-year-old Melvin. But it also lost one in T.J. Carrie, 27, who signed with the Cleveland Browns.
Treading water would be fine if Oakland were sixth against the pass a season ago. The Raiders were 26th, however, allowing 241.1 yards per game. With only about $8 million in cap space, per Over the Cap, and the Mack extension looming, there's only so many holes that can be patched.
Make no mistake: This is Gruden's show. Oakland may still have a general manager in Reggie McKenzie, but as Bair wrote, Davis left little doubt as to who is in charge. The owner said:
"They have roles to play. At this point in time, the role Reggie plays now is a little different than the role he played with Jack (Del Rio), a little different than his role working with Dennis (Allen). It evolves. He has built the team to where we are now, and we're in pretty good shape with the cap and everything else. Now he has a head coach who's going to be running this thing for the next 10 years. His vision is going to be most important building what type of team we've got. That vision, and that direction is going to be helpful to Reggie more so than not. I think they'll work together very well."
Gruden's getting the players he wants and getting rid of the ones he doesn't. If it results in a quick return to prominence and an eventual trip to the Super Bowl, he'll be hailed as a franchise savior for bringing back the "Commitment to Excellence."
However, with an offense that will depend on veterans who appear well past their primes, a special teams unit that's now one big question mark and a defense with issues at linebacker and in the secondary, a step back looks to be almost as likely as that leap forward the franchise is counting on. Maybe even more so.
If that tumble comes to pass, that $10 million a season Gruden's getting could start looking like the biggest head-coaching boondoggle in NFL history.