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Three years after Jon Gruden's return, Raiders still spinning their wheels

Mark Davis' six-year dream finally became reality in 2018, when, after multiple failed attempts, he persuaded Jon Gruden to leave the broadcast booth, where he'd been serving as an analyst for ESPN, and rejoin the Raiders as head coach. The reunion had been top-of-mind for Davis from the moment he took control of the franchise following the 2011 death of his iconic father, Hall of Famer Al Davis. The younger Davis tried to lure Gruden -- who first coached the Raiders as a fiery, 30-something wunderkind from 1998 to 2001 -- in 2012, but the charismatic coach wasn't ready. Davis tried again three years later, but Gruden again rebuffed him. However, when the two had one of their informal talks during another disappointing Raiders season in 2017, Davis could sense that Gruden was ready to make a move.

At the (re-)introductory press conference, Davis' voice seemed to quiver with emotion as he discussed the moment. "I want to thank the Gruden family from the bottom of my heart for making my dream come true," he said. "Raider Nation, this is a big effing deal. ... It is the biggest day of my life right now."

The bad part about fantastical dreams is that sometimes you wake to a reality that is far different, and Gruden's return, to this point, has not been what Davis had hoped for, nor what a largely adoring fan base had anticipated. He tore down a club that was one season removed from the playoffs, trading away some of its pillar players seemingly without a plan for how to replace them, and now finds himself still searching for his first winning season. The Raiders have gone 19-29 over the past three seasons, with second-, third- and fourth-place finishes in the four-team AFC West. But more disturbing than the finishes is the perception that the team is no better today than when Gruden arrived, with some believing it might actually be worse.

It pains me to write that last sentence. As a Bay Area native, I believe the NFL is more compelling when the Raiders are good. From the moment I was old enough to understand football, I loved that the local team embodied the maverick spirit of its founding father, the late Al Davis. He was going to do things his way, and for decade after decade, that made the Raiders one of the winningest franchises in professional sports, not just football.

But that contrarian spirit has become a curse for this iteration of the Silver & Black. The Raiders, who have only one winning season in the past 18 years, continue to confound followers by going against the grain. They talk as if they're playing chess when the results speak to an organization playing checkers. The latest example was what the team did in the 2021 NFL Draft.

The Raiders had a need at offensive tackle and selected Alabama's Alex Leatherwood, which would have been fine, except they did so with the 17th overall pick. Leatherwood, at best, was viewed by most draft analysts and scouts as a late first-rounder or high second-rounder. Based on the prevailing consensus, the Raiders did not get great value at that spot, and recent history suggests they may not see a corresponding impact, either. Consider:

Two years ago, Clemson end Clelin Ferrell was viewed as someone who would be drafted in the middle of the first round because he lacked a pass-rush pedigree; however, the Raiders selected him fourth overall anyway and have gotten just 6.5 sacks in 26 games. Last year, Alabama wide receiver Henry Ruggs III was viewed by most teams and analysts as the third-best receiver in the draft, yet the Raiders made him the first wideout off the board, at No. 12 overall, and got just 26 catches and two touchdowns last season.

When discussing the Leatherwood selection, Raiders general manager Mike Mayock (who joined the team in December of 2019) defiantly proclaimed that the Raiders were going to continue to do things their way.

"I have a fairly good feel for what league value is on a player versus what we considered to be Raiders value," he said, alluding to his nearly two decades as a draft analyst for NFL Network. "Leatherwood had a big value for us. The announcers, I guess, didn't like it last night, and I knew it was going to be controversial, but I really don't care. The only thing I do care about is when my family gets hurt. But that's part of the job. It doesn't bother me at all. When my son or my daughter is upset, I'm upset. But outside of that, no."

That attitude is why it's hard to have faith that the Raiders will turn things around in the near future. They appear unwilling to learn from past mistakes. Fact is, no team has been worse at navigating free agency the last few years, which is further compounded when Las Vegas fails to land impact players in the draft.

