OAKLAND, Calif. — Initially, there's the expected misery.
The distinct feeling that you've plummeted into football hell.
From the Oakland Raiders sideline, the most audible sounds come from grown men in face paint, shoulder pads, spikes and scowls as they boo the team that's abandoning them for Las Vegas. One rogue drunk chants a sarcastic "Let's Go Vegas!" with a clap-clap-clapclapclap from the first row, and nobody seems to care. Once this soul-sucking 42-28 loss to the Colts is complete, players and coaches all lumber through the carcass of a tunnel with the same zombie gait.
The Raiders will relocate to Las Vegas in 2020, but four more games in this stadium this season feel like four too many.
Then, the boss appears. The one who's reportedly making $100 million over the next 10 years should absorb the most vitriol. Surely, that pack of silver and black that awaits Jon Gruden above the tunnel will spray him with beer and curse words. Red in the face, eyes down, limping more than strutting, Gruden inches closer...and closer...and...
No TV cameras are around. Only 50 or so rabid fans nudge ahead of one another for a better view of their hero. You'd think the Raiders had just smashed the Colts—not the other way around.
Gruden slows down, looks up, nods.
"We'll be back."
Four days later, Gruden's team proceeds to lie down and die on national television against the 1-7 49ers. A franchise that's perpetually buying real estate at rock bottom has found a way to sink even deeper. Oakland is 1-7 and losing to quarterbacks you've never heard of.
That's because to bring the Raiders back, Gruden believes he must dismantle the team he inherited. And he's been granted unprecedented time, patience and power by owner Mark Davis to do so. Forget rebuilding—this is a demolition. More Armageddon than Fixer Upper.
Gruden talked to his team about fighting for a championship all summer, only to trade away a Hall of Fame talent just over one week before the 2018 season began. The shock of the Khalil Mack deal infiltrated his team's bloodstream like a virus, a virus that's only continued to spread and left everyone with the distinct fear that no job is safe here.
Gruden is grinding along—without a coherent plan.
Jordy Nelson, washed up, at $13 million guaranteed? Why not. Martavis Bryant for a third-round draft pick? Sure. Trade for Christian Hackenberg? Done. A.J. McCarron wasn't good enough to beat out Nathan Peterman, you say? Bring him aboard for a fifth. Hello, Derrick Johnson. Goodbye, Derrick Johnson. So long, Amari Cooper. Rashaan Melvin and Reggie Nelson, starters for at least five weeks each, are suddenly healthy scratches. And never mind that pesky pass-rush issue...there's no spot for Bruce Irvin on this team anymore.
Maybe there's a method to the madness, and Gruden will hoist a Lombardi Trophy again. But halfway through his not-so-triumphant return to coaching, Gruden has burned his team into a pile of rubble.
Sift through the remains and there are some players who are trying to believe, but there's no doubt about it: The destruction is taking a toll.
One Raiders vet looks around an empty locker room and shakes his head.
"They're trying to find a reason," he says, "to get anybody out of here."
Two years ago, the inside of the Raiders locker room was electric. The fourth-quarter comebacks were constant, Derek Carr was an MVP front-runner and Super Bowl dreams were real. Players spoke at length about knowing, with a certainty, they'd find a way to win when they trailed by double digits.
There was fun, laughter, magic in the air.
Now? Step into the Raiders locker room and you'll think you've stumbled into a funeral. Voices are slightly above a whisper. Only 11 players from that 12-4 team remain.
They're trying to find a reason to get anybody out of here.
— Anonymous Raiders veteran
In this tumultuous week of the Gruden era 2.0, anonymous players have ripped Carr for (allegedly) crying, and rumors are swirling that Gruden's about to trade as many guys as he can before the deadline. Most players are nowhere to be seen during media availability. For one prolonged stretch on a Thursday, only five practice-squad players pass through. Irvin, a man who's lived it all and was especially stunned (Warning: NSFW) at the Mack deal, refuses to lift his face out of his phone on a Friday.
Maybe it's because he can sense what's next for him, which is 24 snaps against the Colts, nine against the 49ers, and then a pink slip.
Inside his locker, cornerback Daryl Worley picks his beard with a comb. Whenever everything's brand new, he begins, you're starting at "Ground 1." Still, L after L after L in the present stings because players don't care about two, three, four years from now. They want to win. Now.
"We know it's a building process, but no one likes losing," Worley says. "You don't get into this game to lose—that's never our intention. ... It's definitely tough. You really play the game to win. It's hard when you have so many moving pieces, and you don't really have that concrete system yet. You have to look forward while also taking it day to day."
