They are questions worth asking.
Simply put, would the Raiders have made the playoffs had Jon Gruden never resigned as head coach? Would they have finished better or worse than 10-7? Did they need the change in leadership that interim Rich Bisaccia has provided or did the team suffer because of it?
You can debate the questions for days and not arrive at conclusive answers. But that in no way dismisses the terrific job Bisaccia has done in the most uncommon of situations.
“To see the joy, just to see how Coach Bisaccia led us this year, our coaching staff staying together,” said quarterback Derek Carr. “People had new roles … Hopefully it’ll be a Disney movie someday, and I get to play Coach Bisaccia. That’s probably my goal next.”
He has other, more pressing ones at the moment.
On to Cincinnati
The Raiders meet Cincinnati in an AFC Wild Card game Saturday afternoon at Paul Brown Stadium, just the second time since 2002 that the visitors will have advanced to the NFL’s postseason.
The Raiders were 3-2 when Gruden stepped away following a New York Times report that he used misogynistic and anti-gay language in numerous emails during a seven-year period beginning in 2011.
It was a dark cloud the franchise wouldn’t have survived had he not departed. He had to go. But that didn’t mean things instantly changed for the better under Bisaccia.
Think back to the game at Kansas City on Dec. 12.
The Raiders would trail 35-3 at intermission and lose 48-9, turning the ball over five times on a day they began by congregating at midfield of Arrowhead Stadium and foolishly stomping up and down on the home-field logo.
It was during a streak when the Raiders lost five of six games and the majority of outside noise went something like this: Blow the entire thing up in the offseason and start over. It was a mess.
At the time, it appeared they missed Gruden’s leadership, needed a firmer hand directing the ship.
Bisaccia and his staff were seriously overmatched that day against the Chiefs. Things would go one way or the other, and at that time no one predicted a positive turn of events.
“We tried to look at that game and what we did poorly,” Bisaccia said. “What was our effort like at the end of the game being down like that? We evaluated it and moved on like we have the other ones.
“If you stay in a win too long, you end up putting yourself in a bad position. The same if you stay in a loss too long. We learned a lot from that game about ourselves.”
Want crazy? They are 4-0 since that debacle.
There is no question Bisaccia has settled into his role more. That his comfort level as the man in charge has increased with each passing win. It shows in his coaching.
The Raiders ultimately flourished following the Gruden fiasco. They benefited from a change from one authoritative figure to a focused but more mild-mannered approach, with several voices in the room offering opinions.
Bisaccia immediately delegated power to his coordinators in a way Gruden didn’t. Maybe a breath of fresh air was the best tonic off the field. Still, it took some time to get things right on it.
Bisaccia in his first six games after replacing Gruden was ranked one of the least aggressive coaches in the NFL. He treated fourth down like a plague. Passive with a Capital P. The special teams coordinator in him settled for far too many field goals and punts.
But all that has changed in recent weeks. He’s pushing things more now. Going for it. His team is tackling better in space. It’s finishing when a game is on the line. He is clearly a better all-around head coach than when assuming the role. Clearly more confident in his decisions.
“I think a lot of people do a better job explaining that than I do,” Bisaccia said of his maturation as a head coach.
His reasoning for the improvement: That if you don’t grow, you lack a sense of humility. That if you don’t listen to others, you can’t get better. That he has learned from talking with his assistants, some who have been NFL head coaches.
That it’s not just about football but also life outside it. That he has engaged with players to seek their thoughts about how to produce more success.
The right guy
“I don’t know how many interim coaches could get to 10 wins,” said Pro Bowl defensive end Maxx Crosby. “I could go on and on about Coach Rich. He stepped in and did an amazing job. That dude has had so many players’ backs for years. But what happens next is the future. We’ll worry about that then. Right now, we’re playing Cincinnati.
“We’re going to play for each other and we’re not going to stop until our hearts explode.”
And, it appears, compete in the same manner for their head coach.
Would it have been different under Gruden? Better? Worse? Nobody really knows.
They do know this: This could and likely will be it for Bisaccia as head coach should the Raiders lose Saturday.
He didn’t turn out to be just any guy helping move the Raiders from under that dark cloud and into a blinding sunlight.
He turned out to the right one.
Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at [email protected] or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.