Gruden after the 0-2 start: ‘No regrets’

  ALAMEDA, Calif.—This is what Jon Gruden wanted. Well, not exactly. He didn’t want to lose the first two games on his return to coaching. He didn’t want to feel forced to trade away probably his best player, Khalil Mack. He wanted to be in charge of an NFL team once more, and so he is, with all the problems that brings.

  Even Monday, another day after, another day to get peppered with the questions he used to ask—or at least hint at—Gruden indicated there were no regrets.

  Coaches coach. Maybe John Madden secure in his well-earned reputation, not to mention the East Bay real estate holdings, was able to resist the call. But Dick Vermeil, Joe Gibbs and one of Gruden’s recent ESPN colleagues, Herman Edwards, stepped away from microphones and back into the line of fire.

   Gruden was not naïve. He knew the drill. He knew the misfortunes. He knew he was a star on Monday nights with a salary equal to his status. But deep down he was and is a football coach, and that can bring as much pain as satisfaction.

   A game the Oakland Raiders never trailed. Until the final 10 seconds. Until the only time that mattered. A game the Raiders lost on field goal, 20-19, because the Denver Broncos were able to move the ball from their own 20 to the Oakland 18 in a minute 48 seconds, allowing that 36-yard kick in the gut—uh, over the crossbar by Brandon McManus.

  A game that perfectly set up questions about the defensive line and the lack of Mack, who might have made a difference on that drive. Might. Gruden knew that was coming. He understands the game and the business.

   “I think we said after the game,” Gruden said to a packed media room at Raiders HQ, “we got to make improvements there. Across the board we got to make improvements.”

  But he doesn’t have to second-guess himself, at least in a public forum, with cameras and microphones and oh so many digital recorders and note pads.

  “No,” he answered about sending Mack away. “It doesn’t make me regret. We made the trade. We made the trade.”

  Not so nice had had to say it twice, but he did.

  “There has got to be hindsight. 50-50, all that stuff.”

  To be sure without Mack, the pass rusher, the All-Pro, there was no stuff, the type that stops an offense where he tried to start.

  “I would have loved to have had him,” said Gruden, quite forthright. “And I’m not going to keep rehashing this. I would have loved to have coached him, loved to have had him here. But he’s not here. Somebody’s got to step up.

  “We got to keep building our football team, and that’s what we’re going to do. Hopefully, we see more from Arden Key, we see more from P.J. Hall when he gets healthy. Hopefully we prove that in the long term we did the right thing.” 

  Players win games. Derek Carr, criticized obliquely the previous game, against the Rams, for not being decisive, nearly won this one, setting a team completion percentage record. Amari Cooper, 10 receptions for 116 yards, nearly won this one. Marshawn Lynch, 65 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries, nearly won this one.

  It’s hard to know whether Mack could have won this one, but the future draft picks the Raiders acquired didn’t do a thing. Indeed, that’s a gratuitous comment. The Raiders are what they are, which is an NFL team on the verge—of what no one can say, including the head coach.

  Gruden was asked what he saw from the first two games--two losing games, one of them well played, that made him think the Raiders still could be a contender—although truth tell he never even implied that, much less said it directly.

   “I’m not going to sit here and make predictions here today,” he said, sitting there. “I’m not going to do it. We’re going to keep building our football team. Whether that translates into one win or four wins or any wins . . . I’m not going to make any predictions about anything other than we’re going to play hard and provide the best effort we can.”

 As he departed, Gruden walked through the door and into one more question. Did he wish he hadn’t left ESPN for what surrounded him?

  “Not at all,” Gruden said. You sensed he very much meant it, and the heck with Khalil Mack.


For 49ers, a win is a win

  SANTA CLARA, Calif.—The result is what matters, the final score. It’s wonderful to perform flawlessly, to play to a level worthy of coaching texts and highlight videos. But however you do get there, at the end what matters in the NFL is who has the most points.

   On a warm Sunday in September, with the 75,000 seats at Levi’s Stadium maybe three-quarters full , at most, and with imperfection all too evident in the passing game—are six sacks enough evidence?—the San Francisco 49ers were able to beat the Detroit Lions, 30-27.

  Which means they now have a 1-1 record and unlike his rookie season as head coach, 2017, Kyle Shanahan will not continuously be asked when he’ll get his first win of the year. After two games, he has it and has a measure of satisfaction.

   “The win feels good,” said Shanahan. “It took me a while last year to get that win”

 Ten games to be exact. But this time only two games, which in Shanahan’s mind was one game too many.

