For Jon Gruden, Derek Carr and Las Vegas Raiders, playoffs are a must in 2021
Jon Gruden is entering the fourth year of the longest coaching contract in NFL history, and restlessness is starting to settle in around his team.
But after a 6-3 start with hopes of a playoff run, the Raiders fizzled to an 8-8 finish and another year without postseason football. The players — and their fans — are expecting more in the upcoming season.
Pro Bowl tight end Darren Waller set the tone for 2021 in an interview with "Good Morning Football" in which he laid out a playoffs-or-bust mentality for his team.
"We have to make the playoffs. There are no more excuses, no more justifications. ... We're right there. So I believe in these guys, and I know that this year is going to be a special year for us."
Is Gruden the guy to get the squad there?
As mentioned, the then-Oakland Raiders broke the bank when they pried Gruden from the "Monday Night Football" broadcast booth and locked him down with a reported 10-year, $100 million contract.
At the time of his introduction, Raiders owner Mark Davis called it "a big effing deal," presumably in more ways than one.
Returns have been mixed so far in Gruden's three-year tenure.
Take 2020, for example, when the Week 2 euphoria of opening Allegiant Stadium with a win was all but rinsed away by back-to-back losses to the Patriots in New England and against the Buffalo Bills at home.
Given the enormity of Gruden's contract, that kind of inconsistency can drive critics to look at the coach through a cynical lens, which Colin Cowherd did on Thursday's episode of "The Herd."
Cowherd pulled up Gruden's career coaching résumé, which includes his initial four-year stint with the Raiders and a seven-year run with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and compared it to a series of résumés belonging to recent coaching cast-offs.
Gruden's career numbers proved comparable to those of Anthony Lynn, Doug Pederson and Bill O'Brien, all of whom were shown the door by their respective teams in the past year.
But Cowherd said there are two sides to the coin, and Gruden's first three years can also be seen in a favorable light.
"If you're cynical going in, you're going to be cynical even if there is growth. The Raiders have gotten better every year. You've got to give Gruden credit. They've got really good offensive personnel. They've gone [from] four wins [to] seven to eight. And this year? It's a pretty workable schedule."
There's likely no bigger key to Gruden's success than quarterback Derek Carr.
Despite an offseason filled with rumors about upgrading at the position, Raiders general manager Mike Mayock was firm earlier this week in his stance that the team is committed to the 29-year-old quarterback.
As the Raiders have improved incrementally over the past three years, so has Carr.
In 2018, he threw for 4,049 yards and 19 touchdowns with a passer rating of 93.9. In 2019, those numbers ticked up to 4,054 yards, 21 touchdowns and a 100.8 rating. In 2020, he registered 4,103 yards, 27 touchdowns and a 101.4 passer rating.
At the end of the season, Carr expressed his gratitude toward Gruden and the Raiders' coaches who aided in his development.
As Carr's star tight end pointed out, the Raiders can't afford to miss the playoffs again this season.
Expectations are too high and progress too evident — if not painstakingly gradual — for the franchise to suffer a backslide. But how do Gruden, Carr, Waller and the rest of the Raiders ensure they're playing postseason football?
The answer is embedded in the fabric of the team: Just win, baby.