The final glimpse of the final regular-season prime-time NFL game in the history of the Oakland Coliseum provided one hell of a sight on Thursday night.
The Fox cameras caught Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden — eyes squinted, cheeks protruding, grin as wide as the Bay — triumphantly making his way across the front row of the Black Hole, dishing out bearhugs and daps and thank-yous to a score of uber-grateful silver and black-clad Raider fans.
Just moments earlier, the Raiders had improved to 5-4 — I repeat, 5-4! — after a thrilling 26-24 win over their AFC West rivals (for now?) Los Angeles Chargers. It gave the Raiders one more win than they totaled during their miserable 4-12 campaign in 2018, Gruden’s first year back at the helm in Oakland.
Who would have thought it? Not I. And not you, either.
Come on, admit it. Especially after Gruden’s first 20 months back, which featured more bad decisions than Robb Stark’s short-lived stint as the “King in the North.” Over the first year and a half in Oakland, Gruden — who runs the show in Oakland, despite what you hear — repeatedly did what he wanted to do football-wise, no matter the consequences.
You’re never gonna believe this, but the results were often disastrous. Remember the decision to deal a valuable third-round pick for troubled wideout Martavis Bryant (who is now out of football)? And what about the absurd decision to not only trade Khalil Mack, but also package some draft capital with him as well?
And who could forget the coup de gras, the decision to trade more draft capital to the Steelers in March for Antonio Brown, a player who became so much of a pain in Pittsburgh that the Steelers practically offered to drive him to the airport.
Brown predictably started showing his ass again in Oakland this summer, culminating in an embarrassing two-week period in which Brown initially escaped suspension following a widely publicized altercation with general manager Mike Mayock. Brown was released following his decision to release a video that included snippets of a private conversation between himself and Gruden.
In the conversation, Gruden was practically pleading with Brown to knock it off with all the sideshow antics and get back to playing football. It was a bad look for Gruden, one that made it easy to think it might affect his standing with his players, who often lose respect for coaches who don’t treat players equally.
Yet, here we are now, two months into the season, and while one could make a great argument that Oakland’s competency this season is a direct reflection of, well, Gruden’s competency, look where Brown is at right now.
He signed with New England, his dream scenario, almost immediately upon his release in Oakland (which again, was prodded by a string of antics that would have made Terrell Owens blush). He saw it blow up within two weeks of signing there, due to intimidating text messages he’d reportedly sent to a second woman who had accused him of sexual misconduct.
Brown is currently in the midst of addressing the sexual assault allegations that have been made against him — he’ll reportedly meet with the NFL this month — but his behavior still appears erratic, as he seems to vacillate between vowing to never return and promising to come back better than ever (and since Brown is an All-Pro receiver who, at the age of 31, is still at the tail end of his prime, teams remain interested in his services).
Provided he returns, Brown will be someone else’s problem.
Meanwhile, Gruden will, miraculously, come out of it unscathed. People don’t even talk about Brown’s ridiculous Raiders tenure much anymore, a testament to A) the warp speed that the news cycle moves due to social media and B) the fact Gruden’s Raiders continue to play hard for him and are genuinely spunky this season.
Gruden’s 2019 Raiders even have an identity. Oakland is going to commit to the run on early downs, stay ahead of the sticks and eventually try to beat opponents with Gruden’s schemed-up pass plays.
Defensively, they’re going to compete under Paul Guenther and maximize what they do best, despite owning one of the league’s most mediocre pass rushes.
And obviously, it’s working. Oakland — Oakland! — is above .500, despite facing the league’s third-toughest schedule, and for the first time in his second Raiders tenure, Gruden is looking like he might avoid the same fate as Joe Gibbs, another beloved coach who tried to go home again a decade later and found only mediocrity.
If he avoids that latter scenario, it will be no thanks to Brown, who in his desire to get out of town also did his damndest to put clown shoes on Gruden and the Raiders.
Now, two months later, nobody is laughing and cackling anymore at Gruden who, as evidenced by our final visage on Thursday night, seems to be getting the last laugh.
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