I get to hook up each Friday on KNBR radio this season with Tom Tolbert and John Hurd. Tolbert played on an Arizona Final Four basketball team with Steve Kerr, and was drafted in the second round by the Charlotte Hornets and played four seasons with the Golden State Warriors. While both Tolbert and Kerr were stars as players at Arizona, today in the San Francisco Bay Area they are stars as a coach and radio personality.
Kerr coaches the Golden State Warriors, clearly the best team in the NBA, and Tolbert is considered the best radio personality in the Bay Area. A man that has all the credentials of being special both on air and as evidenced by the way he focussed on his family as a father, he retired from basketball the same year his oldest son was born, and husband.
Tolbert has a huge following, and one of those listeners is a friend I occasionally run into at the dog park. He was listening to KNBR last week and criticized me for coming down on Jon Gruden, the Raiders new head coach.
If that was the impression I left, I explained to Cal, it was not the one I meant. I didn’t have anything negative to say about Gruden, but I thought it was a mistake not to stick with Jack Del Rio. My appreciation for Del Rio is founded in the fact that he turned the culture in Oakland, a team that had not had a winning season since 2002, into a winner.
By the time Derek Carr got injured on Christmas Eve, 2016, the Raiders had positioned themselves as a real Super Bowl contender. After losing in their only playoff game, which had to be led by third string quarterback Connor Cook, expectations were high with the return of Carr for 2017. Fans saw what the Raiders were with a healthy Carr and now had Marshawn Lynch running out of their backfield.
On motivational charts, this points to a clear down season. Statistics indicate the Raiders were scheduled to win less than half their games last season and have an even worse point spread record. The Raiders last year were 6-10 straight-up and 5-9-2 against the point spread. Unfortunately, people in the Raiders organization pushed the panic button and instead of allowing Del Rio to enjoy the jump back this season, one that is as predictable as last year’s problems, they sent him packing.
Who steps into this sweet spot with the Raiders? Jon Gruden.
It’s not the first time Gruden has joined a team poised for a surge. In 2002, he took over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after Tony Dungy had shifted the culture in Tampa from a loser to a winner. In his first season with the Buccaneers, Gruden guided them to a win in Super Bowl XXXVII over the Oakland Raiders.
In my life, I have met three men in the sports world that changed the focus in a room just by entering. Al Davis was number one, as evidenced by something Ken Stabler once said, “He’s the only guy I know that can change the taste of your food from across the restaurant.”
Two other men didn’t strike fear as much as Davis, but they elevated a room with their inclusive manner that made everyone around them inspired to do more. One of them I had a chance to work with at the Raiders while he served as Player Personnel Director, Ron Wolf. After his initial tenure with the Raiders, Wolf became the first general manager of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He later ran the Green Bay Packers organization and returned the Vince Lombardi Trophy to Titletown in 1996. Two years ago, Wolf was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The third man that I hold in highest esteem is Jon Gruden. I don’t know Gruden like I did Davis and do Wolf, but in my brief encounters with him I can understand why the Raiders were attracted to making him the highest paid coach in the league.
After the Khalil Mack deal with the Chicago Bears, I watched Gruden answer questions head-on about the trading of one of the best defensive players in the game. He did it as Wolf would have, straightforward and honest. He had nothing but good things to say about Mack, but was able to land on solid ground in the decision to trade him with the combination of a salary cap concern and the value in the trade Chicago was offering.
He actually took the time to explain how the Bears could have more cap room because their quarterback, Mitchell Trubisky, is still on his rookie contract. Once a team has a franchise quarterback, or one they pay like one, they have little resources to dedicate to another position with a league high price range. Some teams can get weak because too much money against their salary cap is tied up in two or three players.
I too like Mack as a player, I think any football savvy person would agree he is special. But the deal Gruden just approved allows the Raiders to maintain more people around Derek Carr, and this year, that could turn into something very good.
I think the Los Angeles Chargers are going to win the AFC West, but the team that is going to give them the most competition is the Silver and Black.
The friend I was talking to who thought I dissed Gruden on the radio also responded negatively to the Raiders trading Mack, “There goes the season.”
Just like with Gruden, he is wrong about that too.
In fact, Gruden’s leadership has now been shown to players, and while the moving of Mack may have some early regrets, in fact it places more responsibility on the players left on the Raiders roster.
Welcome back to Oakland, Jon, now have a great season.