Chucky’s Back: Raiders excited for Gruden’s return
ALAMEDA, Calif. (AP) — After nine seasons without competition in the broadcast booth, Jon Gruden needed only a few plays of the exhibition season to get his old sideline persona back.
A holding call that wiped out a touchdown brought out the temper that earned Gruden a nickname from the slasher movie “Child’s Play” during his first stint as coach in Oakland.
“Chucky came out for a brief moment right there,” Gruden said.
It was a moment Raiders fans had been waiting for ever since Gruden was traded to Tampa Bay following the 2001 season. Oakland lost the Super Bowl to Gruden and the Buccaneers the following year and managed just one more winning record since.
The good will might have ended when the Raiders traded their best player before the start of the season, dealing elite pass rusher Khalil Mack to Chicago for a package that includes two first-round picks.
Owner Mark Davis had been recruiting Gruden since he took over the franchise following the death of his father, Al, in 2011, and finally got his man this past offseason with a $100 million, 10-year contract to replace Jack Del Rio following a 6-10 season.
“It’s an honor to be back here and it’s a great story, but I also just want to do everything I can to try to help this team win again,” Gruden said. “I love the Raider fans, I love Oakland, and that’s the primary reason why I’m standing here.”
The love is mutual, as evidenced by the hundreds of fans who showed up at a preseason party hosted by Gruden at a local sports bar, and the excited crowds at the exhibition games.
But for all the nostalgia and Gruden’s talk of bringing the game back to 1998 when Al Davis first hired him as a head coach, Gruden will need to show his style has adapted since he last coached in Tampa Bay in 2008.
He has won over his players with his passion, knowledge and attention to detail, but none of that will matter without results on the field.
“What you see is what you get. Rah-rah guy,” edge rusher Bruce Irvin said. “I’ve never seen a person’s face stay red for seven periods at practice. The whole practice he is just red. He’s a great motivator.”
Here are some other things to watch:
MISSING MACK: Mack held out for the entire offseason and training camp while seeking a long-term contract that came after he was traded to the Bears. His absence leaves a big void. He won the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2016 and leads the NFL in QB pressures with 185 1-2 since entering the league, according to SportRadar. Oakland’s defense struggled the past few years even with Mack on the field. Gruden and new coordinator Paul Guenther will now need rookie Arden Key and veteran Bruce Irvin to make up for the loss.
DRIVE THE CARR: QB Derek Carr went from MVP candidate during a 12-win 2016 campaign to a struggling young passer a year ago as he dealt with an early-season back injury and suspect play from his receivers. Much has been made of how Carr will mesh with Gruden’s hard-driving personality, but the early signs are the two are hitting it off. Whether that leads to improved play remains to be seen. Carr will likely take more snaps under center in Gruden’s offense than he has in the past, but also will have more freedom to change plays at the line of scrimmage.
“He has a photographic memory. It comes so easy to him,” Gruden said. “He’s got the offense mastered more than I do, that’s for sure.”
INSIDE PUSH: The Raiders struggled to generate consistent pass pressure the past few seasons even with Mack and Irvin on the outside because of a lack of an inside rush. That’s why Oakland used two draft picks to upgrade that spot by selecting P.J. Hall in the second round and Maurice Hurst in the fifth. Hurst had been projected as a first-round pick before being sent home from the combine with a heart issue that the Raiders say is not a concern. Hall and Hurst have shined in the preseason and figure to provide a big boost to the defense.
POUND THE ROCK: Gruden has stressed a power-running game since getting hired in January and has the pieces in place to make it work. Oakland has a stout interior of the offensive line with center Rodney Hudson and guards Kelechi Osemele and Gabe Jackson. Marshawn Lynch played well in the second half of last season after coming out of retirement and looks even faster this year. Blocking tight end Lee Smith and fullback Keith Smith provide more support. Gruden hopes Doug Martin can regain the form that helped him run for more than 1,400 yards in 2012 and ’15.
COVER IT UP: The Raiders have been rotating through cornerbacks ever since Reggie McKenzie became GM in 2012. They hoped they solidified one of those spots last year when they drafted Gareon Conley in the first round, but he played only two games because of injuries. Conley looks healthy now and could be part of the most talented group of cornerbacks Oakland has had in years with free agents Rashaan Melvin, Leon Hall and Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie also in the mix.
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