OAKLAND -- As he readied his game face for what he hoped would be his first NFL head-coaching victory in exactly nine years and 10 months, Jon Gruden sat in the coaches' area of the home locker room at the Oakland Coliseum on Sunday morning, scrolled through his cell phone and got some decidedly disturbing news.
Two hours before the Raiders and Cleveland Browns would engage in an epic overtime clash in front of 53,387 drained and delighted fans, Gruden knew the score: With a 10-year, $100-million contract, an 0-3 record and his fingerprints all over the trade that rid his roster of one of the league's premier defenders, he had gone from presumed Silver and Black savior to the football world's bright red bullseye in a manner of months. This latest Mack Attack was, in a figurative sense, another body blow to the head coach who shipped him out of town.
To Gruden's credit, he's not oblivious: As Mack, the edge rusher he traded to the Chicago Bears shortly before the start of the regular season following a protracted contract dispute, continued his reign of terror against opposing quarterbacks -- forcing a pair of turnovers in the Bears' blowout victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- Gruden knew it would turn up the pressure on him to win over an already-restless Raider Nation.
"I really don't have a lot of euphoria," Gruden told me as he stood in the Raiders' locker room following his first victory since he guided the Buccaneers to a 23-20 triumph over the New Orleans Saints on Nov. 30, 2008 -- and his first in Oakland since he coached the Raiders to a 38-24 win over the New York Jets in a first-round playoff game on Jan. 12, 2002. "I'm happy for the guys, for the coaching staff and for the fans -- especially the fans. They've had one winning season in 15 years, and it's been a tough stretch for them.
"We've got a long way to go. We've got some veteran guys giving us some great leadership and showing us the way, and we've got a lot of rookies playing. We're gonna put the wheels back on and get this thing rolling, but it's gonna take some work, and I don't want to sit here and tell everyone we've arrived. Because I'm pretty sure that's the last thing anyone wants to hear right now."
And yes, Gruden was smirking when he spoke. By conversation's end, he had begrudgingly admitted to having derived some pride in Sunday's outcome, though it was in the context of praising his somewhat-embattled quarterback, Derek Carr.
Yet to his players and assistants, this was, in fact, a significant landmark for a rock-star coach who, despite his penchant for saltiness, has remained positive and unruffled as so many outsiders have cast doubts upon his comeback.
"He needed it," said veteran tackle Donald Penn, who left the game after suffering a third-quarter groin injury, meaning the Raiders' offensive line would be bookended by rookies the rest of the way. "We needed it. It meant a lot, given all we've been through, to keep fighting throughout a game like this and find a way to win. He's stayed positive the whole time, and it paid off today."
Added edge rusher Bruce Irvin, who had a first-quarter sack of Browns rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield, the No. 1 overall pick making his first NFL start: "Yeah, man, it's a great feeling -- him being away from the game for nine years, and especially with all the adversity we've been dealing with. It felt good to strap it on and keep fighting and get him that first win."
It came on a glorious East Bay afternoon steeped in Silver and Black significance, with Gruden one of three former Raiders head coaches (along with Browns head coach Hue Jackson, with whom Gruden worked as a University of Pacific assistant in 1989, and Jackson's predecessor, current Oakland offensive line coach Tom Cable) roaming the sidelines.
Sunday also served as the 10-year anniversary of the infamous Overhead Projector Press Conference, during which late owner Al Davis announced the firing of head coach Lane Kiffin and the promotion of Cable to the job.
At the time, Gruden was a month into what would turn out to be his final season in Tampa. Fired by the Bucs six years after guiding the franchise to its sole championship -- achieved by crushing his former team, the Raiders, in Super Bowl XXXVII -- Gruden transitioned into a successful career as a "Monday Night Football" analyst, and some speculated that he might never return to the sidelines.
That all ended last January when Mark Davis, Al's son and successor, signed Gruden to a massive deal and brought him back to Oakland, proclaiming in a triumphant press conference that it marked the "best day of my life."
"I don't even look at it as the first (victory) in nine years," Davis said. "It's the first one in four weeks. It's a start."
In reference to the notion espoused by numerous critics that the game has passed Gruden by, Davis sarcastically replied, "Oh, yeah -- it has."
This game's most important passes were delivered by Carr, who overcame a pair of interceptions to throw for 437 yards and four touchdowns, including a seven-yard strike to tight end Jared Cook -- followed by a pinpoint, two-point conversion in the corner of the end zone to wideout Jordy Nelson -- with 30 seconds left in regulation.
Criticized heavily after a season-opening defeat to the Rams, and assigned some blame for the Raiders' inability to finish out a pair of subsequent road games at Denverand Miami during which they had ample chances to win, Carr came alive midway through the third quarter after Oakland fell behind by a 28-14 margin.
