2018 NFL Preview: This Jon Gruden-Raiders sequel is a little weird and really fascinating

Shutdown Corner

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2018 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 1, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

I was at Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden’s podium at the NFL scouting combine when he made the comment that has followed him all offseason. I thought he was being far from serious when he said it.

“Are you talking about the analytics, the GPA, all the modern technology? Man, I’m trying to throw the game back to 1998,” Gruden said with his trademark smirk.

Even if he was joking, Gruden should know how it works in 2018. That became the meme. Every time the Raiders’ offseason was mentioned after that, so was “I’m trying to throw the game back to 1998.”

But this much is true too: Gruden gave all the “1998” jokes life with a strange offseason.

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The Raiders put a strange priority on old players and a style that seems like a better fit 20 years ago. They made it a point to retain 32-year-old running back Marshawn Lynch, then sign 33-year-old former Green Bay Packers star receiver Jordy Nelson. The Raiders re-signed blocking tight end Lee Smith, then signed free-agent blocking tight end Derek Carrier. Running back Doug Martin was signed to recapture his Pro Bowl form he last flashed three years ago. The Raiders signed or re-signed 23 free agents, according to Spotrac, and 20 of them are at least 28 years old. The only three “young” free agents were cornerback Daryl Worley, cut by the Eagles after he was charged with a DUI and a gun violation, fullback Keith Smith and Carrier. Twelve of the Raiders’ free-agent signees are in their 30s.

Sometimes jokes come easy and often because they write themselves.

The Gruden sequel has been eventful, and he hasn’t even coached a game yet. He blew up the coaching salary structure with his record 10-year, $100 million deal to finally come out of the “Monday Night Football” booth. His hiring, which Raiders owner Mark Davis said was practically clinched before last season was over, brought about a debate on the NFL’s “Rooney Rule,” though the league ruled the Raiders were in compliance.

Then came the overhaul of the roster. That included a draft that had more risky picks than any other team. Part of the draft was the trade of a third-round pick for Steelers receiver Martavis Bryant, who may or may not be facing a suspension, but is a gamble regardless.

This Gruden experiment is going to be something to watch. Gruden was the white whale of coaching searches for years, a former Super Bowl-winning coach whose profile got even bigger as he starred on TV and played hard to get with NFL teams. The Raiders finally gave him the offer he couldn’t refuse.

These two things can both be true about Gruden: It was a home-run hire, and it might not work. Gruden was a perfect hire for the Raiders, who will be moving to Las Vegas soon. It was expensive, but it raises the franchise’s profile while also calling back to the last time the Raiders were a viable contender. He was clearly the best option for the Raiders.

Yet, what Gruden is trying to pull off is rare. Coming back to coach after a long time off worked for Dick Vermeil. It did not work out for Joe Gibbs, Tom Flores, Art Shell or Mike Ditka. Nine seasons is an eternity in the NFL. Gruden was around the game the nine seasons he wasn’t coaching, and he famously works hard (you want a scavenger hunt? Try looking for a Gruden profile that doesn’t mention how much he works), but that’s a long layoff. His last playoff win was that Super Bowl win for the Buccaneers over the Raiders in January of 2003. The quarterbacks in his last NFL game – coincidentally enough, against the Raiders – were JaMarcus Russell and Jeff Garcia. It has been a long time since he was on the sideline, and we have no idea if he’s the same old Chucky or if the game has passed him by. It’s also worth noting his final six seasons as Tampa’s coach produced a 45-51 record.

It’ll be entertaining, however. The Raiders are in a strange place, with a team that looked so promising in 2016 but struggled most of last season. There’s also the unusual setting of Oakland, which knows it is losing its team to Las Vegas soon (though, to Raiders fans’ credit, they’re still are supporting the team as usual).

The wild offseason didn’t make the picture any clearer. Since Gruden’s “1998” comment has been twisted pretty thoroughly, how about we let him explain what he really meant?

“We got more analytics than probably any (other) team in the league,” Gruden told the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s Michael Gehlken. “We have all the gimmicks and gadgets, and we’re going to have a DJ on the practice field. We’re going to throw bubble screens and RPOs (run-pass options). We’re going to have all the statistical data that everybody else has.