Tight end Lee Smith is a tad more blunt. He says motivation better not be a problem for anybody in the Raiders locker room when millions of everyday folks would jump into their shoes. Whatever long-term plan Gruden's devising, Smith believes, should have zero effect on players' effort level because, "It's our job as veterans to just do our damn jobs."
An admirable mentality, to be sure, but Smith is also in his eighth season. Veterans like him don't have time to wait around for whatever Vegas renaissance is dancing in Gruden's head. This could tick veterans off. Veterans want to win now.
"Absolutely. You work your butt off to win now. None of these guys are bench-pressing or squatting and running in February and March [to]...," says Smith, cutting himself short. "At the same time, we still have a job to do."
After he took over, Gruden turned the Raiders into the NFL's oldest team at an average age of 27.4 years. He basically envisioned a contender, suddenly did not, traded Mack and trapped everyone in a black hole of confusion. Take Melvin. The 29-year-old corner signed a one-year, $5.5 million deal with the Raiders, started five games, struggled and ripped coaches on Twitter. To which Gruden said in a press conference: "Melvin is on his seventh team. Maybe he is confused about what technique he is using."
The next time the Raiders played, there was Melvin. Benched. With a No. 22 chain around his neck, hands clasped behind his back, Melvin slowly paced the sideline for three hours. The next week, he was benched again. Melvin wants to play physical man-to-man coverage, wants to get into the face of receivers and insists he's played the same way his entire career.
Which is not, you know, what Gruden said.
"Very frustrating," Melvin says. "Very challenging. A lot of uncertainty. A lot of times, going out there and being uncomfortable.
"He's the head coach. This is his organization. This is his team. You take what he said and move on."
Blind hope still resides in this Raiders locker room. There's running back Jalen Richard, promising that wins come in bunches and the Raiders simply need a play or two each game to flip the result. There's returner Dwayne Harris, saying that when this schedule came out, players took a gander and expected to contend. Even at 1-5, Harris maintained they possessed the talent to win 10 straight. There are Pro Bowlers here. Playoff experience. That may be, but the problem is many of those veteran signings have backfired on Gruden, and he hasn't shown much of a willingness to develop young players.
Take Cooper, whose trade to Dallas hurt the coach's credibility in certain corners of the locker room.
Multiple players say Gruden told the team that Cooper would not be traded. The next thing they knew, Cooper was pulled off the practice field and shipped off to the Cowboys. Players found out about the deal on their phones after practice, as Gruden chatted with ESPN about the trade before he talked to his own team. True, he has since tried to clear the air, and the deal has come to be universally praised. Getting a first-round pick was Sam Hinkie-level processing and downright robbery compared to later picks dealt for Golden Tate and Demaryius Thomas. But Gruden still essentially lied to his players.
A disconnect was painfully obvious. And that was the danger in hiring Gruden: how he'd relate to the modern-day player after a decade in a broadcast booth.
Not to mention the fact that he gave up on a 24-year-old loaded with talent.
"All the guys that leave here, man, it shocks me to see," wide receiver Seth Roberts said. "But you know, that's how the league is. I think Amari...I know Amari's going to go there and blow it up."
Five seconds later, Roberts insists he's sold on Gruden's vision.
Because, oddly enough, it's also a fact that many players genuinely love playing for Gruden. Worley says the coach remains passionate and uplifting no matter what's going on and that players "feed off it." Defensive end Fadol Brown appreciates that Gruden doesn't care how you got here, adding that he's building a team that's "physical, smart, relentless." Richard calls his coach a "turnt-up individual" who listens to his players and implements their input to his coaching.
Richard then cautions that while Gruden's door is open to players, they better prepare themselves.
Gruden and his assistant head coach, Rich Bisaccia, never pull punches.
"He's going to shoot the s--t with you," Richard says. "You've got to have thick skin. These dudes are going to talk s--t to you. Like, 'You f--king suck.' OK, not 'f--king suck.' But they're going to f--k with you, like 'What the f--k are you doing on this video?!' They're going to be blunt guys. So you have to have thick skin and shoot the s--t back. I like that s--t."
It's the way Gruden's always been. It's the way he weeds out the weak.
His demeanor, his tough love, his Wild West approach to personnel may be one massive math equation on a blackboard that spits out exactly the type of player Gruden believes he needs to win. Calculated, full-scale attrition. The only problem is that running a team this way can damage the psyche of current players. When Mack and Cooper and who knows next are dumped, it's hard not to feel the coach is quitting on this season, quitting on this team.
So they, in turn, quit on Gruden.