The Coliseum was alive with the sound of booing, as it had been in the 33-13 defeat to the Rams on the first Monday night of the regular season. Once again, Gruden had been made acutely aware of his critics' sense that he was failing to live up to billing -- and for a brief moment, he allowed a negative thought to overtake him: Why the hell did I come back for THIS?
At that point, a Raiders comeback seemed highly unlikely. They'd managed only one scoring drive on offense, as Oakland cornerback Gareon Conley had accounted for the game's first points on a 36-yard interception return for touchdown. That was the first of four turnovers coughed up by Mayfield, who nonetheless had a highly productive debut, completing 21 of 41 passes for 295 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Both teams had success on the ground, as well: The Raiders' Marshawn Lynch -- the hardest-running back in this, or maybe any, era, blasted out 130 yards on 20 carries. Meanwhile, Cleveland's Carlos Hyde ran for 82 yards (though he came up a few inches short on his last carry of regulation, thanks to a controversial replay reversal of an apparent first down that would have clinched the game) on 22 carries, while his rookie backup, Nick Chubb, broke off scoring runs of 63 and 41 yards, the latter giving the Browns a 42-34 lead with 4:20 left in regulation.
In the end, the Raiders -- who had left a ton of potential big plays on the field, including a first-quarter pass that Carr threw into a wide-open Nelson's cleat, and a would-be 53-yard touchdown in the second quarter that swift receiver Martavis Bryant somehow managed not to catch despite being alone behind the Cleveland secondary -- lived to fight into the fifth quarter by the grace of the football gods, or at least the officiating crew: After the Browns' defense secured a fourth-down stop and Cleveland took over at its own 9 with 1:51 to go, three Hyde runs seemed to have iced the game -- but the running back's third-and-2 conversion was ruled via replay review to have fallen just short of the first-down marker, giving Carr one more shot at redemption.
For coach and quarterback, it was not an insignificant experience. For all the hand-wringing about whether the surly, swear-word-spewing Gruden and the deeply religious Carr would mesh, and for all the talk that both had underperformed thus far in 2018, their connection has been strong from the start, and each man has retained a strong faith in one another.
"It's been the complete opposite of what [some people feared]," Carr said as he stood at his locker shortly after Sunday's victory. "He's been so positive. Even when I screw something up, he's always stayed right there with me. No matter how ugly it is, he's always telling me, 'You're gonna be one of the greatest.' It's a special feeling for a quarterback to feel that support."
After months of being questioned about his relationship with Carr, Gruden has reached the point of exasperation.
"Do they not believe me?" he asked after Sunday's game. "Do they not want to write the truth? Look, the guy's completing almost 75 percent of his passes, and we just started working together. I mean, I love my quarterback. I wish people would just stop asking and leave me alone."
In reference to Carr's gutsy performance down the stretch of Sunday's game, Gruden said, "I'm so proud of him. You have no idea. It was huge. This is a Gregg Williams defense. (The Browns) intercepted Ben Roethlisberger four times. Drew Brees had three points until late in the game. They shut Philly out in the preseason. They came in here giving people fits.
"Derek was great. If you don't believe me, look at the tape. Do some research. He did a hell of a job."
Gruden, according to players and assistants, did a good job throughout the week of stressing the positive aspects of the Raiders' performance, preaching, "We're right there; we just have to finish." During a Saturday night meeting at the team hotel, he told his players, "Nobody press. Relax. Don't feel any pressure. Put it on my shoulders. You guys just go out there and play."
Afterwards, in a jubilant locker room, Gruden lauded the Raiders' mental toughness, saying, "You guys never quit. You stayed together. You're fighters." There were a couple of loud cheers, and Gruden turned to leave for his postgame press conference before defensive coordinator Paul Guenther added an epilogue.
"Oh, one more thing -- here, coach," Guenther said, picking up a game ball and throwing it toward his boss. Gruden had watched his quarterback throw 58 passes on this surreal Sunday, but you can bet Guenther's toss was one he won't forget.
"Jon's an emotional guy," said Greg Olson, Gruden's offensive coordinator. "During the course of the game, he lives and dies on every play. I'm telling you, he loves football -- and he does have an affinity for the Oakland Raiders. He really does. He feel like he owes the people of Oakland; he owes them as many wins as he can get them before the team moves."
It took four chances, but Gruden finally got that first victory in nearly a decade, and when McCrane's kick sailed through the uprights in the south end zone of the Coliseum, rest assured that a deep sense of satisfaction seeped through his being, if only for a few moments.
"That's why you coach," Gruden conceded as we ended our conversation. "That's why you come back ... for that feeling. But I also know we've got a long, long way to go."