In 2018, in the midst of a burgeoning plan to move his franchise to Las Vegas, Raiders team owner Mark Davis did the unthinkable and offered former Super Bowl winning head coach and television personality Jon Gruden a 10-year contract to bring him back to the NFL. The first season was rough with lots of upheaval and trades of the teams two best players. Two years later, Gruden had the team in position to make it to the playoffs; it just didn’t happen.
For each of the last two seasons, the Raiders were 6-3 after nine games. Both seasons they got destroyed by a three-win team on the road in their 10th game and proceeded to fall apart. As the players, coaches and team executives sit at home and watch a team they beat, the Cleveland Browns, take on the two-seed in the AFC, serious questions need to be asked, yet with a mind towards optimism.
Of the central issues which ended up derailing the season, most of them were self-inflicted and can be fixed long term. Perhaps the most crucial is the consistent difficulties the team has found on defense. When Gruden took over, he picked Bengals assistant and defensive coordinator Paul Guenther to build back the defense exactly as he wanted it. Initially, Guenther was dealt a heavy blow with the trade of Khalil Mack. But in the last two years, the Raiders have signed five big free agents, spent a number of draft picks, including three first-round picks on defense, and have still been mostly inept.
For two seasons in a row, the defense has been in the bottom of the league in terms of sacks and turnovers forced. After consecutive 200-yard rushing performances against the Raiders late in the year, Gruden fired Guenther. The defense took some steps back purely from a raw number standpoint, however, the group proved to be situationally sounder, and made some significantly big plays when called upon.
That said, there is a huge gap that needs to be bridged to fit what Gruden is looking for in his team. To counter the Chiefs and win the division—as they were the only team to beat the Chiefs before the final week of the season when the playoffs were locked in—they have to be balanced by creating pressure and turnovers. Choosing a new defensive coordinator will be a huge decision.
The Raiders need someone who appreciates long, physical edge defenders and corners, with athletic linebackers, and a safety that could be a gamechanger used closer to the line of scrimmage most of the game. Bringing back Derrick Ansley, who left the Raiders in 2019 as a defensive backs coach to go to the University of Tennessee, would be a great call.
One of the great leaps that occurred this season was the performance of quarterback Derek Carr. In the first couple of games, he was still playing very tight, but after the first quarter of the season, he seemed to be a new player. Carr seemed to play more like the MVP candidate in 2014 that moved fluidly in the pocket, would scramble when needed, and took big shots down field. Carr developed an impeccable rapport with receiver Nelson Agholor and tight end Darren Waller. Agholor came in as a free agent and ended the season with 48 receptions, 896 yards, and eight touchdowns. Waller recorded 107 receptions for nearly 1,200 yards and nine touchdowns.
Carr’s two biggest issues this season were fumbles and the inability to get on the same page with rookie speedster Henry Ruggs. For Carr, he ended the season with eight fumbles lost and when combined with his interceptions, totaled 17 turnovers. That is not the same number to boast as the 3-1 touchdown to interception ratio he carried.
When it comes to Ruggs, Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock picked Ruggs as the first receiver in the draft due to his mentality. He was spoken about as the strongest receiver in the draft mentally, a true alpha type personality that coached the other receivers at Alabama University including Jerry Jeudy, who was exceptional for the Denver Broncos. Gruden saw in Ruggs what the Chiefs have in Tyreek Hill, but they do not put him in the scheme the way the Chiefs do for Hill. Instead, they ask him to be Tim Brown and he is not that well-timed or crisp with his routes.
Gruden has proved in his time with the Raiders that he is willing to incorporate new concepts. If he wants to see Ruggs succeed, then he will need to meet him halfway by setting him up to succeed.
Despite all of these issues that need to be addressed in the offseason, the Raiders did have what looked to be an inspiring campaign early on. The team beat quality opponents, including the Saints, Chiefs and Browns. They also dropped winnable games early on against the Bills and Patriots. By the time the end of the season rolled around, the team was crippled by injuries, COVID-19 issues, and general frustration. Ultimately, the coaching staff needs to figure out how to pull this group out of the downward spiral, because it has eaten them up two seasons in a row.
All of the frustration that occurred this season only tempered the considerable highs the team also achieved. It just seems that they are missing one or two components they need to put together something consistent. Find the right defensive coordinator to create even a middle-of-the-pack defense. Get all the weapons on the same page, including the young receiver trio of Ruggs, Edwards and Hunter Renfrow. Resign Agholor by cutting Tyrell Williams. Lastly, do not purge talent if you cannot replace it with as good or better talent in an easy way, especially when it comes to offensive linemen.
There should be considerable optimism for 2021, especially if the front office can make some intelligent moves this offseason and the draft adds a couple of key talents. Hopefully, for all people involved, 2020 was the wakeup call that showed everyone what the final key steps were to making a contender