Jon Gruden was marching up and down the sideline of Heinz Field on Sunday afternoon, full Chucky-face beaming out a level of satisfaction and bravado that has been rare during his second stint coaching the Raiders.
He was looking for people to shout with, to back pat, to celebrate a 26-17 victory over Pittsburgh and a 2-0 start for a team that many figured would be 0-2 right now.
He finally settled in with his quarterback, Derek Carr, and the two linked arms and shared a moment three-plus seasons in the making. It ended with Gruden playfully punching Carr in the front of his shoulder pads.
It was that kind of afternoon for Las Vegas in what might be that kind of season. With a road victory over Pittsburgh following a thrilling season-opening triumph over Baltimore, the Raiders should be considered more than playoff contenders.
The entire possibilities of this Gruden regime might need to be reexamined.
“I’m not going to be a philosophical Socrates up here,” Gruden said after. “We are all confident. We have a confident group. We were confident last year. We lost some heartbreaking wins. Gut-wrenching, disgusting losses at the end of football games. We have a long way to go. We are nowhere near perfect.”
No, they aren’t, and no one ever made the playoffs in the middle of September. But this is a little bit of what the Raiders paid for when they lured Gruden out of coaching retirement.
The team is tough — Carr shook off an ankle injury to throw for 382 yards and two touchdowns. It’s resilient — the number of injuries is staggering. It’s exciting — with an opportunistic defense and a big-play threat in Henry Ruggs III who can flip a game on a dime.
Gruden is correct about last year. This was a good team undone by brutal losses. The Raiders started 7-5 before suffering through a series of late-season, late-game losses to wind up 8-8 and out of the playoffs.
It was fair to wonder if this would work three years into Gruden’s return to the franchise — he coached the Oakland Raiders from (1998-2001) before being traded to Tampa Bay where he promptly won the Super Bowl.
Gruden preached patience all along (all coaches do). He said the roster needed to be rebuilt, draft classes and free agent additions needed to be stacked up. A culture needed to be created. He wasn’t wrong. But patience, even with a $100 million contract, isn’t great in the NFL.
The one person Gruden never doubted was Carr, who has now outdueled Ben Roethlisberger and Lamar Jackson in back-to-back weeks. He has long cited the chance to work with Carr as a reason he returned to coaching.
“I’ve been clamoring about Derek Carr since I got here,” Gruden said. “Hopefully he gets some recognition for what he did today. Against two great defenses, two weeks in a row, and it’s a big reason we’re 2-0.”
Carr isn’t lacking in his supporting cast. Four different pass catchers had five catches including Ruggs, who went for 113 yards and caught Carr’s 66-yard heave in the fourth quarter that broke the Steelers defense.
“It was a moon ball,” Ruggs, the second-year star out of Alabama, said. “He threw it up, I just had to go get it. When I saw that one, it was just, ‘Run! Just go get it’ …’ It feels good to be a guy who can turn a game around at any time. That’s the feeling I like.
“This team is full of playmakers,” Ruggs continued. “From the quarterback position, running back, receivers, tight ends. We’re loaded with playmakers. It’s just about everybody making plays when it’s their time.”
Gruden brushed off any pressure coming into the season, but it wasn’t just the need to please team owner Mark Davis. With fans finally allowed to attend games at Allegiant Stadium, this felt like the real first season in Las Vegas. The fan base had been waiting forever for football. It wanted a winner.
You never want to bomb out on opening night on the Strip. Right now the Raiders aren’t. And even with a beat-up offensive line and a million questions, few, if any, teams have started more impressively than Vegas.
“The effort is outstanding,” Gruden said. “If you’re a Raiders fan you’d really like these guys.”
You could see that as he walked that triumphant sideline.