We're now four episodes deep into the latest season of "Hard Knocks." Next week's finale still remains, but this feels like a good time to share some takeaways on Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden, the season's runaway MVP. Knock on wood if you're with me.
1. Gruden absolutely loves coaching football. Say what you want about Gruden, about "Hard Knocks" as a product, or about the Raiders as a team, but there's no way you can watch this show and not get a sense of how much fun Gruden is having. We'll need some positive results for the Raiders before making a final decision on whether Gruden's coaching acumen went stale during a decade-long broadcasting sabbatical, but Gruden appears rejuvenated by all that time away from the sideline. Late in Tuesday's episode, Gruden and his wife, Cindy, visit a gym where his son, Jayson, is training to be a professional Muay Thai fighter. Even in this setting, Gruden is studying the tape job on his son's hands and wondering if it would help his rookie defensive end Maxx Crosby, who's recovering from surgery to repair a broken hand. The game is never far from Gruden's mind.
2. The relationship between Gruden and Derek Carr is ... fine? I mean, it's probably fine. I'll steer clear of any bold proclamations here since there's only so much you can take from a few hours of reality television, but you don't sense an amazing connection between the two men. The few interactions we get between coach and quarterback are typically quick and very surface-level in nature. Example: On Tuesday, Carr asks during practice what Gruden's dinner plans are. Quickly replies Gruden: "I'm going out with (GM Mike) Mayock tonight, have a look at the roster." The drama queen in me read this as a sheepish Carr failing to land a dinner date at Ruth's Chris with the boss, but again, who knows? We watched Gruden and Antonio Brown have a heart-to-heart this summer; we just haven't had any moment like that between coach and QB. At least, none that roughly 11,000 NFL Films cameras and mics have captured.
3. Gruden is an endearing curmudgeon at heart. It's his most natural gear, and the most entertaining element of his personality on display in "Hard Knocks." We got some great Grumpy Gruden during the Raiders' trip to Canada for their clunky preseason game against the Packers. Safety concerns in the end zones led to the decision to shorten the field, eliminate kickoffs, and generally turn the exhibition into something of a farce. Gruden didn't seem too worried about the field, and appeared more than a little peeved that the Packers and rookie head coach Matt LaFleur had issues. (LaFleur pulled Aaron Rodgers and all other Green Bay regulars out of the lineup due to safety concerns.) "People piss me off, Derek, I'm sorry," a visibly annoyed Gruden grumbles to Carr when the QB approaches him on the sideline. "I've been playing this game a long time, man, we got some guy get off the bus and say he can't play here." When a game official politely asks Gruden to take a step back on the sideline, the coach snipes back, "Just throw the flag on me. I've had enough f----- grief." Hero.
4. Gruden absolutely loves him some Nathan Peterman. One of the obvious teases for next week's finale is how the quarterback depth chart behind Carr will shake out. It's Peterman vs. Mike Glennon for the backup job, and it seems apparent to anyone watching "Hard Knocks" whom Gruden would like to see win the job. With the Raiders struggling in the first half against the Packers, Gruden yanks Glennon from the game and inserts Peterman, the coach barking into his headset, "You know, I think the guy's a better player than you guys and I'd like to see him." Peterman rewards his coach's faith by leading the Raiders to a comeback win. Gruden is beaming in the locker room afterward: "That's as good as I've seen you since Pitt, man. You saw the field great, man. Great audibles, no sacks, I mean, took care of the ball, two-minute drive. God bless you, great. Great. Proud of you, Nate." Poor Mike Glennon might need to throw nine touchdowns on Thursday against the Seahawks.
5. Gruden is still adjusting to a different world at NFL training camps. When Gruden was a coach in the '90s and 2000s, training camp was a gauntlet designed to prepare players for the season and sift out the weak -- not necessarily in that order. The collective bargaining agreement signed while Gruden was getting paid by ESPN changed the landscape considerably. Gruden summed it up while talking to his players in the opening minutes of the season premiere: "I do not want to have a horses--t practice in the morning. In the old days we'd practice in the afternoon two more times in pads. Nowadays I'd get incarcerated for that." Gruden is like a man who stepped out of a time capsule.
-- Canada's own Luke Willson on his homeland's greatest icon: "A lot of people are going to get mad at me for this, but I'd say right now, Drake and Wayne Gretzky are neck and neck. Dude, I think the Raptors thing might give Drake the nod." This is what we call recency bias, folks.
-- Here's a "Hard Knocks" first: Tight end Darren Waller walking into a 12-step meeting. During his car ride over, Waller explained the mindset he had earlier in his career. "I always thought football was too overwhelming to not blow off steam by using." Props to Waller for being so open about his commitment to staying clean.
-- More Carr in this episode: The quarterback takes wide receiver Marcell Ateman to task after Ateman fails to go all out on a passing route in practice. The pep talk doesn't go exactly how Carr planned it -- Ateman is standoffish and doesn't immediately accept the critique. Yes, if you haven't noticed already, I'm kind of fascinated by where Carr stands as a leader and teammate on these Raiders.
-- It's "Hard Knocks" tradition to watch rookies sing for the vets and coaches during team meetings. Occasionally, they sound good. Often, they sound bad. Sometimes, they sound terrible. It's been pretty brutal across the board on this Raiders team, which would go 0-16 if team success was dictated by things like pitch, ear for melody and octave range. Johnathan Abram warbled his way through "U Got It Bad" by Usher -- based on Gruden's response, I'd hazard he's not entirely familiar with the R&B star's work:
-- Speaking of "Hard Knocks" tropes, we have our first Mom Via Facetime Appearance in Natalie Cabinda, mother of linebacker Jason Cabinda. She seems like a really nice lady.
-- Tuesday's episode played out like a PR assault from Antonio Brown, who is seen opening fan mail in one scene and visiting a frenzied Bay Area high school in another. "So, people don't hate A.B., they actually love me," Brown explains as he opens letters, none of which are negative in nature I'm sure. "But sometimes hate is actually good, too, because, I mean, I aggravate people, that means they really like me. Because if I didn't matter, they wouldn't care." Cool, cool.
-- The Keelan Doss hype train is careening dangerously out of control. After making a toe-tapping catch against the Packers, venerable Raiders play-by-play man Brent Musburger tells a radio audience, "He's one of the best rookie receivers that I've watched." Musburger has been calling professional and college football games for, like, 50 years! Doss is a fourth-string wide receiver on the team's official depth chart.
-- Quote of the Week:"Don't shove sand up a flea's ass in there. Knock on wood if you're with me." -- Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden