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Chucky's back! Jon Gruden demands fire from Oakland Raiders

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NAPA, Calif. -- The first two days of Jon Gruden's first training camp in a decade had played out in idyllic fashion, with energized and engaged men in silver and black jerseys attacking their jobs in the heart of Northern California's wine country -- and the Oakland Raiders' current and former coach enjoyed every second of it.

To be fair, Gruden's satisfaction was hardly a given. Since returning from a highly successful stint in the "Monday Night Football" broadcast booth -- and signing a 10-year, $100 million contract with the franchise that had given him his first head-coaching opportunity 20 years earlier -- the restored ruler of Raider Nation had been conspicuously grumpy. He'd groused, publicly and privately, about everything from the league's 7-year-old rules limiting offseason workouts, to the popularity of analytics, to a Raiders roster he considered substandard.

All that crankiness seemed to fade when Gruden's players reported to training camp last month and hit the practice field with passion and purpose.

"Everybody was full of piss and vinegar," Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Olson recalled Wednesday. "But then, on the third day, guys started feeling a little tired, and there was a bit of a lag. And that's when Chucky came out."

Ah, Chucky: Gruden's alter ego, named after a demonic doll from the "Child's Play" horror movie franchise and popularized during his first stint with the Raiders, when he pushed Oakland into championship contention, only to be traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- and, in his first season, guide his new team to a shocking Super Bowl upset of his former one.

Suffice it to say that most of the men on the practice fields behind the Napa Valley Marriott Hotel and Spa on Day 3 of training camp lacked first-hand experience with Chucky.

A decade removed from his final season with the Bucs, Gruden exists in some minds as a cross between celebrity and caricature. In Napa, however, he kept it real, imposing his will as a cacophonous crusader against complacency, beginning with that memorable tirade to which Olson referred.

On Wednesday, the day before the Raiders were set to break camp in advance of Saturday's preseason game against the Rams at the L.A. Coliseum, Gruden grinned while recounting that Meet Chucky moment. Asked what triggered him, he replied, "I don't know what it was (specifically). It doesn't take much sometimes. But the gist of it was: I don't want to just run plays. I don't want to have one day, one play, and then on to the next one. I don't want time to go by like that. I want an urgency. And when I sense a lack of urgency, I react."

That said, Gruden spent much of training camp propping up the spirits of his players, deftly vacillating between motivational speaker and drill sergeant. In Olson's words, Gruden "has a way of pushing the right buttons, in terms of criticism on the field -- where he gets after guys -- and praise in the meetings, where he cracks people up. At first, I think they weren't sure if they could laugh or not. He keeps them stimulated and engaged. They don't fall asleep in his meetings, I promise you that."

Echoed 13th-year tackle Donald Penn, who played for Gruden in Tampa early in his career: "He keeps it hilarious. Meetings aren't boring, because he's so energetic. Guys aren't falling asleep and looking at their phones, because he's so animated. And that's why guys are picking up the offense so quickly, with better attention to detail."

In the months since Jack Del Rio's firing last Dec. 31, several current and former Raiders have privately complained about the prior regime's deficiencies, something not uncommon when a coaching change is made following a rough season. Given that the Raiders went 12-4 in 2016, ending a painful stretch of 13 years without a winning season or playoff appearance, there were enormous expectations heading into 2017. Oakland, however, sputtered to a 6-10 record, setting the stage for Gruden's return. One Raiders veteran said he believed Del Rio had become "complacent," both in terms of work ethic and enforcement of rules. There were issues on both sides of the ball, with defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. getting fired in November and first-year offensive coordinator Todd Downing emerging as a season-long target of criticism.

Now? Gruden and his handpicked defensive coordinator, Paul Guenther (who held the same job with the Cincinnati Bengals the previous four seasons), serve as each other's favorite target, providing an edge to this summer's practices.

