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Sharp Team Previews

The Only Winner so far in the Gruden Era is his Bank Account

by Warren Sharp
Updated On: July 22, 2021, 5:20 pm ET

In the storied history of the Raiders, do you know how many coaches have made it to their fourth season?

Just four: John Madden, Tom Flores, Art Shell, Jon Gruden Part 1, and Jon Gruden Part 2.

Want to know their records through three seasons, to merit them staying around for a fourth season?

John Madden: 28-9-5 (75.7%)
Tom Flores: 27-21 (56.3%)
Art Shell: 28-20 (58.3%)
Jon Gruden Part 1: 28-20 (58.3%)

Where do the Raiders stand since giving Jon Gruden a 10-year, $100 million contract?

Jon Gruden Part 2: 19-29 (39.6%)

He hasn’t even been close to the other coaches.  Al Davis would have never stood for such results.  Apparently, Mark Davis is far more lenient.  

Maybe Gruden has improved the team, and the results have been unfortunate?

Nope, that’s not the case either.

Take a look at this team as it ranked in efficiency the year before Gruden took over (2017) and what he’s done with it since:

2017: 13th offense, 29th defense
2018: 25th offense, 30th defense
2019: 9th offense, 31st defense
2020: 15th offense, 28th defense

From an efficiency perspective, this team hasn’t actually improved very much in his tenure. From a talent perspective, I’d say the 2021 squad could actually be worse than the 2017 squad.

Gruden has always been a better chef than shopper, but with his power and influence, the roster talent has declined and the play hasn’t improved enough either.

A few examples of their issues as it relates to being capable of running a team and making personnel decisions that will lead to winning:

First: in the span of a few weeks, they eviscerated one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, gutting:

Rodney Hudson (31 starts in the last two years)
Gabe Jackson (27 starts)
Trent Brown (16 starts)

And they got a fifth-round pick back in return.

Second: two years ago the Raiders signed these coveted players to four-year deals in free agency:

Most expensive free agent WR...
Most expensive free agent OL...
Second most expensive free agent S...

...and they're all on different teams now, two years into four-year deals. 

Third: the Raiders spent more on their secondary than any other team in the last five years:

4 first-round picks (most in NFL)
6 picks in the first two rounds (most in NFL)
10 picks in the first four rounds (most in NFL)

yet their pass defense has ranked…

2017: 31
2018: 32
2019: 31
2020: 26

The talent evaluation process has been absolutely horrendous to devote this much capital to the position and get virtually no improvement for years.

We can stop there, because you get the point. To any rational person outside the Raiders organization, Gruden should be on the hot seat, if he’s lucky, because most coaches would have already been fired if they promised a “franchise turnaround,” the team is entering Year 4, and has zero winning seasons to show for it.

The run offense was a clear problem in 2020, starting with Josh Jacobs.  Jacobs was bad. His 3.9 YPC ranked 31st out of 33 running backs with at least 125 attempts. The only backs with worse YPC? Broken down Todd Gurley with knee issues and 73-year old ironman Frank Gore. That doesn’t bode well for the 23-year old Jacobs playing in just his second season in the NFL after being the Raiders first-round draft pick in 2019.  Was this more on the offensive line than the running back? You could excuse your way out of it. The problem, however, is that either way you slice it, the line now is not better than it was, which means this could still be an issue in 2021 as well.

Speaking of the line’s impact on the 2021 team, anyone who studies Derek Carr knows he’s much worse when pressured. When things aren’t ideal in the pocket, and he has to throw on the move, his production has dropped tremendously. 

Examine his 2020 splits based on state at pass:

Planted: +0.26 EPA/att, 8.7 YPA, 57% success
Moving: +0.11 EPA/att, 6.6 YPA, 41% success
Shuffling: -0.03 EPA/att, 5.0 YPA, 43% success

These were similar to 2019 numbers, meaning they didn’t get worse, but it’s a feature with Carr. Some quarterbacks thrive on the move. Others have drop-offs like this. Thus, a worse offensive line that forces him to move off his spot on dropbacks could play a big role in whether this offense can reach it’s ceiling in 2021.

Carr also faced more man coverage and struggled in 2020 compared to 2019. Splits:

2019 vs man: 0.57 EPA/att, 11.5 YPA, 63% success
2020 vs man: 0.15 EPA/att, 7.7 YPA, 45% success

While Carr had an underrated season in general last year, the team did virtually nothing to upgrade his weapons while the offensive line got worse.

The best thing going for the Raiders in 2021 will be the offenses they are projected to face. Look at the rankings of offenses from a strength of schedule perspective that the Raiders defense has played since Gruden took over:

2018: fifth toughest schedule
2019: 20th toughest schedule
2020: ninth toughest schedule

In 2021, I project the Raiders to face the NFL’s easiest schedule of offenses. Take a look at who they get:

The entire NFC East, with the lone exception of the Cowboys, has below average offense. The Dolphins could be better but it hinges on Tua Tagovailoa. The Colts have a great coach but does Carson Wentz rebound? Who is the Bears quarterback in Week 5, Andy Dalton or rookie Justin Fields? Then you have the AFC North. The Bengals? And then there’s Drew Lock on the Broncos, who the Raiders get to face twice a year. All in all, when you’re drawing a non-division schedule of offenses, this one is pretty good for a struggling defense to draw.

The bar is set relatively low for the Raiders in 2021. In a 17-game season, the Raiders are only projected to win 7 games (-120 to the over at Pointsbet). They are projected to play the third toughest overall schedule in the NFL. Many of the bad offenses they will face have good defenses. 

Last year, the Raiders went 1-5 against defenses that ranked top-13 in efficiency and went 7-3 against everyone else. They do have a nice stretch in 2021 where they face the Eagles, Giants, Bengals, and Cowboys in a five-game run. All of those defenses ranked below-average in 2020. 

If the Raiders can get more from their defense with new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley and can get their offensive line to come together, it’s reasonable to see this team come close to exceeding their low win total.

The problem, however, is their division. The Chiefs are the Chiefs, but the Chargers and Broncos have both made considerable strides in roster building to overtake the process that occurred under Gruden in Las Vegas. The problem for Denver is they have a Drew Lock-sized hole at quarterback, but apart from him, that roster is solid. The Chargers aren’t far behind, plus they have what looks to be a stud quarterback in Justin Herbert and a new head coach bringing a new-school approach to their defense. 

The odds are a very hefty -475 for the Raiders to miss the playoffs.  If they do, even at 8 or 9 wins, I don’t see how Davis can afford to keep Gruden around.  Doing so only helps the odds that a team like the Chiefs or Chargers stay on top of the AFC West for years to come.  If you think the Raiders stay relevant and aren't impressed with either the Chargers or the Broncos, you can find odds for the Raiders to finish in 3rd place (+275) or second place (+800) in the AFC West, spots they occupied in each of the last two years.

Stay tuned over the next eight weeks as we preview all 32 teams with daily articles and videos right here at the preview hub.  For complete team chapters featuring dozens of visualizations and 462 pages, pick up a copy of Warren Sharp’s new ‘2021 Football Preview’ book.

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Warren Sharp

Warren Sharp is a football and betting analyst for NBC Sports. As a leading voice in football analytics, Warren writes a yearly book previewing the upcoming season from all angles at his Sharp Football Analysis website. You can follow Warren Sharp on Twitter @SharpFootball.