“But when I say 1998, I’m going to do this very similar to how I did it then (when first joining the Raiders). We’re going to bring in a lot of free agents that are going to help us send a message, set the tone. We did it (in 1998) with Richard Harvey and Anthony Newman and Elijah Alexander and Eric Allen. We brought in a lot of guys who were pros that love football, that will compete and fight for the Raiders. That’s kinda what I meant, ‘taking it back to 1998.’

“I’m not going to argue with people. They can type what they want, say what they want, and I’ll be respectful of it. But I know what I’m trying to do.”

Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden is back after nine seasons away from NFL coaching. (AP)
Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden is back after nine seasons away from NFL coaching. (AP)

As stated earlier, it’s hard to sort out all the moves. I think Jordy Nelson for Michael Crabtree at receiver is probably a push. Linebacker Tahir Whitehead got the largest total deal from Oakland in free agency this offseason (three years, $19 million) and he’s inconsistent. I thought the best signing was cornerback Rashaan Melvin for one year and $5.5 million, though the Raiders lost solid slot corner T.J. Carrie. It was strange to see the Raiders bring in guys like offensive tackle Breno Giacomini and running back Doug Martin, who have failed elsewhere. The draft could work out, but how could we possibly know? Every pick seemed risky. First-round offensive tackle Kolton Miller went higher than expected and he’s an athlete who needs technique work. Defensive end Arden Key’s off-field problems, particularly with marijuana, pushed him to the third round. Fourth-round pick Nick Nelson, a cornerback, tore his meniscus in a pre-draft workout, and fifth-round pick Maurice Hurst, a defensive tackle, was flagged for a heart condition at the combine. Linebacker Azeem Victor, a sixth-round pick, was suspended twice by Washington last season including one for a DUI charge. And then add Martavis Bryant, acquired in a trade for a third-round pick. Bryant is a talented receiver who has spent most of his NFL career in trouble with the league, mostly due to marijuana as well. Could all these high-variance moves work out? Theoretically, sure. But it’s more risk than I’d want to deal with in one offseason.

GRADE: D-plus

The Raiders still have a franchise quarterback and a superstar pass rusher. That’s a great foundation. Derek Carr is coming off a tough season, which was affected by a fractured transverse process in his back, but I still believe in him and think he’ll be fine with health and Jon Gruden’s guidance. Khalil Mack was the 2016 NFL defensive player of the year, and he has the talent to win it again. I think he’ll be great in new coordinator Paul Guenther’s scheme. Having those two leaders is a good place for the Raiders to start.

The last time the Raiders defense ranked in the top half of the league in points allowed was 2002. Since 2002, they have ranked in the top half of the NFL in yards allowed only twice. Over the last five years, they have failed to rank higher than 20th in either category. The defense has been a problem for a while, and there’s no great reason to believe it will take a big leap this season. What, Tahir Whitehead is going to lead a revival? Swapping out Ken Norton for Paul Guenther at defensive coordinator might be a big improvement, but it’s still a defense that has Khalil Mack and little else. Since 2011, the Raiders have had two Pro Bowl defenders other than Mack: Charles Woodson, who works for ESPN now, and safety Reggie Nelson, who is 34 years old. There are a few promising young players – defensive end Mario Edwards, safety Karl Joseph, cornerback Gareon Conley – but Guenther has a big challenge to turn this into an above-average defense.

I’ve always thought highly of Derek Carr, but last season was a step back. From 2016 to 2017, Carr had a dip in completion percentage, yardage, touchdowns, yards per attempt, adjusted yards per attempt (a telling Pro Football Reference stat for quarterbacks), passer rating and QBR. About the only number that got a bump up was interceptions. It was a tough one across the board, and you have to assume a broken transverse process bone in his back affected him far beyond the one game he missed. I’m fine giving Carr a mulligan due to the injury and the general malaise around him. Coordinator Todd Downing’s scheme, which seemed to focus more on horizontal routes than the vertical game, wasn’t a good fit for Carr either. Carr finished 26th among NFL quarterbacks with 8.3 intended air yards per pass, a solid measure of how often a quarterback is throwing downfield, via NFL Next Gen Stats. Downing was replaced by Greg Olson. Carr is 27 years old, was on a nice ascension before 2017 and was one of the better quarterbacks in football two years ago. Last year was ugly, but he’ll be fine.

