Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
After all the injuries, all the travel miles, and a tough past three weeks, Raiders have no choice but to look forward
The Oakland Raiders will exist as such for one more week, or three technically, until they begin moving operations and the base of the franchise to Las Vegas.
Head coach Jon Gruden has talked about respecting fans and the city of Oakland during this season. And now it’s down to one more home game in a stadium with lots of memories, some good, some bad.
There’s little doubt this team wants to end their time in Oakland with a bang.
“Deep down, everybody wants to deliver. We wanted to deliver yesterday. We don’t ever step into our own stadium, or any stadium, with the intention of doing anything but delivering for our fans. I’m sure guys who have been with the Raiders for a little while probably feel the emotion a little more than others.”
The bond between Raiders fans and the organization, and specifically Gruden, has been strong. “Some of them are crazy, they’re nuts, just like me. I think there is some common ground there to start with. I love football, love the Raiders. so do they.”
The coach, who has become almost as synonymous with the Oakland Raiders as John Madden and Tom Flores once were, wanted to downplay some of the nostalgia because he has a football game to focus on. But make no mistake about it, he loves Oakland.
“I didn’t come back here for any other reason than that I love this place; I love the fans. I’m disappointed with losing these games the last weeks. I’m really proud of the guys we’ve drafted, some of the players we’ve brought in, the effort that we’re getting. We’ve hit a patch of adversity here. and we’re going to need our fans one more time to go out with a bang, and get back on track.”
Gruden wouldn’t concede a playoff spot yet, but it was clear that the organization has begun looking forward. 2019 was never the main goal anyway.
“This has been a strange year. Not many teams play a home game in Canada, and play a home game in London, and finish a great run and have to move to another location. It’s tough on families, it’s tough on people, and it’s tough on fans. It is emotional, and it certainly will be on Sunday.”
On Monday, Gruden discussed some of the centerpieces of the Raiders moving forward, focusing most prominently on Josh Jacobs and Darren Waller. Of Jacobs, he was eager to discuss just how much of a gamer and competitor the rookie back is:
“He’s the real deal. He’s all you could ask for. He sat in my coach’s office, he wanted to play, and he got really emotional about not playing. He doesn’t want to let his teammates down. I don’t know where he’ll be this week, but if he’s ready to play, he’ll play. He’s a great back, and a centerpiece for our team moving forward.”
Gruden was equally impressed with Waller, who the Raiders awarded a handsome contract extension to earlier this season.
“I think it’s the greatest story in the game this year. I haven’t seen anything like it. I’ve been coaching the game a long time, and I’ve seen the game played at every level…it’s really a rare, almost unprecedented thing that I’ve seen happen, where a guy comes in really as a rookie tight end and catch 80 passes, and I think prove he can do just about anything you ask him to do. I think with he and Jacobs and some of the pieces we have assembled, we have some guys we can really build our franchise around.”
The story of how the Raiders found Waller, while not as inspirational as the one of how he turned his life around, is nearly as interesting. It was a bit lucky as it stemmed from a workout before the Raiders and Baltimore Ravens played a season ago.
“We saw him run…and I can remember Olson saying ‘Who the hell is that guy?’ And we found out he was on the practice squad, and we put him on our team.”
We all know the logistics of a decision are more complicated than that. Yet, the reality is when you find a talent you’re as smitten with as Gruden and Greg Olson were, it becomes a little less complicated, and a little more ‘do whatever it takes.’
“From the very first day we saw him, he’s been the most impressive athlete on this team. And now after one year, I can say he might be the most impressive athlete in this league. That’s the kind of special athlete he is…if you’re out there young people, get a Waller jersey.”
Waller and Jacobs are certainly part of the long-term plan. But what about Derek Carr? He wasn’t among the players specifically named by Gruden, which is curious, especially in the year 2019 when it is assumed in the NFL that the quarterback should be the most central piece of any franchise.
Gruden probably said more in silence than in any particular thing he said about Carr. “I’m not saying he played perfect football, but he played a good game. He played one of the best first halves yesterday he’s played since I’ve been here. Unfortunately, we didn’t sustain it.”
Perhaps if Gruden hadn’t made declarations about Jacobs, Waller, Foster Moreau — when discussing the rookie’s season-ending injury — or other players over the past few weeks, his silence would mean little.
Instead, Gruden has given Carr a week-to-week bode of confidence, but nothing long-term. Perhaps it’s still to come. Undoubtedly, he will be asked about it at the end of season press conference.
But it’s also possible that Gruden has his mind made up, and by praising him each week, he’s unofficially placed him on the trade block, hoping other NFL front offices will take notice and make an offer the Raiders cannot resist.
The Raiders already own two first round picks in the 2020 draft. I’m sure they wouldn’t turn down the opportunity for one or two more picks to add to their catalog if the right trade presented themselves.
The upcoming draft looks to be a strong one, especially at wide receiver and cornerback, two spots the Raiders should be ready to pounce on.
If the Raiders were to get rid of Carr, they’d of course need a quarterback as well. That’s where things could get tricky. Lots of teams need quarterbacks.
But it might allow the Raiders to use a model that has grown in popularity in this current CBA where a team drafts a rookie quarterback they can pay a relatively small salary to, while complementing him with a host of talent on the line and at skill positions.
It’s clear that the Raiders have a good line, and it has room for growth with the guys already in the building. They have at least two really good skill guys in Jacobs and Waller. And they have picks and salary cap space to add more and/or build up the defense.
It’s been a tough year, and a “rough patch” lately, but the future is bright for this Raiders franchise.