There's Migos blaring in the Raiders locker room on a Friday, and it's not by accident. The music's so loud, and the bass so explosive, it vibrates all the way outside, where Gruden holds a press conference. Richard could sense the need for a jolt of energy this week, so he figured he'd get players on their feet.
Dancing, chanting, loving life.
Richard wants everyone in this room to keep the right perspective. Yes, the Raiders may release you any day now. That doesn't mean you should tiptoe around on eggshells. Not at all. Richard wants everyone to cherish every second of every day, wants that mindset to become contagious.
"We have to have fun with this!" he says, slowly turning the music down to chat. "You could be here today and gone tomorrow. Enjoy it. Understand that we have nothing to worry about."
He has a perspective born of a realization that football is part of life, but it's not all of it. On Oct. 3, at 4:46 p.m., Richard's daughter, Jhett, was born. And through the long nights, the diaper-changing, that one time he needed to cut Jhett's onesie open because it was so messy, he has never stopped smiling. As Richard laughs and laughs and explains the art of passing your baby off to mom when you think she's about to go No. 2 all over you, it's clear that more players here must adopt his Zen.
Richard is certainly trying to help them.
He knows stress can poison the mind of any professional athlete. Far more than outsiders realize. Here in Oakland, during the preseason, Richard sensed that wideout Ryan Switzer was worried about being traded. So he told Switzer what he tells everyone here now: You have food at the crib. You have a refrigerator full of food. You're good! Switzer was, indeed, one of Gruden's first casualties when he was traded to Pittsburgh on Aug. 27...but Richard's message must've stuck. Switzer scored a touchdown three games later and has been employed since.
Not everybody can handle this business, and business is more volatile than ever in Oakland.
"People don't understand the stress you're under," Richard says. "How everybody is hitting your phone—'I need help for this. I need help for that.' That's a weight on your shoulders. We're providing for our family but on an even larger scale. It's just a little different than somebody else going to a little, regular job. This is not solidified for years. You can work your way up in the business and do that your whole life.
"We'll be done with football in our 30s. Most are done before their 30s."
One of Bisaccia's go-to lines sticks with Richard: "Your only job as a professional is to protect your job." One of Irvin's lines to him when he was a rookie in 2016 also sticks: "As long as you make plays, you'll have a job." Yet as this 2018 season crumbles, players have every reason to tune out their head coach. His actions keep devouring his words, rendering whatever Gruden says as gibberish.
Gruden laments the pass rush constantly...after trading a generational pass-rusher. Gruden is taken to school, weekly, by younger coaches...after admitting in the offseason he wouldn't rely on "modern technology." Gruden insists players are "dying" to play for the Raiders...and most of the country laughs.
When your boss is so obviously focused on the future, on Vegas, on a team he doesn't even have right now, it's difficult to buy into what he's saying in the present.
"I look at it like, S--t, he's our coach," Richard says. "It's like being in a relationship. You have to commit all the way or it ain't going to work. Some vets may have their opinion about it, but at the end of the day, we have to ride with him because that's our coach. We have to ride all together. This ain't basketball. It takes all 11. You can't just have somebody go for 40 and pull you out of some s--t. It takes a collective unit."
If it looks like these Raiders have mentally shifted into autopilot, maybe they have.
Richard is doing his best to zap all stragglers back to life.
He calls those who are trashing Carr "knuckleheads" because he'd sacrifice his body for Carr any play, any day. Richard knows others do not share this opinion. Including some in management. After all, Oakland can save $15 million in cap room by releasing the quarterback after the season.
As Richard speaks, Reggie Nelson leans in from a couple of lockers down.
"You're the only one doing interviews," the veteran safety says. "So when those quotes come out..."
"You see me, huh?" says Richard, chuckling. "Lee [Smith] told me like five people dropped some anonymous s--t.
"I'm putting my name, my stamp on my s--t! 'Spook said it! Spook said this!'"
This sport is a legal fight to him—"You can legally whup somebody's ass!" he says—and he believes Gruden understands that; understands players need to have each other's backs 24/7. Building this kind of culture can take years. And that may be why Richard doesn't see Gruden's trades as the beginning of the end but rather the mark of a team that's thinking ahead. One that doesn't want to be stuck in neutral. One that will fight.
Gruden was not made available for this story, but there's no doubt he loathed Mack's holdout and the message that would've been sent to everyone if he caved into his demand for a historic contract at the eleventh hour.
This is where actions certainly meet words. Players repeat that Gruden sincerely does not care where you came from. So out is Mack and in are players like Fadol Brown, who makes 2 percent of what Mack will average each season over the course of his contract. Brown promises that nobody works harder than him, pointing to his unique path to Oakland: from zero college offers to a "BS prep school" with classes that weren't even accredited to Florida International to three weeks at a JUCO to Ole Miss to a free-agent deal with the Raiders.
