Oakland Raiders: Five weeks in, we’re still waiting for that 1998 revival

CARSON, CA - OCTOBER 07: Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden walks out to the field ahead of the game against the Los Angeles Chargers at StubHub Center on October 7, 2018 in Carson, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
CARSON, CA - OCTOBER 07: Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden walks out to the field ahead of the game against the Los Angeles Chargers at StubHub Center on October 7, 2018 in Carson, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images) /

Oakland Raiders HC Jon Gruden made plenty of bold statements coming in, and yet one that got a lot of attention has yet to come to pass.

When Oakland Raiders new/old HC Jon Gruden came storming in, it was with all of the bluster, bravado, and high, almost manic energy we’ve come to expect – and even enjoy – about the man. His passion and enthusiasm are endearing, and infectious to many.

Unfortunately, that energy, passion, and enthusiasm hasn’t translated into many wins just yet. Like at all.

Oakland’s 1-4 start has been largely due to the team’s inability to hold on to leads in the second half of games. In their first three games, the Raiders held leads heading into the second half. Against Miami and Denver, they held leads until late in the fourth quarter.

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All they had to do was burn the clock, control the tempo of the game, and not make any stupid mistakes. This team could easily be 4-1, or worst case, 3-2, if they’d just managed to hold on to a lead.

And yet, here we are. 1-4, with more questions than answers. In fact, at the moment, we have more questions than we did when the season started.

Through this horrendous start, filled with uneven, inconsistent, and sometimes, downright terrible play, one question is lingering out there, that seems to have fallen by the wayside. It was one of Gruden’s boldest statements – in an offseason filled with them – that isn’t being touched on. And it probably should be, as the answer might be the key that helps unlock the enigma that is this Raiders team.

The question that should be asked, yet isn’t being asked – or at least, not very loudly – is, whatever happened to the 1998 revival Gruden swaggered in and promised he was bringing with him?

Surely you remember the line, right? It was one that got a lot of mileage, and even more laughter, from people using it to prove that Gruden had lost his mind, and that he was out of touch with the modern NFL game.

"“Man, I’m trying to throw back the game to 1998. I still think doing things the old-fashioned way is the right way.”"

On the surface, it sounds kind of ridiculous, admittedly. However, some folks probably made a lot more hay of it than was necessary, and interpreted it in ways that weren’t exactly accurate. But hey, they made for some good headlines, and clickbait fodder, so it’s all good, right?

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On a deeper level though, when you take that flippant remark, and look at his personnel moves this offseason, you get the distinct impression that he wasn’t being as snide or flippant as he tried to make himself out to be, after the fact.

He already had mauling offensive line in place. But then, he went out and got a big, bruising fullback in Keith Smith. He retained a big, bruising tailback in Marshawn Lynch – a move that shocked a good many people who thought he was done. And he also brought in the change of pace back in Doug Martin, to pair with Jalen Richard.

Looking at that stable of running backs, at the make up and composition of the current group, you can’t help but see the echoes of the group Gruden assembled all the way back in the year – 1998.

Back then, Gruden had a big power back in Tyrone Wheatley. He had a bruising fullback in Zack Crockett. He had swift change of pace backs in Napoleon Kaufman, Charlie Garner, and Harvey Williams.

The similarities between the two sets of backs, from entirely different eras is more than clear, and seems to show that Gruden wasn’t entirely kidding about throwing the game – or more specifically, his offense – back to 1998.

The question though becomes – why hasn’t he fully committed to that offensive mindset?

Gruden’s offense seems caught somewhere in the middle of 1998 and now – he’s got the personnel of 1998, yet he’s trying to create a 2018 offense out of it. And the results haven’t been particularly effective. To say the least.

Las Vegas Raiders
Las Vegas Raiders /

Las Vegas Raiders

Think about it. The last time the Raiders were truly relevant was back in the early 2000’s, with Gruden at the helm. His offense was based on power running, which softened up the defense, which allowed Rich Gannon and his receivers to flourish.

It seems fair to say, at this point with hindsight, that had Oakland’s running game not been so successful back then, Gannon, and the overall offense wouldn’t have been as electric as it was. But, the entire offense was predicated on a strong, powerful running game.

To illustrate the point, look at Gruden’s track record from his first go ’round at the helm. In his first season as Oakland’s head coach, he was still presumable assembling the personnel who could successfully execute his offense. Napoleon Kaufman was the lead back at the time, but at five-foot-nine, 185 pounds, he wasn’t quite suited to the role in Gruden’s offensive system.

That year, the Raiders ranked seventeenth in rushing attempts in the league – which would be the low point of this particular data set. They rushed 449 times for 1,727 total yards, six touchdowns, and averaged a meager 3.8 yards per carry.

In 1999 is when things started to roll in Gruden’s system, as they acquired Wheatley, who at six-feet, 235 pounds, was (and presumably still is) Gruden’s ideal back. With Wheatley in the lead back role that season, the Raiders were seventh in rushing attempts, with 488. They gained 2,084 yards, scored 18 touchdowns, and averaged 4.3 yards per carry.