 “I wish it was last week,” he said, “but I’m very happy. It was tough last year. I’m happy for our guys. I thought our defense played its butts off.  Our special teams made some huge plays, especially D.J. Read.

 “I thought we ran the heck out of the ball. There was a little struggle in the passing game, with the receivers, tight end and quarterback, but we found a way to win.”

  Or the 0-2 Lions, who botched up an interception that brought the ball to the Niners seven with 2:24 to play, with a penalty that nullified the pick, found a way to lose.

  Why the Niners, leading by three with the ball on their own 43, were throwing is beyond comprehension—or coaching.

  They got away with it, and maybe that once outdated slogan about the fans, the faithful, should be revised to “Faithful then, fortunate now.”

 Nothing goes perfect, said Shanahan, the offensive coordinator for Atlanta’s Super Bowl team before he took over the 49ers.”But we’ve got to do a better job with our passing. It’s not all on the blocking. We’ve got to get men open, and the quarterback shouldn’t hold the ball that long. We’ll look at it and correct it.”

  No correction is needed for Matt Breida, who along with Alfred Morris is sharing the position of starting running back, fill-ins for Jerrick McKinnon, who is on injured reserve. In the third quarter, gliding effortlessly following his blocking intelligently—including a juke near the goal line—Breida raced 66 yards for a touchdown.

   To echo the head coach, yes, they ran the heck out of the ball.

   “It was just a great job y the O-line,” said Breida. “They opened up a big hole on the play, and I found Pierre (wide receiver Pierre Garcon. He became my fullback down th4e field essentially . . . He’s a monster. He’s fearless, and he’s not afraid to block.”

  So running worked well. Passing worked less well.

 Jimmy Garoppolo held the ball too long at times. Often the quarterback takes six sacks, the team takes a loss, but as Shanahan said the running game was effective, 190 yards of the Niners 346 total. The Lions’ total was 427, including 329 passing on 34 of 53 by Matthew Stafford (Garoppolo was 18 of 26 for 206 yards and two touchdowns), but Detroit was stymied near the goal line.

  “Too many penalties,” said first-year Lions coach Matt Patricia. Detroit had 10 for105 yards, the Niners 9 for 66. “Too many mistakes. Too many plays there that obviously cost us the game. We had a game-changing play there that got called back”

The interception negated by defensive holding.

   “That was a good thing,” said Garoppolo.

Getting pummeled while waiting to throw was not

   “Got to get the ball out quicker,” said Garoppolo, “The offensive line played great today. We had a chance to blow them out. I think that comes with mental toughness. You can’t let human nature take over.”

  What he meant was the tendency to ease up.

  .Cornerback Richard Sherman emphasized that.

  “A win’s a win,” Sherman agreed, “but it feels like a loss because we played like crap.”


Gruden and Raiders: Can he go home again?

ALAMEDA Calif.—You’re a Raiders fan—an Oakland Raiders fan—and you wonder what they’re going to do to you next? Your loyalty goes unrewarded. Your frustration is ignored.

  The new coach, who used to be the old coach, said he came back because he had something to prove. Where’s he going to prove it, in Las Vegas?

  The team isn’t very good, which can’t be blamed on the coach—except he was involved in trading the team’s best player, Khalil Mack, for draft picks,  some of whom, it the timetable holds, will not be on team until it’s no longer in Oakland,.

  The coach ought to know about giving up people who matter for potential. draftees. Nearly 20 years ago he was the guy who mattered, the coach of a Raiders team that was in the playoffs, that in a couple seasons would win a Super Bowl. But Jon Gruden had been swapped for draft picks who never did very much.

  When Gruden arrived the first time, 1998, he was 35 and loving it. He cracked jokes, taunted the writers. He worked for Al Davis, yes, nerve-wracking. Still it was his first NFL head coaching assignment. This was what he always wanted, so how could he not handle everything with a smile?

  Now he is 55. And famous, more so as commentator for ESPN—hey aren’t you the guy we saw on TV?—than for his coaching background. The Raiders were pounded by the Rams, 33-13, Monday, Gruden’s return game, and Tuesday Gruden was confronted by the media, for a second time in maybe 14 hours. There weren’t a lot of laughs.

  Mack wouldn’t have made the Raiders a winner, although he would have made them more competitive. Defense wins. Everyone in football knows that. You don’t get rid of a once-in-a-decade pass rusher.

  You know the line. It was given to Thomas Wolfe by an English writer, Ella Winter, and he was so enamored Wolfe used it as the title of his last novel,”You Can’t Go Home Again.”  You can walk in the door of the old house years later, but nothing is quite same. Different viewpoints, different situations.