Brown is used to operating with a razor-thin margin for error. None of this chaos fazes him.
"The way this league works, it's what you do now," Brown says. "It's your performance now. It could be your very last day or you could be here for 10 years. Who knows?"
Brown, like Richard, defends the Mack trade. He believes Oakland can find eight starters with that $141 million.
And therein lies Gruden's challenge as Raiders czar: finding players. He'll have three first-round picks and $80 million in cap space (according to Spotrac.com) to use next offseason—a general manager's dream—but there are no guarantees he'll use this all for good. His first offseason in Oakland was an obvious calamity. Back in Tampa Bay, it's not like Gruden was a master rebuilder. No, Gruden inherited a Super Bowl-ready roster, and once the talent Tony Dungy nurtured dried up, poof, Gruden was fired. He was anointed a QB guru by his next employer when he was anything but in Tampa Bay, having shuffled through nine starters. (All along, internally, Gruden was known as someone who was far too quick to give up on young players.)
The way this league works, it's what you do now. It's your performance now. It could be your very last day or you could be here for 10 years. Who knows?
That may not be the most comforting thought when it's clear Gruden is not finished cleansing this Raiders roster. The slate will practically be empty in March.
Who knows what that math equation will spit out.
All Raiders fans should run for the hills.
Burn your jerseys. Sell your tickets. Ignore Gruden's blustery nonsense. Find a new team.
Yet, for one day, they do not. For one day, at Oakland-Alameda Coliseum, time stands still. The tailgates outside are buzzing, from the crew of fans in their 20s playing beer pong as E-40's "Tell Me When to Go" blares, to the stream of fans in their 30s and 40s in Darren McFadden and Jeff Hostetler and Nnamdi Asomugha jerseys herding into the stadium. These fans are raw, real. Make eye contact with them and you don't know if their direct stare is screaming, Join me for a beer! or, You wanna fight!?
That's the level of loyalty owner Mark Davis has ditched for bachelor parties in Vegas. Authentic fanbases that fill stadiums don't seem to matter to NFL owners as long as those stadiums are monstrosities that lure corporate sponsors. As the Raiders and Colts trade haymakers on this Sunday, about 400 miles away, the Los Angeles Rams are forced to use a silent count...at home...with stars all over their roster...to simply function in a stadium that essentially transforms into Green Bay East.
The same bizarro world awaits these Raiders in 2020.
Yet for one day, Carr is worth every penny of his five-year, $125 million contract. He muscles through a sure sack, fires a bullet to Brandon LaFell in the end zone and leaps into the air, screaming at full throat. Up in the press box, incensed that his team is losing to lowly Oakland, 28-21, Colts GM Chris Ballard mumbles "That's just f--king stupid" under his breath and clenches a fist.
Then, the magic dies. The Colts score 21 unanswered. Game over.
There's no Migos blaring afterward. No music at all. The Raiders locker room is funeral-quiet, again, wherever you look. The weight of a season that's spiraling out of control falls on the players whose job it is to play on for two more months.
Safety Karl Joseph has no clue if he'll be around for long, saying he's leaning on his faith to get through.
Melvin bites his tongue. Asked if there's trust in management here, he doesn't offer much of an endorsement. "I don't have too much to say about it."
Roberts notes a decimated offensive line is holding Oakland back. "That's like someone protecting you," he says, "and you know that your guy is not there for you. You're going to be a little shaky."
All week, players insisted practice was different, that their spirits were renewed, and it still wasn't enough.
In defense of his sieve of a defense, Richard stays positive. "S--t, you're going against Andrew Luck!" The Raiders are embarrassed by Nick Mullens four days later.
Sometimes, football isn't complicated.
"If you ain't got the players, you ain't going to win," Richard says. "It's a players' league. You can call whatever, but we have to go out there and execute the s--t. You can have the best play dialed up in the world, but if the motherf--king wide receiver gets jammed at the line and can't get off, and everything is blocked up and you have the look that you want, and he just doesn't do it, it just doesn't happen."
He's correct. Players do win and lose games. The problem is, Gruden's choosing those players, and they're not fighting for him.
The future is as dark as it's ever been for the Raiders, and it'll only get darker. The cheering mob that's awaiting "Chuck-ee!" above that tunnel will gradually vanish as the likes of Philip Rivers and Patrick Mahomes and Ben Roethlisberger take turns blistering their team every week. But, hey, there's some good news for you, Oakland.
The entire Raiders team will vanish soon.
Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.