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In 2000, with Wheatley leading the way, the Raiders had the league’s third-most rushing attempts with 520, racking up 2.470 yards, and scoring 23 rushing touchdowns. They averaged a healthy 4.8 yards per carry that season.

2001, Gruden’s last year with the team, saw Wheatley miss five games with an injury, and the running game took a step back because of it, dropping to the twelfth-most carries in the league, for 1,654 yards, 14 touchdowns, and a regression to an average of 3.7 yards per carry.

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And it hardly seems to be a coincidence that between the years 1999-2001, the Raiders fielded one of the most high powered, explosive offenses in the league. To wit, in 1999, Oakland had the league’s fifth overall offense (eighth overall scoring offense). In 2000, they had the league’s sixth-ranked offense overall (third-ranked scoring offense). In 2001, they had the league’s seventh-ranked offense overall (fourth-ranked scoring offense).

And just for spits and giggles, if you want to include 2002, when Bill Callahan had Gruden’s roster – and infamously, the very same playbook – the Raiders were the league’s top-ranked offensive unit, and the second-ranked scoring offense. Only to get blown out in the Super Bowl because Callahan was still using Gruden’s playbook.

Anyway… what’s the walk down memory lane for, you might be asking?

Simple – Gruden’s offense has always been predicated on a power running game – both in Oakland, and Tampa Bay. And it’s had tremendous success. Coming back this season, he again proclaimed he was throwing things back to 1998, and assembled a running backs group that reflected his power running philosophy, and with it, a return to offensive glory. Right?

So, with all of the pieces in place, why then, is Gruden not giving us the 1998 revival he promised us? Why is he not predicating his offense – which has the pieces to be a powerful, high-octane unit – on a bruising, effective, power running game?

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  • For whatever reason, Gruden has taken his foot off the gas, in terms of ramping up the run game. What makes it even more maddening, is that against Miami and to some extent, against Denver, the run game was having some positive effect, and could have run the clock down, helping get them in a position to snag a much needed W.

    And yet, he went away from it anyway – as has been common this season.

    For the year, the Raiders rank nineteenth in rushing attempts with 124 through five games. That’s an average of a tick over 24 rushing attempts per game. And, what makes you want to pull your hair right out of your head, if you look at the play breakdown from each game, the majority of those rushing attempts came in the first half.

    Against the Chargers last week, it was understandable. They were in a huge hole early, and had to try to throw themselves back into it. Fine. Whatever. But, against Denver, and against Miami, when they held leads late in the game, why not give it to Lynch, who was getting stronger as the game went on, and was putting it to a couple of worn down, gassed defenses on hot days?

    Lynch, and even Martin, were having success rushing against a couple of teams in the late stages of a game in which they held a lead late.

    The 1998 version of Gruden’s Raiders would have kept running it straight down their throats until the other team proved they could stop it. The 1998 Raiders would have pounded and pounded the ball – and then pounded the ball a little more.

    It’s completely unclear what the 2018 Raiders are doing at this point.

    Oakland Raiders
    MIAMI, FL – SEPTEMBER 23: Marshawn Lynch #24 of the Oakland Raiders walks after a turnover during the fourth quarter against the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium on September 23, 2018 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images) /

    Gruden’s belief that doing things the “old fashioned” way is the right way of doing things. Yes, you need to definitely account for the new trends in defenses in 2018, but solid blocking up front, and a power back who can run through and around people, is almost impossible to stop.

    Gruden has both components in his arsenal. Yet, time, and time again, it seems that he fails to utilize them properly. Or – at all.

    The Raiders right now, seem caught somewhere between 1998 and the present, without a firm commitment to either way of being. And that’s leading this to be a horribly inefficient, and toothless, mostly punchless group.

    We saw what kind of offense this group can be when the squared off with Cleveland. Lynch turned his 20 carries into 130 yards on the ground. His power paved the way for Derek Carr to throw for 437 yards and four touchdowns – by far, his – and the team’s – best outing of the year.

    It was all part of an offensive effort that netted 565 yards of total offense and 45 points. But, it all started up front, with Lynch leading the way, and Oakland committing to a power run game – a la the 1998 Raiders.

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    Perhaps its a byproduct of having a new (old) coach, who is still trying to construct a roster in his image. Perhaps it’s the guys on hand still struggling to grasp the nuances of a complex system. Perhaps it’s some guys trying too hard, while others may not be trying hard enough.

    Whatever the reason(s) for the dumpster fire this season has been thus far, the fact still remains – it is a dumpster fire. Overall, this team looks worse than the 2017 Jack Del Rio edition of the team.

    And a good part of the problem seems to be that we’re still waiting for Gruden’s old-time revival to come rolling into town, because right now, 1998 doesn’t seem so bad, does it?