If Jon Gruden the CEO doesn’t do a better job, then Jon Gruden the head coach has no chance.
That’s the state of the Raiders with five games left in the season after absorbing a 34-17 road loss to the Baltimore Ravens in which the talent disparity was glaring in a league designed to reward parity and provide as much competition for the consumer as possible.
The Ravens are nobody’s pick to make the Super Bowl, but they’re not the Arizona Cardinals, an opponent that gave Raider Nation a bit of false hope a week ago as the Raiders snapped a five-game losing streak.
At 6-5, Baltimore is in position to grab one of the AFC wild card berths after toying with the Raiders for a half offensively before playing to the strengths of rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson.
They’re not anywhere close to the Kansas City Chiefs, who are next up on the schedule for the Raiders at the Coliseum. They trail the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are in Oakland the following week.
In both games, the Raiders (2-9) will face teams that are faster, more skilled and more powerful. Whether it was to spare Jackson in the first half or just a miscalculation in terms of coaching, the Ravens pretty much allowed the Raiders to be in the game by making him a conventional quarterback.
Once coach John Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg determined at halftime the best course of action was push the Raiders around, the game was over. The Ravens rushed for 242 yards overall, with 178 coming on 33 carries in the second half.
It’s the sign of a team with inferior talent to hang around until halftime and into the third quarter and then get overwhelmed late. The Raiders have been outscored 192-87 in the second half this season, a 105-point margin that is the biggest in the NFL.
Nit-pick scheme and play-calling all you want, but that only happens when one team doesn’t have the horses to make make it a horse race.
The Ravens’ exclamation point was telling.
When Matthew Judon sacked Carr for the third and final time and forced a fumble, Terrell Suggs scooped it up and ran 43 yards for a touchdown. Suggs is one of the NFL’s premiere pass rushers but is 36 years old and had an Achilles’ tear in his 30s.
Marcell Ateman, a starting rookie wide receiver, couldn’t run down Suggs from behind. Ateman is more of a jump-and-catch receiver than a speed guy, but he’s a 24-year-old wide receiver.
When the Raiders tried a reverse, it went to 33-year-old Jordy Nelson, who couldn’t turn the corner. The element of surprise has no chance against superior speed.
In the first half, when the Ravens were futilely attempting to be balanced, Cyrus Jones ran 75 yards for the easiest punt return touchdown you’ll ever see. It would have been a touchdown in flag football. One of Jackson’s completions was a 74-yard pass to a tight end, Mark Andrews, who blew past cornerback Rashaan Melvin, who in theory should be able to keep up.
“You give up a 75-yard punt return, a 74-yard pass to a tight end, you can’t get off the field stopping the inside running game when you have to,” Gruden said. “Those are the storylines to me. Those are things I’ve got to figure out. And until we do, we’re going to have a lot of long faces.”
Gruden is right in that it’s his job to figure it out. You can see enough from an occasional series, such as the Raiders’ first possession of the game, to realize Gruden can still draw up an offense. It’s no accident that so many coaches over the years visited Tampa to talk football during his nine years in the ESPN broadcast booth.
As for Gruden the roster builder, it’s fair to be skeptical. He wasn’t wrong about the roster he inherited from Reggie McKenzie, who now works at Gruden’s discretion. The Khalil Mack contract issue aside, Gruden was right to tear it apart apart. But his first crack at restocking that roster resulted in a team even less talented.
The team Gruden put together has been ravaged by injuries, but it’s also athletically inadequate.
The Raiders are unable to protect their most valuable commodity in Carr, who went wire-to-wire against the Ravens despite two trips to the evaluation tent.
The Raiders weren’t stout enough to stop the Ravens from running inside, thereby setting up everything else Jackson can do.
“When you can establish the run, the inside run, the perimeter offense, the bells and whistles with Jackson off it are very hard to defend,” Gruden said. “You’ve got to stop the inside run or you have no chance to stop everything else. The bootlegs, the perimeter tosses, the options. They took over the game.”
It’s something you see in high school and college football all the time, when one team either by geography or recruiting has an overwhelming advantage in talent. It’s not supposed to work that way in the NFL.
The Raiders’ first crack at free agency failed to be an upgrade over the players who were let go, hence a team that will finish worse than last year’s 6-10 season. It’s too early to make the call on Gruden’s first draft class, although two starting rookie tackles (Kolton Miller and Brandon Parker) are learning on the job and Carr is paying the price to the tune of 35 sacks.
The offseason, which includes three first-round draft picks barring trades, is obviously critical. As is doing a much better job in free agency.
If Gruden the CEO can’t get better players, there isn’t a thing Gruden the head coach can do to prevent the Raiders from limping off to Las Vegas in the next year or two as an also-ran.