Expert NFL Handicapping: Oakland Raiders and Jon Gruden Performance
The Oakland Raiders are five-point underdogs in Arizona this week. Ari-freaking-zona! The Cardinals have been favored once this season - by two points in their opener at home against the Redskins. And they have only two wins all year - both against San Francisco. Arizona is as bad as a team can reasonably be right now, barely into a rebuild that will be long and painful. Yet they are solid favorites here and have been the choice of a strong majority of bettors so far, moving the line from an opening number of three to the current five, with 5.5 even starting to show up. Needless to say, this is not an endorsement by voters of the year that Oakland is having.
This season would be an unmitigated disaster for the Raiders no matter what. But they just paid their head coach $100 million over 10 years, and you don't pay that kind of money or make the kind of splash that hiring Jon Gruden made to be this bad. Oakland has been a total and utter circus. A disgrace. And I have enjoyed every bizarre minute of it as a person who was itching to fade the Raiders the second Gruden was signed. Now that we are more than halfway through Gruden's first year in town, it's a good time to look at what has happened so far and what we know as bettors about this tire fire by the bay.
What is Gruden anyway?: I felt a bit like the guy telling the naked emperor he wasn't wearing clothes. However, for as long as Gruden was a Monday Night Football analyst and perennial top head coaching candidate, I have openly wondered why people actually think he is so great. A big part of being a head coach in this era is being a self-promoter, and few have been better at Gruden at building their own brand. But what has he really done? He took over a Tampa Team that won nine games with six Pro Bowlers and four All-pros and turned them into a Super Bowl winner in his first year. That's not nothing, but it's also not black magic. Prior to that in Oakland he went 8-8 twice, 12-4 and 10-6, and went 1-1 in the playoffs each of the last two years. Again, not nothing, but not legendary. And after his big win in Tampa he missed the playoffs the next two years and four of the next six. He was just 57-55 in Tampa. Marvin Lewis is the worst coach in football, and he has a better career winning percentage than Gruden's .522 mark. Gruden's fine, and capable of taking a good team and making them play well, but to suggest that he is some kind of genius takes a very rose-colored pair of glasses. Good enough to deserve another chance coaching? Sure. But good enough to get a record-setting contract and unchecked control? Of course not. Any struggles Oakland goes through are exactly what they deserve.
The moment has passed: When Gruden was hired, it was a big story. He was the center of attention like he obviously craves. But it is remarkable how little time it took for the public fascination to fade. Skepticism was high right out of the gate with the moronic trade he engineered - trading away a generational defensive talent seeking a fair deal is never going to be a good move. And skepticism quickly turned to mockery as the team not only struggled but was laughable and seemingly unprepared. But now, as things have gotten worse, odd roster moves have come in bulk and dissension has grown within the program, and mockery has grown to the next level. They now have the problem that Gruden fears most - people just don't care. He's not worth it anymore - not now, anyway. The Cardinals aren't favored solidly here because people are mocking Gruden and flocking to bet against his team. They are favored because, incredibly, they are solidly the better team here at home. Things can reverse themselves - if the roster moves turn out and Gruden actually does have a grand plan that starts to improve this team, for example - but right now Gruden just isn't a thing that casual NFL bettors care about. Nor should he be.
It will get worse: 1-8 is bad, but the rest of the way isn't going to offer a lot of wins. They play Kansas City twice. Those games will be like Harlem Globetrotter games, with the Raiders stepping in for the Generals. They also play Pittsburgh, and at Cincinnati and Baltimore. The only somewhat manageable game is at home against Denver, and they will be second-best by a solid margin in that one, too. The only thing for Oakland fans to look forward to is an exciting draft. The thing I look forward to most is seeing how Gruden can botch the draft. I also look forward to betting against the team regularly down the stretch - they are a dismal 2-7 ATS, haven't covered the last five games, and certainly don't show signs of turning a corner.
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