Once Jon Gruden made his triumphant return to the Oakland Raiders, everyone knew there would be big changes over how things were run versus his predecessor. From all early indications, the team’s improved roster is buying into what Chucky is selling.
The Oakland Raiders are – yet again – in the midst of culture change. This time, under the guiding hand of Jon Gruden.
Unlike his predecessor, Jack Del Rio, Gruden doesn’t have the task of erasing years of a losing atmosphere filled with uncertainty and dismal returns. Armed with a 10-year contract, and a larger-than-life persona, Gruden’s culture shift now has a calming and empowering impact on his remade roster.
Having just finished OTAs, every indication from Raiders players, the media, and other observers is this culture shift is different and everyone is on the same page. While depth, talent, and execution ultimately decide whether you win or lose football games on the field in the National Football League, half the battle takes place in the mind and Gruden’s 2018 Raiders are starting to believe.
“Me and Coach Gruden, he said to hit the reset button and then we have, hopefully, 10-plus years to let’s just ride and figure this thing out, grow every year and do this thing,” Derek Carr said in a recent press conference. “When a coach comes in and just does that for everybody, not just me, but for everybody, it’s just that weight is lifted off. It’s like, ‘OK, that’s done. Whatever that was, let’s just move forward. Let’s just have fun together and work hard.’ That’s all I know. For the next however many years I play this game, one thing that people won’t be able to say about me is that he didn’t leave it all out there. I’m going to turn over every rock that I can find that someone else can find for me and just go forward. Those four years went by fast. I’m already in Year 5. That’s crazy. I did learn that I’m just going to enjoy the heck out of this thing on the way out.”
In getting his franchise quarterback to relax and say he doesn’t feel any pressure and has a fresh start is important. Gruden has set the stage for everyone to feel empowered and energized.
Over and over again, press conference after press conference during OTAs, players have said similar things. Despite having to learn a completely new offense and defense, players are relaxed, yet focused. Gruden and his staff have quickly gotten buy-in from rookies to season veterans.
Despite many criticizing Gruden over his comments at this year’s NFL Combine, where he said he’d bring Raiders football back to a more “old-school” approach, others see it for what it is: a laser focus on winning and creating a culture where nothing less than excellence is accepted.
“He’s old school, and there’s an element to that, that’s really good,” Steve Mariucci of NFL Network said recently. “Players like structure, all players like some discipline. I think he’s going to be very well-received by this football team; they’ll make progress. We all know he’s a fired up guy, but I think the team will take on the personality of its coach, and he’ll be pretty lathered up for games.”
Just this week, when Gruden’s defensive coordinator, Paul Guenther, met with the media for the first time, the impact of this culture change was evident.
When asked if players were grasping his more aggressive 4-3 defense – which values versatility and rotations – or if they were getting confused by it, Guenther was clear.
“Not really because, like I said, I’m trying to get the guys here to be better,” Guenther said. “They’ve been busting their tails trying to get better, trying to make the team, and there are some guys out there that I really think have a lot of uncovered ability. We’re trying to get it out of them to understand, ‘hey you might not be a 60-snap a game guy, you might be a 15-snap a game guy, and do the best job in a role in order to help us win.’”
Again, removing pressure, building focus, and changing culture.
It might be early, but the new sheriff in town certainly has the Raiders roster thinking differently, and that’s half the battle.