  After he left as head coach of the 49ers, winning three Super Bowls, Bill Walsh returned to Stanford, where he had earned his reputation. But it didn’t quite work. He didn’t have the same enthusiasm and the student-athletes, as the label goes, were not the way he remembered. Society changes. Sports changes.

  Gruden knows the game.  He was less a commentator than an instructor and critic on those “John Gruden Quarterback Camp” segments, one of which dealt with a kid named Derek Carr, who the second half Monday night played less than favorably, throwing interceptions,

  Still, it you’re always behind because the other team (i.e., Rams) is sharp on offense and you’re less than sharp on defense—or offense—the quarterback, in this case, Carr, is going to be heaving balls in desperation.

‘There were a few plays when unchacteristically (Carr) wasn’t at his best,” said Gruden. No quips. No double-entendre. No TV commentary. Just a cold, hard serious observation.

  “Sometimes,” Gruden pointed out correctly, “you have to credit (Rams defensive coordinator) Wade Phillips.” As if Phillips didn’t receive all the credit possible as defensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos when they stiffed Carolina in Super Bowl 50 at Levi’s Stadium.

  “They gave us multiple looks out there,” said Gruden of the Rams defense. “They have some talented people out there. It’s just disappointing. But I think knowing how good Derek is it can all be solved.”

  Is that coach talking or the TV announcer?

  Gruden knows his stuff. He also knows what his team lacks—a top pass rusher, like Khalil Mack. Funny you should mention that.

  One thing that hasn’t changed in the 10 years since he left coaching and the 20 years or so since he first game with the Raiders is that defeat remains painful.

  “It stinks,” he said candidly, “Losses all feel painful. Especially Monday night losses when you have to get up and get ready for a team like Denver.”

   What do you think it is for Raider fans who have to get ready for losing their team in Oakland?


For Serena the day after: A $17,000 fine and plenty of support

  NEW YORK—And now it’s not merely sport. Now it’s sexism and racism and people who are quick to try to get control by getting into someone’s wallet, or purse—but isn’t the distinction between those two sexist?

 Tennis is back to its schizophrenic stages of lunacy, which perhaps is the way to get noticed at the start of the NFL season.

   What happened to Serena Williams? Virtually everybody except Trump and Obama had an opinion. I mean, it wasn’t surprising that Billie Jean King would weigh in on the chaos. It’s her tennis center where the U.S. Open is held. At least it’s named for Billie Jean.

 Naturally John McEnroe, Mr. Controversy his ownself when he played in the 1980s, currently announcing the tournament on ESPN, along with younger brother Patrick, would give an “I’ve been there” comment—because he has been there.

  Maybe the chair umpire, Carlos Ramos, was a trifle impatient with Williams on Saturday night, snatching a game from her in the second set of her, 6-2, 6-4, finals loss Saturday night to Naomi Osaka. All right, more than a trifle.

   Still, the emotion, arguments, confusion, distress, heresy and general lack of civility didn’t seem to have as much of an impact as does the eternal war between female and male

    Everybody appeared to be wrong at the women’s final, except poor Ms. Osaka, 20, the first Japanese to win a Grand Slam tournament who with the booing (of Ramos) and irritation of Ms. Williams, was almost made to feel like a victim not a champion.

  A percentage of the media should also be included, the ones who applauded after Serena closed out her post-match interview saying, “I just feel I have to go through this for the next persons who want to express themselves and want to be strong women”  No cheering in the press box?

 Sunday, the U.S. Tennis Association, which runs the Open, fined Serena $17.000, a pittance compared to the $82.500 she was fined for telling a line judge who called a rare foot fault in a ’09 semi against Kim Clijsters, “I’m going to stick this bleeping racquet down your throat.”

What set off the figurative fireworks Saturday night was when Ramos warned Williams for being directed from the stands by her coach Patrick Mouratoglou, She disagreed, and when she broke a racquet the warning became violation and a penalty point. Outraged, Williams yelled at Ramos, who then gave Osaka the game and 5-3 lead. Boooooo. That was the reaction of 23,000 fans.

  This was the consensus the day after. All coaches give signals from the stands, which is against the rules but rarely called, except apparently against female players, although Rafa Nadal got nailed a while back.

   And there are different tolerances, unspoken certainly, for men and for women.

. “Several things went very wrong during the U.S. Open women’s finals,” Billie Jean King, a multiple winner from years past, Tweeted after the Osaka-Williams match. “Coaching on every point should be allowed in tennis. It isn’t and, as a result, a player was penalized for the actions of her coach. This should not happen.

