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Emotional Gruden back as Raiders head coach
Jon Gruden showed you can go home again, returning to the franchise where he began his head coaching career two decades ago.
As he was introduced as the new head coach of the Oakland Raiders on Tuesday, Gruden admitted he never thought he'd be back on the sidelines in the Bay Area.
"Obviously, this is very emotional for me," said Gruden, who has been out of the NFL since coaching his seventh and final season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2008. "I never wanted to leave the Raiders. I never thought I'd be back, but here I am and I'm ready to get to work."
Gruden left the broadcast booth at ESPN to return to the franchise where he spent his first four seasons as a head coach, posting a 38-26 regular-season record (40-28 overall) from 1998-2001 and guiding the team to a pair of playoff berths, including appearances in the AFC Championship Game in his last two seasons.
Known for his feisty sideline demeanor, Gruden admitted he has some "unfinished" business with the Raiders. His final game with Oakland was among the most controversial losses in NFL history, when the Raiders lost to the New England Patriots on the infamous Tom Brady "Tuck Rule" non-fumble call.
"For my career to end on that night in New England, it still ticks me off. I'm so thrilled to be back here," said Gruden. "I feel a lot of loyalty and I feel a lot of responsibility. ... I'm going to do everything I can to help this team get right again."
Gruden was traded to Tampa Bay in 2003 and proceeded to guide the Buccaneers to a Super Bowl championship in his first season. Overall, he is 95-81 in 11 regular seasons and 100-85 including the postseason.
Gruden succeeds Jack Del Rio, who was fired following a season-ending loss to the Los Angeles Chargers that capped a disappointing 6-10 campaign for the Raiders.
Multiple media outlets reported that Gruden received a 10-year contract worth an estimated $100 million the richest and longest in history for a coach. That deal was an obvious source of quizzing from the media, questions Gruden deftly deflected.
"I don't have a guarantee to be alive for 10 years, just so people know," said Gruden. "I don't really know the terms. All I know this year I'm going to be coaching in Oakland and next year I'm going to be coaching in Oakland, and I want to help deliver the best football team we can here for the people in Oakland.
"How long I stay here will be determined by how well we play."
Raiders owner Mark Davis said the hiring of Gruden culminated a six-year goal that started when his father, the late Al Davis, passed away in 2011. Al Davis hired a 34-year-old Gruden to be the team's head coach in 1998.
"My vision at that time was to have Jon Gruden coach this football team and (general manager) Reggie McKenzie to bring in the talent," said Mark Davis, referring to when his father died. "It took me six years of chasing Jon. ... It is the biggest day of my life right now to have him here, to run this organization and be the leader of this organization on the field is going to be phenomenal."
Among the four reasons Gruden offered for returning to the sidelines were: A love of football, a love of the City of Oakland, and a love of the Raiders.
"Most of all I love to win and I'm going to do everything I can," Gruden said. "No guarantees, no promises, but I want to win."
Asked about expectations and the accompanying pressure given both his pricey contract and his previous success with the franchise, Gruden had no illusions what awaits him.
"I know there's a big bull's-eye on my chest certainly, if people want to use that as incentive, so be it," said Gruden. "I worked for Al Davis in 1998. That was pressure. I was 34 years old. I've dealt with pressure before. I really don't feel pressure.
"I love the excitement and the thrill of competing. I can't worry about things I can't control in that regard, but I know people will want to step on me and beat me, and that's the way that this league is."
Gruden made it clear that McKenzie would continue to be the team's general manager and said personnel decisions would be a collaborative effort.
"We are going to work together," Gruden said. "Reggie and I come from the same tree in Green Bay, raised by Ron Wolf as young Green Bay Packers. I think we have a similar viewpoint in terms of what kind of players we are looking for. It has got to be a collaborative effort, whether it be a salary-cap decision, a free-agent acquisition, or who we draft. We've got to work together. I think that is the great thing about being here. We are going to be united, we are going to work hard and we are going to assemble the best team possible.
"We aren't always going to agree and Reggie will probably win ... Look at the size of the guy! (laughing) You know what, I don't want to agree with everybody. I want to work hard and try to pursue every vehicle possible to improve the Oakland Raiders."
Concluded McKenzie, "It is a team effort. We are a team. It is going to be a Raider decision, bottom line. We are going to work great together."
The Raiders went from 12-4 and a trendy pick to be an AFC title contender to a crashing failure back to 6-10. And they were every bit that bad.
The collapse encompassed offense most notably quarterback Derek Carr defense and a knack for substituting mistakes for success they achieved in key moments of games the previous season.
The failure took its toll. Jack Del Rio, a coach of the year candidate in 2016, was informed he was fired shortly after he walked off the field after the last game. Owner Mark Davis was taking a big swing at bringing back Jon Gruden and wants the club to be competitive in its last year or two in Oakland before departing for Las Vegas.
The focal point is Carr, who received a five-year, $125 million contract and who had a knack for fourth-quarter comebacks in 2016 and then had issues with the most basic pass plays by the end of 2017.
Much remains to be sorted out, in particular the role of general manager Reggie McKenzie in any new regime. The Raiders' financial structure and salary cap is in great shape in terms of personnel, but there have been a lot of misses in the draft and the roster is in need of both an athletic and attitude upgrade.
The matter is complicated by the Raiders' lame-duck status in the town they called their home from 1960 to 1981 and then again from 1995 until the NFL approved a move to Las Vegas.
WHAT WENT RIGHT: The Raiders got about what they wanted out of Marshawn Lynch, as he gained 891 yards on 207 carries, having a strong second half of the season and scoring seven touchdowns. Lynch remains one of the NFL's supreme tackle-breakers. He was about all they had offensively in the last third of the season.
WHAT WENT WRONG: Just about everything, but the biggest problem was an offense that dropped from scoring more than 26 points per game to 18.1 The explosiveness was gone from the passing game. The Raiders scored 17 or more points just six times. They won all six of those games.
MOST DISAPPOINTING PLAYER: Quarterback Derek Carr, a year after throwing 28 touchdown passes and six interceptions, dropped to 22-13. He completed 62.7 percent of his passes for 3,496 yards and took a huge step back in terms of being productive in the fourth quarter and being a consistent passer.
MOST SURPRISING PLAYER: Nicholas Morrow, an undrafted rookie out of Division III Greenville, surprised everyone by making the roster. Then he took it a step further, being active on game days and playing occasionally at linebacker. By season's end, Morrow was the weak-side starter and finished sixth in tackles with 60.
ASSISTANT COACH ON THE RISE: With head coach Jack Del Rio having been fired, Jon Gruden as the probable replacement, and the entire coaching staff being given permission to get other jobs, any coach will probably have to be on the rise with another franchise.