Hard Knocks is coming. For better or worse.
As the annual training-camp non-real reality show prepares to descend on the Raiders, the Raiders will be preparing for their last year in Oakland. The Raiders made it clear, weeks before accepting the assignment, that they didn’t want to do it.
So why didn’t they want to do it? Jon Gruden arguably is the most media-savvy coach in NFL history, with a nine-year stint at ESPN making him an even better communicator than he already was. Once a team with a strong national following, a decade-and-a-half of mediocre-at-best performances from the Raiders have turned a previously potent brand sluggish and stale. What better way to begin the process of turning things around as the team prepares to move to Las Vegas than with an exclusive five-week platform on HBO?
The real answer may rest in concerns that the current iteration of the Raiders represents a chemistry experiment at best, a Frankenstein monster at worst. The organization has collected pieces and parts that may or may not fit together, starting with the rush trade for (they got a great deal) and pay (they possibly didn’t get a great deal) receiver Antonio Brown.
But the potentially strange brew and combustible stew goes beyond Antonio Brown, who talked and tweeted his way out of a franchise that had one of the best quarterbacks in the league under center. The Raiders also paid a gigantic premium to Trent Brown, a failed right tackle who turned a right-place, right-time, right-team stint as a left tackle in New England into a major free-agent deal. So the Raiders forked over record money, and then flipped Brown back to the position at which he previously struggled.
The Raiders also used a hard-earned fourth overall pick on defensive end Clelin Ferrell, a perceived reach who will be relentlessly comparied to Khalil Mack, despite any and all protestations from the team that Ferrell isn’t supposed to be the next Mack. Another first-round pick went to running back Josh Jacobs, who will be expected to step right in and make fans forget about Oakland native Marshawn Lynch. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, not great.
Then came the embrace of guard Richie Incognito, a volatile and combustible personality who won’t be a problem until he is. The move epitomizes Gruden’s current desperation to win, with the franchise securing a certain amount of cover from its history of embracing and celebrating renegades.
At the core of all of it continues to be quarterback Derek Carr. A fringe MVP candidate in 2016 and for a month or so in 2017 the highest-paid player in league history, Carr has had a couple of so-so seasons — prompting the team to kick tires on rookies Kyler Murray and Dwayne Haskins. When pressed on the interest in a couple of first-round rookies, G.M. Mike Mayock provided an ominous assessment regarding the potential future of Carr, whose guaranteed money under his once-record-setting contract expires this year.
“Derek Carr is a franchise quarterback, and we believe that,” Mayock said in April. “Beyond that, just like at any other position, we’re going to do our due diligence. If we found somebody we liked better, or thought had a bigger upside, you’ve got to do the right thing for the organization.”
Teams rarely talk with such tear-the-name-off-the-back-of-the-jersey candor regarding the starting quarterback, but Mayock went there. Which made Carr’s boast from later in the offseason even more bizarre: “This is my team and it will be for the next however long I want to play.”
Clearly, Derek Carr doesn’t understand how the NFL works. Few players who intend to play for a team as long as they want actually get to do it. The team, as Mayock admitted, always will do what’s in the best interests of the team, and that means far more often than not sending player after player after player through an always-revolving door.
Gruden and Mayock didn’t draft Carr; they inherited him. And Gruden will always be looking for a short-list franchise quarterback, until he gets one. Carr at best — at best — resides in the middle of the pack, and there will be no excuses this year, not with Antonio Brown as the top option in the passing game.
Think of it this way: If the chemistry experiment/Frankenstein monster that starts and ends with A.B. fails, whose fault will it be? Brown’s? Nope. Gruden’s? Nope. Mayock’s? Nope. If the Raiders fail to get the most out of Antonio Brown, it will be the fault of the guy who will be under immense pressure to deliver the ball with the same underrated precision that Ben Roethlisberger delivered it for nine years in Pittsburgh.
If Derek Carr can step up, great for him and the Raiders. If he can’t, he’ll quite possibly be the highest-profile member of the organization to not enjoy the freedom from paying state income tax that goes with moving from California to Nevada.