ALAMEDA (AP) — The Oakland Raiders players took their exit physicals, packed up their lockers and said their goodbyes.
A season that started with Super Bowl expectations ended with coach Jack Del Rio getting fired after a six-win season, sending the team into another offseason of uncertainty.
Already the speculation has turned to Jon Gruden returning to Oakland for a second stint as coach, with ESPN reporting that Gruden is expected to be the team’s next coach.
“It’s exciting,” said linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who called Del Rio a great coach. “You know what he’s done in the past. You know that he understands the game of football, both sides, and he has studied the quarterback position inside and out. He’s a guy that’s a well-known critic in this game and coach as well. I look forward to seeing what happens.”
This isn’t the first time Gruden has been tied to the Raiders. Owner Mark Davis has always expressed interest on bringing him back and there was talk of that possibility back when Dennis Allen was hired in 2012 and again before Del Rio was hired in 2015. Davis has not talked publicly about the decision or the future, issuing only a brief statement thanking Del Rio.
Gruden is still extremely popular among Raiders fans after going 38-26 in four seasons before being traded to Tampa Bay following the 2001 season that ended with the “Tuck Rule” game playoff loss at New England.
Gruden beat the Raiders for the Super Bowl the following year, but didn’t win another playoff game in his final six seasons with the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay had a 57-55 overall record in Gruden’s tenure. He has spent the past nine seasons as an announcer for ESPN and is schedule to work Saturday’s playoff game between Tennessee and Kansas City.
“I guess I’ll believe it when I see it, from all the reports in previous years and stuff like that. I mean, he may do it, he may not. Looks like he is, but I don’t know. It would be interesting to see him back on the sideline,” long snapper Jon Condo said.
“I’ve met him a couple of times, but I don’t know what he’s like as a coach. I know what he’s done 15 years ago. He’s been a part of the game, so he knows the game. I don’t know.”
Del Rio, who grew up in the East Bay city of Hayward cheering for the Raiders, took over a three-win team in 2015 and immediately changed the culture and helped Oakland win seven games that season.
The Raiders had a breakthrough season in 2016 with 12 wins, but it ended in disappointment when a broken leg for quarterback Derek Carr in Week 16 cost the Raiders a chance at a division title and led to a first-round playoff loss.
“He came here and change the attitude of the whole program, the whole atmosphere,” fullback Jamize Olawale said. “For a while there, we didn’t have any winning seasons. He came in here and we were able to turn things around. Moving forward, the future is bright.”
Expectations were high coming into this season with Carr and most of the key offensive pieces back, along with the addition of running back Marshawn Lynch and tight end Jared Cook.
But Del Rio’s decision to fire coordinator Bill Musgrave after last season despite a dynamic offense and replace him with quarterbacks coach Todd Downing backfired.
The offense regressed significantly this season as Carr struggled under Downing’s tutelage and the defense showed no signs of improvement before firing coordinator Ken Norton Jr. after 10 games.
That led to Del Rio getting fired despite a 25-23 record for a team that won 11 games in the three seasons before he arrived. Del Rio is the first Raiders coach fired with a winning record since Art Shell was let go with a 54-38 mark following the 1994 season.
“I’m not going to get into fair or not. That’s not my call at all,” safety Reggie Nelson said. “I’m just here to play football. I don’t make those decisions. That’s a question you need to ask upstairs. I’m not going to get into that.”