"It's crazy," Guenther said. "Every day after practice, I feel like it's 4 o'clock on a Sunday. It's like a game, every day."

Said Gruden: "We argue and yell at each other every day. He's not the most conventional guy. That's why he's here. Pauly has a really unique gift, to coach and to teach and to understand schemes. ... He calls some unconventional stuff. And he's not afraid to dial up those calls. A lot of coaches draw up plays but never call them. Pauly will call them, and I love it."

And when Gruden doesn't love something? Well, he's not shy about sharing. During Wednesday's practice, he unloaded on third-year quarterback Connor Cook and first-year offensive lineman Cameron Hunt for failing to call out a defensive coverage, and at one point asked a group of other players, "Do you love football?"

In his case, the answer is obvious.

"You can tell he loves it," veteran pass rusher Bruce Irvin said of Gruden. "He eats, sleeps and breathes football, and he's having fun. He's an energetic guy, bro. He talks a lot of s---; I think that's why we get along. It carries over. I think we're gonna have a real physical football team because of it."

It helps, of course, that Gruden can back up his talk. Though general manager Reggie McKenzie stayed on after Del Rio's firing, Gruden is in charge of every meaningful football decision, and there are 100 million reasons why. Put it this way: When the man who hires you, owner Mark Davis, declares at your introductory press conference, "This is the best day of my life," it's pretty clear that you're the one running the show.

In flexing that power, Gruden has sent his share of not-so-subtle messages, beginning with the jettisoning of receiver Michael Crabtree (whose effort and discipline he questioned) and punter Marquette King (whom he regarded as a sideshow who craved media coverage).

He approached the draft like a man with unmatched job security, employing a high-risk, high-yield mentality in selecting players like third-round pass rusher Arden Key (who was suspended for a game at LSU and then took an extended leave of absence, reportedly to go to rehab to address his marijuana usage) and fifth-round defensive tackle Maurice Hurst (who wasn't cleared to participate in NFL Scouting Combine exercises after tests revealed a heart condition). The same applied to a draft-night trade with the Pittsburgh Steelers for talented wideout Martavis Bryant, who missed the entire 2016 season while suspended for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.

On Wednesday, Gruden compared Bryant to a "white tiger," in response to the receiver having missed some recent practices due to migraines.

Gruden was even more blunt in an NFL Network interview late last month when discussing the absence of star pass rusher Khalil Mack, who is holding out in the hopes of landing a lucrative long-term contract. "We weren't very good last year on defense with Khalil Mack," Gruden said.

On Wednesday, he elaborated: "S---, I'm trying to help him. Last year, we had one interception (through 12 weeks, and a league-low five on the season). That's not good. We had no third pass rusher. When [Mack] came out of the game, the quarterback could sit back there and take a five-step hitch and do whatever he wanted. Now we have a third guy, and we finally have an inside rush. At least now we have a chance. If he comes back, it should be pretty good for him. I think he could be better."

Earlier this week, Gruden made a significant move on the offensive side of the ball, shifting Penn -- who had just agreed to a restructured contract -- to right tackle, with first-round draft pick Kolton Miller taking over on the left side. Penn, not surprisingly, was less than thrilled.

"We talked after the draft, and he said he had a plan for me," Penn said Wednesday. "I didn't know the plan included a pay cut. But I'm good. He's back, and he's still the same guy. One thing I love about Gruden: He's gonna cuss out everybody. He doesn't care if it's Derek Carr or Khalil Mack. If it's not the way he wants it, he'll light into you."

By all accounts, Carr can take it. Though there's an obvious stylistic distinction between the potty-mouthed Gruden and the devoutly Christian Carr -- something the coach laughed off during our NFL Network interview shortly before the draft -- they're in lockstep, at least thus far, when it comes to unbridled devotion to the cause.

"Oh, it's terrible," Carr joked of his relationship with Gruden while lifting weights after practice Wednesday. "Neither one of us loves football, at all."

