At the NFL Combine, Jon Gruden started his press conference with “We are changing the presentation of our offence, really excited about the diverse staff we’ve hired, terminology would be different, formations will be called differently and we’re going to run some different kind of plays.”
Now as a Raiders fan, hearing Gruden say that it would ignite some passion and hope in you. As it sounds like he is going to do everything to get the Raiders back into the playoffs, a place he had them twice in four seasons during his first stint as head coach with a healthy Derek Carr & co tearing up the league.
But just 5 minutes for him with his trademark grin from ear to ear, his blue eyes shining with glee to say those fateful words “Man I’m trying to throw the game back to 1998.” He was referring to the use of GPS in the shoulder pads of players and the increase in the use of technology in the NFL.
Now I’m not a Raiders fan but to me hearing that doesn’t fill me with any sort of confidence, it just echoes the sounds of a man stuck in an era now 20 years old who is going to be exposed as a relic of a coach as soon as the season starts. So, here’s my look back at Jon Gruden’s 1998 season as Head Coach for the Raiders, unsurprisingly it’s not something I think he really does want to go back to.
I have to say I wasn’t alive in 1998, but I do know that it was when the Denver Broncos won their second Super Bowl in as many years with John Elway and Terrell Davis running for over 2000 yards in a season.
Back in 1998, it was Jon Gruden’s first year as head coach and the Raiders seemed to have lady luck on their side to end up finishing the 8-8. This is because they were outscored by their opponents 356-288. Raiders fans are sure hoping it’s not like that this season, with Derek Carr, Amari Cooper and Marshawn Lynch.
Now in the 1998 season this would have been a blessing as Vinny Testerverde led the Jets to the AFC Championship game, Randall Cunningham led what would be the highest scoring offence of all time to the NFC Championship and a 15-1 record, Steve Young led the league in touchdown passes with 36 and John Elway won the Super Bowl that year.
But Gruden was forced to split time between three different quarterbacks all over the age of 30. So, the Raiders had under centre, Donald Hollas (I know what you’re thinking as well as I am who is he?), Jeff George an enigmatic, big-armed quarterback who was a number one overall pick but is being outplayed by Mr Hollas and Wade Wilson (No not Deadpool but a 39-year-old backup).
As you can guess this cavalcade of crummy quarterbacks did nothing to help the Raiders cause in 1998. They threw for a combined total of 21 touchdowns and 25 interceptions, none of them averaged over 150 yards per game through the air. It was a real marvel that this tire fire of a quarterback group didn’t sink the Raiders to a losing record.
The Raiders, however, did have some semblance of an NFL on other parts of their offence. Running back Napoleon Kauffman gained over 1100 yards from scrimmage that season in just 13 games and all-time Raiders legend Tim Brown had 81 receptions for 1012 yards and 9 touchdowns. But it only led the Raiders to be ranked as the 22nd best offence in the league.
Their defence ranked just bit better at 20th in the league. They were slightly under acknowledged giving up just 8 rushing touchdowns all season, gave up the third least amount of passing yards of any defence in the league with just 2876 yards, a top ten scoring defence and the best third-down defence in the league allowing a conversion on third down just 26.5% of the time.
The defence was the strength of the team with All-Pro and Pro Bowler Darell Russell at defensive tackle. He had the best season of his career with 63 tackles, 10 sacks and 3 forced fumbles. But he wasn’t the only Pro Bowler on the defence; in the first round of the 1998 NFL Draft Al Davis used the 4th overall pick on the defensive back and Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson.
Woodson blossomed in his first season as a professional, he had 64 tackles, 5 interceptions and won the NFL Defensive Rookie of the year. It was clear to all that could see, that Woodson was destined for greatness and in my eyes, will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Now if the Raiders can use their first-round draft pick on someone like Denzel Ward, Derwin James or Minak Fitzpatrick they will be adding someone who looks very likely to follow in Woodson’s footsteps.
Overall, I think that it would be both a positive and a negative for Jon Gruden to try and head back to 1998 as Raiders head coach.
Simply because despite the fact of picking up a future Hall of Famer and injecting new youthful energy and bravado into the organisation. He was left at 8-8, outside the playoffs, playing three different quarterbacks with a team that was void of talent that wasn’t his.
So let’s hope for all Raiders fans out there that Gruden can’t pull off this time travel, that he decides to spend his time in this new stint on fixing a defence that was more porous than a colander that had shot at by a machine gun and an offence more dysfunctional than a cat flap in a gorilla sanctuary.