Two years ago, the Raiders made a huge splash by signing veterans Trent Brown (tackle), Tyrell Williams (receiver) and Lamarcus Joyner (defensive back) to open free agency. The three were expected to be foundational players, but in fact, none lasted more than two seasons with the team. Worse, they walked away with just under $85 million in cash paid combined, per Over The Cap. That's fiscal malfeasance.

Last offseason wasn't much better, as the Raiders signed linebacker Cory Littleton ($35 million) and pass rusher Carl Nassib ($25 million) to deals totaling $60 million, gave defensive tackle Maliek Collins $6 million and, more strangely, awarded a one-year, $4 million deal to tight end Jason Witten, who, at 38 years old last season, was so far past his prime he couldn't see it in the rearview mirror.

Responsibility for these decisions ultimately rests with Mark Davis, since he is the person who signed Gruden to his current 10-year contract and gave him complete control of football operations. But closer to ground zero is Gruden himself, who is 64-80 in the regular season and 0-2 in the playoffs since leading Tampa Bay to a championship in his first season with the Bucs.

Since returning to the Raiders, every football decision has been made with his urging or blessing. This is his mess. From the drafting or signing of players to the hiring and firing of coaches. It's mind-numbing to hear him talk up players, only to have them fall on their face. Ditto with coaches. Remember what he said of Paul Guenther when he hired him as defensive coordinator in 2018?

"He's a great teacher," Gruden said. "He's been able to get a lot out of players. Vontaze Burfict, undrafted out of Arizona State, became a star player (with Bengals under Guenther). He can coach coaches. He can coach a lot of situations to a high level."

Yep, that's the same Paul Guenther he fired late last season because the Raiders' defense was so awful. Gruden is another example of why I believe every owner should have checks and balances when it comes to the running of a football team. Gruden is hubristic, appearing to believe he has the answer to every question, which we know not to be true because he's still trying to replace Khalil Mack three years after trading the star pass rusher to the Bears rather than continue working toward a contract extension. Mack has generated 30 sacks for Chicago in the time since, while just one Raider recorded more than seven in any given season in that span (2019 fourth-rounder Maxx Crosby posted 10 as a rookie), with Ferrell's failure to fill Mack's shoes standing out especially. Every time I hear Gruden grouse about an inability to pressure opposing quarterbacks, I wonder if he ever looks in the mirror for the man most responsible.

When Gruden jettisoned Mack and another established, proven entity, receiver Amari Cooper, from the roster in his first year back, there was at least hope he'd be able to recoup the talent lost by using the draft capital acquired on promising prospects. But only one true stud (running back Josh Jacobs) has emerged among the players added with those picks, and the selection of Damon Arnette (two passes defensed in nine games as a rookie in 2020) with one of the first-round picks sent over by the Bears perhaps looms as the most glaring missed opportunity. Maybe even less explicable than trying to get something back for Mack and Cooper before they hit free agency was the decision to upend an offensive line that helped keep Derek Carr's sack total reasonable and paved the way for a top-15 rushing attack over the past two seasons. Brown, Rodney Hudson and Gabe Jackson were all traded away this offseason, and while the reformulated line (which now includes Leatherwood) could conceivably be up to the challenge, the overhaul turned what had been a strength into an unknown in 2021.

Gruden did not respond to a message seeking comment on the state of the Raiders, but then again, what is there for him to say? No winning seasons in three years, a division in which every other team has gotten stronger, a roster still pockmarked with question marks. Are the Raiders better today than they were when he arrived and replaced Jack Del Rio? He is averaging two fewer wins (six) than Del Rio did in three seasons, but more reflective is that he's averaging only two more than Dennis Allen, the first coach hired under the younger Davis' leadership, did in the two full seasons he coached the team. If Gruden might say anything, it could be this: It's good to have friends in high places.

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.

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