Since we know Khalil Mack is a lock to produce at a high level, let’s shift the focus to the curious case of Amari Cooper. Guys who produce like Cooper through their first two seasons (155-2,223-11) don’t suddenly lose it at age 23. That’s especially true for someone talented enough to be drafted fourth overall. Last season, however, Cooper disappeared. He had 48 catches for 680 yards, though he did score seven touchdowns. He had a great 210-yard game against the Chiefs — if you have any long-term concerns about Cooper go back and watch that truly dominant performance — and broke an 87-yard touchdown against the Chargers late in the season. Remove that one game and one highlight play, and he had 383 yards the rest of the season. It made sense when, after the season, quarterback Derek Carr said an injured Cooper was playing on “one foot.” Jon Gruden has singled out Cooper as a player who will be used a lot in his offense, and it’s probably smart to bet on a full rebound for Cooper. He’s too young to have simply fallen apart.

From Yahoo’s Liz Loza: “With an average draft position of 175.3 (RB53), Doug Martin poses incredible fantasy value. The Raiders’ backfield figures to be used early and often, as Jon Gruden has unabashedly advocated for the return to a run-first offense. The former TV commentator also has close ties to Tampa Bay’s organization, which makes the addition of Martin especially intriguing. While Marshawn Lynch (who Gruden, in his first presser as HC of the Raiders, admitted to never having met) remains on the team, the vet is entering age-32 season. It makes sense then that Martin, who has demonstrated renewed ‘burst,’ could push the former Seahawk for touches.”

[Juggernaut Index: Fantasy outlook on the Raiders.]

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The Raiders had a minus-14 turnover margin last season. Only the Broncos and Browns (with a ghastly minus-28) were worse. You’re not winning anything with that turnover margin. And it’s not like the Raiders had a bad run of fumble luck; they just were horrible at protecting the ball and forcing takeaways. The Raiders led the NFL with 33 fumbles (they lost 14), and added 14 interceptions. The defense had just five interceptions, last in the NFL and two fewer than any other team. The Raiders set an NFL record by not recording their first interception until Week 12 last season. If the Raiders could get the turnover margin just back to even, they’ll be better in 2018.

HOW MUCH DOES MARSHAWN LYNCH HAVE LEFT?

Lynch’s comeback was a fun story, but his season seemed underwhelming. He had just 891 rushing yards. However, if you take a long look, Lynch still looked like a quality NFL back. He was efficient. Last season’s coaching staff just never used him a lot.

Lynch averaged 4.3 yards per carry. His career average is … 4.3 yards per carry. He averaged 7.6 yards per catch on 20 receptions, which is close to his career mark of 7.8. His seven rushing touchdowns on 207 carries was a touch ahead of his career rate. Was Lynch the same back he was when the Seahawks were going to Super Bowls? Of course not; he was 31 years old. But he was not bad and it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s productive again this season. It’s not a big surprise that Jon Gruden said he wants Lynch to be a big part of his offense.

“Looking at the film and a game I broadcast on Christmas night, there’s no question: He’s still a beast that’s hard to bring down,” Gruden said at the combine. “One of the reasons I’m excited to be with the Raiders is to join forces with Lynch.”

The Raiders were one of the best stories of the 2016 season, before Derek Carr’s leg injury. Last season was tough in many ways, but a swift turnaround could happen. There’s a reason Jon Gruden’s name was in every coaching search story for years. He’s a respected football mind. If Gruden and his staff are significant upgrades, Carr stays healthy, Amari Cooper gets back on track and Khalil Mack finds some help, the Raiders could battle for the AFC West title again. Just a year ago, that’s what a lot of people expected they would do.

This isn’t a young roster anymore. The Raiders look like they’re built to win now. It’s a little scary if most of the risks don’t turn out. And while I don’t think Jon Gruden has lost It or anything, what if he has? That $100 million contract means he’ll be coaching this team for a long time, win or lose. The Raiders play in a good division, and a last-place finish is well within the range of possible outcomes.

The NFL is a young man’s game. I still like the hire of Jon Gruden, but their offseason was odd. The Raiders have good talent, but I prefer the other three teams in their division. I think it will be a transition year for Gruden, and I think the Raiders finish fourth in the AFC West. They would probably be the best last-place team in the NFL, though that wouldn’t be of much comfort to Oakland fans.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. Indianapolis Colts
30. New York Jets
29. Arizona Cardinals
28. Buffalo Bills
27. Cincinnati Bengals
26. Chicago Bears
25. New York Giants
24. Miami Dolphins
23. Washington Redskins
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
21. Houston Texans
20. Seattle Seahawks

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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