It has been an offseason unlike any other for Jon Gruden.
The Raiders packed up their stuff and moved from the East Bay to Las Vegas, starting a new chapter in a new city. Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock went to work this offseason improving a roster that was talent deficient a season ago, finishing at 7-9 and missing the playoffs after finishing the year 1-5. Gruden hasn't had a chance to interact with many of the newcomers except over Zoom due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Raiders' first season in Las Vegas will be different than expected. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, it's unlikely fans will be allowed into brand new Allegiant Stadium, and owner Mark Davis has said if fans can't go then also won't attend. While football is paramount for Gruden, he understands the dire situation humanity currently finds itself in and that the Raiders' toughest opponent doesn't wear a helmet.
“Hopefully, we can beat the virus," Gruden told The Athletic's Vic Tafur. "The Chiefs are great -- unfortunately we have to play them twice -- but we got the toughest opponent … we gotta beat this virus, man. You and me and everybody else, and hopefully somebody comes up with a cure soon.”
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Training camp opened Tuesday for the Raiders, with players filtering in to take their COVID-19 tests and then go home before coming back to take a second in three days. Rookies and quarterbacks already have been tested and cleared for entry, with the Raiders having zero players currently on the NFL's reserve/COVID list for players who either have tested positive for the virus or are being quarantined after being in close contact with someone who has contracted it. There will be no preseason games this year, making the evaluation part of Gruden's job a little more difficult.
“It’s a whole new ballgame right now,” Gruden said. “We have a new city, a new facility, a new team, new rules … I finally get to meet some of the veteran players (Tuesday). We had about 60 minutes of walk-through with the rookies (Monday) and that’s all the contact I’ve had, other than a bunch of Zoom meetings. …
“It’s tough. It’s a tough, tough, tough job right now -- and it’s not just football. Humanity is a big part of this, you know what I am saying? Your team, your family, your fans, the city of Las Vegas, the world -- you worry about everybody. There is no answer for this. … There are safety measures that we’re trying to use, but it’s unprecedented territory for you and me and everybody else.”
With no OTAs or minicamp, the Raiders will lean on their offensive continuity to keep them ahead of schedule heading into the 2020 NFL season. The Silver and Black return 10 of 11 starters on offense. Quarterback Derek Carr is entering a make-or-break season in Year 3 under Gruden. Star tight end Darren Waller put himself on the map in 2019, and Hunter Renfrow showed he had what it takes to be top-notch NFL slot receiver. That's not to mention running back Josh Jacobs, who should have been the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year, and a dominant offensive line.
All of that has Gruden chomping at the bit to get going.
“I really am excited about that,” Gruden told Tafur. “Hopefully, they’re healthy. We were excited last year after we flew home from London (after beating the Bears to get to 3-2), but things change when you lose Jacobs and (right tackle) Trent (Brown). And then (guard Richie) Incognito went down and we had a number of injuries at receiver.
“I was very excited about our offense last year. I was very proud of what these guys did, so if we can come back healthy and throw in a little Henry Ruggs, maybe a little Bryan Edwards and, who knows, a little Lynn Bowden, we’ll see.”
While the Raiders' offense returns 10 of 11 starters and welcomes three rookie playmakers into the fold, the defense underwent a massive overhaul.
Gruden and Mayock added two three-down linebackers in Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski to fill a hole that had plagued the Silver and Black for more than half a decade. The secondary could be the biggest X-factor for the Raiders' defense in 2020. The Raiders gave up over 10 yards per pass on the outside in 2019 and ranked 31st in DVOA as a defense in 2019. The Raiders will rely on second-year cornerback Trayvon Mullen and safety Johnathan Abram to lead a young secondary that must improve if the Silver and Black are to take a leap in 2020.
While the secondary is vital, the Raiders also need more from their pass rush, especially from 2019 No. 4 overall pick Clelin Ferrell. Ferrell didn't live up to his standards during his rookie season. Weight loss brought on by a midseason illness got him off track, but a light came on in mid-November as Ferrell showed glimpses of the player he can be. He promised to return a different player in 2020. The Raiders added Maliek Collins and Carl Nassib to join Ferrell, Maxx Crosby and Maurice Hurst on the defensive line.
All things are pointing up for the Raiders as they enter their new era in Las Vegas. But there will be no welcome party in 2020, and Gruden is looking at things through the proper lens heading into a season that will be played during a once-in-a-generation public health crisis.
One day things appear to be on the upswing and then pessimism takes over. The NFL has seen a number of players opt out of the season due to concerns about the virus. MLB's plan was full of holes from the start and commissioner Rob Manfred's errors have been laid bare for everyone to see with the Miami Marlins outbreak throwing the season into tumult just four days in.
Gruden has the right perspective as humanity tries to beat back an invisible enemy. Sports are trying to return in America despite the country having done little to earn that reward, with leadership failures, political divisions and misinformation causing America to be one of the only developed countries not to have a handle on the virus.
Sports are coming back. For how long is unsure. The NFL will trudge ahead until they hit an issue big enough to make them have second thoughts.
But only one thing is certain: This will be an NFL season unlike any before. Gruden will focus on helping the Raiders take another leap in Year 3 of his second reign, but he knows there are far important things than touchdowns in 2020.