Year after year, move after move, hire after hire, the Raiders outdo their own capacity for abject humiliation, and every time you think they’ve bottomed out, they bring in a new excavator. And now, with the start and also pending end of the Antonio Brown era, they can honestly say that the earth’s crust appears up to them.
But there we go, falling into the trap again. Of course the Raiders can shame themselves even more than this. They always do. They are the corkscrew that never reaches the head no matter how much you twist. If they might be likened unto a mineral, they are fool’s tin. They have asked the entire National Football League to hold their beer, because no team fails itself so often, so embarrassingly, or so comprehensively.
Here’s the kicker, though. What exactly did the Raiders do wrong here except be the Raiders? They signed a high-risk player with a plan to make him happy through the magic of financial and emotional coddling, found out that didn’t work, then shifted from support to discipline and found out that that didn’t work either. They tried an old Raider ploy that like all the others stopped working decades ago—taking other teams’ talented but difficult discards and retooling them for new glories—and missed badly. They’ve missed badly almost without remission since the mid-’80s. That’s some seriously weaponized failure.
Take that against the Kansas City Chiefs signing Tyreek Hill to a contract extension and ask yourself what’s worse.
The obvious answer is, “Well, Hill shows up for practice.” Cynical, even distasteful, but this being football, still effective.
This is not to hail Gruden as just an unlucky but forward thinker here. He will continue to pay for his impetuous dismissal of Khalil Mack, and if Amari Cooper can remain an impact player in Dallas in this and subsequent years, he’ll pay for that too. Somehow not getting Brown to ever take the field will land on him as well as Brown, and may well chasten him from taking big swings in the future.
But he came in riding a chariot of winged stallions to heal all the open sores on the Raider body and what successful changes he has made have been incremental at best. He came in as a feel-good move for Mark Davis and the fanbase Davis was abandoning, but the team is certainly no better than it has been, which is this:
- Second-worst regular-season record (153-231) since 1995, when they re-re-re-located.
- Second-fewest playoff appearances since 1995. They clustered three in succession at the start of the century but only one in the last 16 years.
- Had 13 coaches in 24 seasons, including two guys twice.
- Failed to shame two cities into paying millions to keep them from leaving.
- Established nothing but the overwhelming sense that their only real job as a franchise is to preserve, glorify, and amplify Al Davis and the 1970s.
Gruden is responsible only for five total years of this, and three of them were among the best years the new Raiders have had. His main skill was irritating Al in a thousand ways and winning over the roster he had, and then irritating him again when Al traded him to Tampa Bay and beating him in Al’s last Super Bowl. Things decayed before and after Gruden, and even those good old days are now more than a decade and a half in the past. Gruden came back as a favor to Mark Davis’s desperate need to jam a finger in the old man’s metaphorical eye and has, to be charitable, changed nothing for the visibly better. He is part of a bizarre Jack Del Rio trade with ESPN which is at best inconclusive (Del Rio redshirted 2018) and is currently just another example of the Raiders remaining where they were in 2015, and 2010, and 2005, which is nowhere.
Brown is, for his part, one of the most staggeringly bizarre flameouts in modern sports history. He signed a huge contract that he said he needed, flash-froze his feet, fought for less personal cranial safety, did as little work as an employee can do and then less than that, threatened to clock his boss’s chief underling—and did all of it before he could be sure he was going to get all the money he said he had to have, and would have had if he could’ve just gone a month without doing it. (And yes, I’m betting that against the run of play the Raiders will view his tearful apology before the rank-and-file Friday morning as less useful to them than the money.)
And that’s the best-case scenario for Gruden now—that the Raiders suspend Brown and then cut him and don’t have to pay him a dime. This is a humiliating mulligan in which everyone loses face, feet, wallets, and reputations. Brown may never work again, though nobody believes in their power to change minds quite like coaches, but he has single-handedly boarded up his last window of big-money opportunity. Mayock is playing bad cop without a good cop, which is casting so awful that it may chase him back to television.
Most of all, though, this superheated hell-dumpster burns closest to Gruden, who has been exposed as having one too many jobs and no firm idea to handle the one that doesn’t involve game day. He inherits talent and trades it, and when he seeks out new talent, he coddles it, punishes it when that fails, and makes it worse both ways. His one big success other than his contract is destroying Hard Knocks, but that doesn’t get you to Canton, or even a Sports Emmy.
Mostly, though, he is just adding to the new Raider legacy, which is this: It never stops getting weirder, and it never stops getting worse. There can’t be anything weirder than Antonio Brown, and yet there will be. Gruden has been on the job 20 months, and he knows that doom is his co-pilot.
The Gruden Era all ends, in all likelihood, with him and Mayock turning on each other, quitting in impotent rage (after getting paid in full because Mark Davis will be a soft touch even when being rejected), reconciling with Mayock, going back to TV with him and eventually doing a podcast because that will be the only job left after the apocalypse.
And Antonio Brown? He’ll be signing contracts with multiple teams in multiple sports, fulfilling none of them and eventually, yes, doing a podcast in which he mostly yells at passers-by to pay him for yelling at them. Without ever actually performing as a Raider, he will be as Raider as it gets. Until it gets worse.
Ray Ratto envisions a future in which Las Vegas changes the locks and the address on the front of the city and tries to divert the Raiders to Albuquerque.