Rewind to the beginning of 2017. The Oakland Raiders were traveling to Houston for their first playoff game since the infamous Super Bowl beat down in 2002, and despite the fact that Derek Carr’s injury had robbed Raider Nation of optimism, head coach Jack Del Rio was the talk of the town.
After a decade of decadence, Del Rio had helped restore the Raiders to relevance. Fast forward a year, and the Raiders started 2018 without a head coach. What went wrong?
What Went Wrong With Jack Del Rio in Oakland
In order to break down what went wrong, you have to look at what went right. Because regardless of how ugly the 2017 season was, Del Rio did some good things as the head coach of the Raiders. Nobody would’ve blinked if he had won Coach of the Year in 2016. It’s important to remember the good along with the bad.
Del Rio’s biggest strength is that he’s a “player’s coach.” He’s the kind of guy that can motivate his players, and make the people around him want to play better. With Jack at the helm in 2015 and 2016, the Raiders believed they could win games. When I think back to Del Rio’s best moments in Oakland, I remember the game in Week 1 last season, where he went for the game-winning two-point conversion instead of a game-tying extra point. Del Rio inspired these Raiders players, and they tasted their first success in over a decade under his rule. Then, the wheels came off the car, literally.
The exact moment that Del Rio’s “Icarus” started flying too close to the sun? The moment Trent Cole wrapped Carr up in the backfield, breaking his fibula. That’s the moment that arguably the best season of Del Rio’s coaching career came to a tragic end. Matt McGloin and Connor Cook weren’t going to come in and save that season, and the Raiders looked hopeless during the last two games of the 2016 season.
The Off-Season From Hell
Then came the off-season, and with it, all sorts of drama. The rumors of a relocation became reality when it was announced that the team would be moving to Las Vegas in 2020. Shortly after that, the Raiders made a shocking move, luring bruising power back and Oakland-native Marshawn Lynch out of retirement. With Lynch wearing Silver and Black, up next was the draft, and Reggie McKenzie made another startling move, taking corner Gareon Conley, despite the fact that the defensive back was the subject of a sexual assault investigation. Believe it or not, the off-season was just getting started.
Next came Carr’s contract extension, where he was given the NFL’s biggest contract to date. Carr was given a six-year contract extension worth over $125,000,000. A lot of people don’t realize that the Raiders actually got a pretty good deal, as Carr’s deal is relatively team-friendly, but the contract came with a ton of pressure and even more hype. Then, as the preseason kicked off, it was revealed that franchise left tackle, Donald Penn, was unhappy with his contract, and he held out.
So with Super Bowl expectations, the Raiders entered the 2017 season with the highest paid quarterback in football, a celebrity running back, and a disgruntled left tackle. Penn came back before the season started, but it was just one more thing to distract the Raiders.
Burn Bright, Fade Fast
What’s really wild in hindsight is that the Raiders actually started the season on the right foot. They started off 2-0, averaging 36 points a game and it looked like they were ready to set the NFL on fire. Carr had multiple touchdowns, and they were finding innovative ways to get players like Marshawn Lynch and Cordarrelle Patterson involved.
Then, the Sunday Night Football game against the Washington Redskins happened, and that’s where things get fuzzy. Nobody outside of the Raiders organization really knows whether or not the anthem protests caused a rift in the locker room, but the reality is that they came out looking like the team we would get used to watching in 2017.
The offense was dysfunctional and the defense was sloppy. They couldn’t run the ball, Carr had more turnovers than touchdowns, and Kirk Cousins shredded Oakland’s secondary. The Raiders would lose 27-10, starting a losing streak that wouldn’t end for four games.
The Story So Far
Just to recap, after receiving a contract that came with a ton of money and high expectations, this is what Del Rio had to endure. The team he coaches, which he grew up loving, was moving away from his hometown to another city.
That same team went out and got a very charismatic, if slightly controversial tailback. His star quarterback, coming off a devastating injury, was given a massive contract extension, only to get hurt again. His first round pick, a guy embroiled in a criminal investigation, suffered an injury that basically kept him off the field all season, and then after his star left tackle held out for most of the preseason, there was allegedly a rift in the locker room right as they started a four-game losing stretch.
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Pretty much everything that could have gone wrong, did, and to Del Rio’s credit, he did the best he could to keep it under control. However, it wasn’t enough. It’s true that Del Rio had to deal with a lot, but that doesn’t make him the victim of this story. A lot of what ended Del Rio’s time in Oakland was his own fault.
The End of Cap’n Jack
The big issue was that Del Rio’s assistant coaches were dreadful. Ken Norton Jr. was holding the defense back, as noted by the incredible explosion of pressure and turnovers after his firing, and Todd Downing was a huge flop. With Downing calling plays, Oakland’s offense went from elite to disastrous in a few months. Who hired these men? Del Rio. Who chose to let offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave leave? Del Rio.
And as much as the players used to believe in Jack, that stopped when things fell apart. When they started losing games, he lost control of his locker room. Del Rio’s reasoning for humiliating losses was apathetic and unsatisfying, and mere months after earning a huge contract, he had turned a contender into a doormat.
The Bitter End
Ultimately, Del Rio was a man who loved the Oakland Raiders and did what he could to transform them into a viable contender. He came in and he taught these players that they could win.
But at the end of the day, he wasn’t an “X’s and O’s” coach. He wasn’t someone who could get the Raiders over the hump. That’s where Jon Gruden comes in. Many fans on Twitter have already pointed out how Del Rio was to the Raiders what Mark Jackson was to the Warriors. Maybe Jon Gruden can be our Steve Kerr, after all, he did just come out of the booth to coach.