If nothing else, they share an affinity for sarcasm.

"Oh, I'm so worried (about our relationship)," Gruden said, in mock horror. "I mean, come on. Who was worried? Does anybody (who expressed concern) know me or him? God -- I did 60 quarterback shows (while working for ESPN). This is my favorite guy. How can you not love that guy? He makes me feel like a better person, just being around him.

"Look, I'm not gonna say all the quarterbacks I've coached have liked me. I'm not gonna say I've liked all the quarterbacks I've had, either. Let's be real. It's a two-way street. I'm not gonna get into all that. But, you know, everyone was worried, and it's a big story. It's a good story for Bleacher Report or Bloomin' Onion or whatever these people are called ... But come on. He's a great player. We're just trying to get everyone around him to play at his level."

Toward that end, Gruden is planning to give Carr a great deal of responsibility, both in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage. It's not something that's likely to show up in the preseason -- and certainly not in Saturday's game against the Rams, who also happen to be the Raiders' first regular-season opponent, on "Monday Night Football" (naturally), in Oakland. However, the skeptics who question whether Gruden can adapt his approach in the wake of his 10-year absence might be a bit flummoxed if the Raiders' attack plays out the way the coach envisions it.

"This quarterback can handle just about anything you can think of," Gruden said. "I want him to have as much fun taking over games as Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Drew Brees. We're gonna empower him and give him as much responsibility as we can. And man, can he throw it. We're not putting any limits on what he can do."

Similarly, Gruden is unrestrained when it comes to staring down his own stigma, and scoffing at those who give it credence. At the combine in late February, Gruden provided plenty of fodder for his skeptics, telling reporters, "Man, I'm trying to take the game back to 1998. ... I'm not going to rely on GPSs and all the modern technology."

In reality, Gruden is tech-savvy enough to compile his own video clips before most team meetings, often featuring old NFL footage in an effort to drive home his points.

"Yeah, yeah, I know," he said of his Get Off My Lawn image. "I don't use analytics ... 1998, blah blah blah. Hey, man, I've got two servers. I've got my own, with all my video from the last 20 years that I've put together, and I've got a Raiders server. I've got so much technology -- ask (newly hired video coordinator) Joe Harrington -- that my s--- doesn't work. It's an overload!"

Said Olson: "He's been showing the old footage in meetings, and people (on the outside) have been making fun of him. But these are history lessons. It's not just showing some old, grainy clips. Everything has a purpose. He'll show Jerry Rice catching a ball off a specific play, then Terrell Owens doing it. He'll say, 'If this play's good enough for Jerry Rice, for Terrell Owens, for Steve Smith ... it's not good enough for you, Amari Cooper?' "

In Olson's eyes, it's all part of a larger message: Complacency is unacceptable, particularly for a team coming off a miserable season.

"If they're starting to feel too good about themselves, he chews their ass," Olson said. "Our thing is, 'Take 'em where they don't know they can go.' If it takes Chucky coming out and ripping their ass to take them there, he's not afraid to do that."

Gruden still has his share of grumpy moments, and he's fully aware that the Raiders are far from a finished product. Yet, press him enough, and you can detect traces of optimism, almost defiant in tone, that suggest the promise of bigger and better things, perhaps far sooner than some casual observers might expect.

"We've got to get this team winning again," Gruden said. "We've had one winning season in [15] years, and that's a real problem. And everything we do is geared toward trying to change that.

"We had a good camp. You've got to be creative with the practices, and I think we were. You've got to make sure the quarterback is able to get a lot of different looks, and I think we accomplished that. You've got to bring a bunch of guys together, and I think we did.

"There's been some laughter. We're trying to have an atmosphere here where you can be yourself, have fun, and if you have the ambition to be great, you can try to realize that ambition. We can talk about it all we want. Now, you've got to come out and prove it."

And if the Raiders don't? Chances are, they'll get a visit from You Know Who.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @mikesilver.

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