“When a woman is emotional, she’s ‘hysterical’ and she’s penalized for it,” the Tweet continued. Williams said male players never are penalized for outbursts, even profanity “When a man does the same, he’s ‘outspoken’ and there are no repercussions. Thank you, Serena Williams, for calling out this double standard. More voices are needed to do the same.”

  John McEnroe said of Serena’s observations, “She’s right. The guys are held to different standards. It’s like, ‘How dare she do that?’” Why the hell did (Ramos) go by the book? Do it like an NBA ref, telling a player to back off or he’ll be called. She needed some leeway. I said far worse”

   One reason Ramos and other chair umpires have so much power is because of a situation at the1979 Open, naturally involving John McEnroe and another hothead of the era, Ilie Nastase.

  The umpire, Frank Hammond, did what Ramos would this time do to Serena, giving Nastase a game for a 3-1 lead. Fans hurled empty beer cans at Hammond, who walked away before the match would end with McEnroe the winner.

  The other McEnroe, Patrick, reminded the television audience nobody understands Serena.  “None of us has walked in her shoes,” he said. “She’s an African-American woman who’s had to struggle. That’s where her response came from. But at the same time she has to be responsible.”

  Since when did responsibility become important in tennis?


Serena after the controversy: ‘Let’s make this the best we can’

 NEW YORK—The other lady, the new champion, Naomi Osaka was better on the court, which is supposed to be what matters. But because tennis is a sport o Byzantine rules and emotional players the last women’s match of the 2018 U.S. Open women became as much a war of words as a battle of forehands.

 When it was done Saturday, Osaka, a mere 20, defeating the great Serena Williams, 6-2, 6-3, we were left with accusations—by the loser—and tears, from both contestants, some in joy and some in anger.

  Yes, Serena, 36, still is working her way back after giving birth to a daughter a year ago and not returning until February to the sport she dominated for two decades.

   But Osaka, the first Asian to win a Grand Slam—she was born in Japan but holds U.S. citizenship—outran, outshot and out-angled Williams.

  And to her credit, Serena, very much a part of the controversy, as was the chair umpire, Carlos Ramos ,did her best, after she said the worst was done to her, to calm an outraged, booing crowd during the trophy presentations.

  “I don’t want to be rude,” Serena said to fans, lifting her arms for quiet. “She played well. I know you guys were here rooting for me. But let’s make this the best we can.”

  It was an upbeat comment after what was a very distressing match, not because Serena failed to pick up her seventh Open and 24th Grand Slam victory, but because she and Ramos had what Williams called “issues.”

  First she was given a warning in the second of game for coaching by her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou.  When she protested, telling Ramos. She’d “rather lose” than cheat.”  Ramos issued a warning.

  Williams said she wasn’t being coached but rather just offered thumbs up signal by Mouratoglou.  Ramos, from Portugal, then called for a second violation for breaking her racquet in disgust.

  She unwrapped a new one—no, neither she nor any of the others pay for them—and went on court and resumed arguing about not being coached,

  "You owe me an apology,'' she told Ramos, sitting above her, who had docked her a point Then she grew outraged. "You stole a point from me. You're a thief, too."

  When Williams wouldn’t back off—you’ve seen it in baseball when the manager won’t return to the dugout after being ejected—Serena was assessed a game penalty. Suddenly or maybe it wasn’t that suddenly she was behind 5-3. She was done figuratively and a few moments later literally

  Asked if the penalties were in part responsible for the defeat, Williams said, “That’s a good a good question. “  But she didn’t answer it.

   “I don’t know,” said Williams. “I feel like she was playing really well, but I feel like I really needed to do a lot to change  in that match to try to come out in front, to come out on top.

  “It’s hard to say because I always fight to the end, always try to come back, no matter what. But she was playing really well. It’s hard to say I wouldn’t have got to a new level, because I’ve done it so many times.”

   She wasn’t going to do it this time. Osaka, who grew up in New York, who as a kid watched Serena in the very place they played, Arthur Ashe Stadium, had only 14 unforced errors to Serena’s 21. Osaka was quicker to the ball and more effective when she arrived.

  Osaka appeared distressed during the post-match award presentations. “I feel I had a lot of emotions,” she explained, “so I kind of had to categorize what was which emotion.”

   She tried earlier to stay clear of Serena’s debate with the umpire, which was  hard.   “The crowd was really noisy, so I didn’t hear,” said Osaka. And when I turned around, uh, it was 5-3, so I was a little bit confused then. But for me, I felt like I really had to focus during the match because she’s such a great champion.”

  So too, after the chaos, after knowing the fans, mostly were cheering for her opponent, is Naomi Osaka.

 Think what you will, but she was the better tennis player this match.