When Jon Gruden was hired (re-hired?) as the coach of the Oakland Raiders earlier this year, he was handed a big, fat contract — perhaps the largest for a coach in NFL history — and a mandate to build a winner without delay.
For a coach who has effectively been out of the game for a decade, Gruden has been granted incredible — perhaps unilateral — power when it comes to the football side of the Raiders' organization, and a few months into his tenure, it's evident that he has no problem using it.
The result is a Raiders' roster that appears to reflect the values and desires of the team's old/new head coach.
The Raiders haven't made too many splashes in free agency — they were only in on one top player, Ndamukong Suh, who canceled his visit to Oakland — but those players that Oakland has signed aren't exactly prospects.
Doug Martin is 29 at a position where few remain relevant after 30, Jordy Nelson is 32 years old and without a doubt on the downslope of his career, and the Raiders signed not one, not two, but three defensive backs over 30.
The rest of the league has noticed, and the age of the Raiders' offseason acquisitions has become an easy joke around the league.
But no one should be surprised that Gruden is opting to bring in veterans in his first offseason back in charge of the Raiders.
Gruden has always favored veterans because Gruden believes in systems.
And when you believe that systems win football games, the top attribute any player can have is discipline.
That means discipline to show up on time, to come with your homework done, to be attentive and accountable in meetings — in short, to be a professional. It also means the discipline to do your job, no matter how unsavory it might be, on every given play — no freelancing, no half-efforts, and absolutely no griping.
Young players might be loaded with talent, but very few players have the discipline of a professional at a young age.
You know who does? Veterans.
Remember where we're at: The Raiders are in win-now mode and don't let anyone else tell you something different.
That means that there's no room for experimentation, no room for taking liberties with assignments — Gruden isn't going to equivocate on much, not that he ever did. This team needs results in 2018.
Had Gruden that entered a more lax scenario — one where he didn't have a Super Bowl window wide open and was, instead, given a few years by Davis to put together a team — he might have spent this offseason making the Raiders younger and more talented. He could have molded a superteam, on the cheap.
A softer, more open-minded Gruden might have hired a real offensive coordinator, too. He didn't though. There's no time for him to not be hands on.
As such, the Raiders are going to have hellacious OTAs and an even tougher Training Camp — Gruden's system installations were ruthless during his first go-around, and there's no reason to believe that anything will change this time around — and with limited time to install systems, Gruden is clearly not leaving anything to chance.
So he's signing players who have not only been in similar systems to the ones he and defensive coordinator Paul Guenther are going to install, but players who have actually executed it.
Is Nelson an upgrade to Michael Crabtree? I don't know — maybe? But for Gruden, he absolutely is, because he's been in Green Bay, where Mike McCarthy — who, like Gruden, is a disciple of Paul Hackett and Mike Holmgren — ran a system similar to what Gruden will run in Oakland. Because of that, Gruden can count on Nelson to execute the job assigned to him this season. He might not be able to break off a 70-yard touchdown anymore, but that's far less important to the fact that he will block when he's asked to block and run the route that he's asked to run every time the ball the snapped.
The Raiders aren't running a spread system where talent is allowed to freelance and "make plays" — Gruden's roster moves show a coach building an offense around a heavy-personnel, smashmouth run game that sets up play action. Gruden doesn't need guys with 4.2 speed and elite elusiveness at receiver in a system like that — they'll be open through clean route running and good playing calling — he needs trustworthy players who understand, beyond a shadow of a doubt, their job on any given play call.
The same goes on the defensive side: Was 34-year-old Reggie Nelson the "best" backup safety the Raiders could have signed this offseason? Of course not. Actually, it's not even close — if you're looking at it from the standpoint of talent and potential.
But that's not the way the Raiders were looking at it.
Nelson has played for Guenther before and he knows the 4-3 defense that the former Bengals defensive coordinator is going to install this season. Can Nelson play as a single-high safety, cutting off a half of the field or more? Nope. Not even close. (Geez, don't make me watch him have to try again.) But he won't be asked to do that in the Raiders' new defense and Guenther and Gruden can trust that Nelson will know where his body and eyes should be on every snap. Even if Nelson doesn't play, having that kind of knowledge in meeting rooms could go a long way with young safeties Karl Joseph and Obi Melifonwu.
It's not as if the Raiders don't have young talent on the roster — this is still a team that boasts Khalil Mack, Amari Cooper, Carr, Gareon Conley, and the aforementioned safeties, and a few more young players once draft is completed in a few weeks — and I'm not trying to allege that talent and discipline are mutually exclusive, but it's clear that Gruden is valuing experience and everything that goes into it over potential.
There's no reason to think that's the wrong way to go about things, either — the Raiders haven't "overpaid" for anyone and if they fail this year, it'll most likely be because the systems were not good enough.
Or maybe the Raiders have enough talent in place, the systems work, and Gruden's disciplined teams can impose their will over a league that's been trending away from that characteristic.
For now, we can only wait and see how it all plays out. In the meantime, though, there's no reason to be surprised if Gruden goes out and signs another veteran player. It's all part of the plan.