Jon Gruden is never going to be the gunslinger of a head coach many desire. He’s not waking up today, looking in the mirror and seeing Mike Leach, one of the inventors of the Air Raid offense, staring back.
A good thing, given the shriek of fright would scare Gruden’s wife half to death.
Injuries. COVID-19 issues. Way more injuries. When you consider the various obstacles the Raiders have had to overcome in going 6-3 — some of it their own doing and much of it the result of playing such a violent game — Gruden deserves a massive amount of credit.
Las Vegas on Sunday did what you’re supposed to when engaging an inferior side, whipping Denver 37-12 at Allegiant Stadium. It moves the Raiders to within two games of Super Bowl champion Kansas City in the AFC West.
The Chiefs next visit Las Vegas for a Sunday Night Football matchup.
Kansas City will rightly be favored. The Raiders will be aptly prepared.
Running the ball
Gruden might now live in a town that celebrates risk takers, but don’t expect him to conform. For as much as the outside world has desired the coach sway more and more from a conservative nature, it’s by following that blueprint that the Raiders have found their recent success.
Consider: In a current three-game win streak, Las Vegas has rushed for 209, 160 and 203 yards. It has done so behind an offensive line that, for the past two weeks, has been without three starters.
Josh Jacobs has found his rookie form at running back, breaking tackles and defenders’ will. Alec Ingold has redefined what it means to play hurt, taking the field as a fullback Sunday with two fractured ribs. I burnt my mouth on a chicken pot pie at halftime and was almost down for a week.
Tough guy football is just that, and winning like this is Thanksgiving and Christmas morning all rolled into one for Gruden. I’m surprised he hasn’t signed another fullback to the practice squad just for kicks and giggles.
“The job (Gruden) has done has been unbelievable,” Raiders quarterback Derek Carr said. “The coolest part about it is — and I love it — is whenever we’ve had different circumstances hit us, no matter what it is, receivers, offensive line, you name it, injuries, COVID, the coaches bring us a plan and Coach Gruden says, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ And then we go execute the plan and we win games.”
It has become a popular theme to suggest Carr has countless new weapons this season. There aren’t that many. Not at all. And it’s not as if any returning skill players have exponentially improved on last year’s numbers. Most are down.
But what Las Vegas has done better than most is extend drives by converting on third down at a ridiculously high rate.
This isn’t Kansas City, where gaining huge chunks of yards at a time often lessens the importance of third down. The Raiders are second only to the Saints across the league in converting on 50.4 percent of chances.
Only four teams entered the weekend at better than 50 percent.
That’s coaching. That’s Gruden calling plays.
“He’s the same guy he has always been,” Jacobs said. “He comes in every day and brings the juice, gets guys fired up. He’s the coach who makes you want to play for him.”
Close games often come down to coaching. For just the third time in its last 14 wins, the Raiders on Sunday didn’t walk away victorious by eight points or fewer. Gruden probably won’t know what to do with himself watching this game film. Such a margin.
He has been willing to open things up more this season. Somewhat. It’s all relative. He’s still Jon Gruden. Still calls things his way. Still embraces an old school style.
“The (staff) deserves tremendous credit,” Gruden said. “This is the year, if there ever was a year, where the mission is ‘Finish. Get to the finish line.’ Everybody is going to have a huge role at some point just because of the circumstances. I really credit our staff, but most of all our players. They’re focused and giving you everything they have in a real tough day-to-day situation. I couldn’t be happier with them.”
And, I’m certain, they with him.
The Raiders are 6-3 and here comes Kansas City.
Gruden will have his team, meaning whoever might be healthy, ready.
Coaching ‘em up, is right.
Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.