Despite all that happened to AFC West teams in the offseason, one transaction over all others provided the headlines. Jon Gruden, nicknamed ‘Chucky’ because of his resemblance to the horror movie character, is back in silver and black.
Gruden’s scowl last patrolled a Raiders’ sideline on 19 January 2002 in a 16-13 loss in the AFC Divisional Playoff to the Patriots. At the end of his fourth season, Gruden was traded, by late Raiders owner Al Davis, to Tampa Bay for two first-round picks, two second-round picks and $8 million. The football gods’ were clearly angered – in his first season as Buccaneers boss, his Tampa side destroyed their opponents 48-21 in the Super Bowl. Those opponents were the Raiders. The Bucs defense dominated, returning three interceptions for touchdowns, and talked of knowing what the offense was going to do before it happened. Gruden had built that team and even played the role of his former quarterback Rich Gannon in practices ahead of the Super Bowl.
Unable to replicate his early success, Gruden was fired in January 2009 and promptly became the voice of US TV institution Monday Night Football. With his brother Jay entering his fifth season as head coach of Washington Redskins, Gruden was lured back to the Raiders by a 10-year $100 million deal, offered by Davis’ heir, Mark.
Bay Area fans will be hoping that all the football Gruden has watched as a commentator over the last nine years has prepared him for how the game’s changed since he last wore the headset. He’s already let Marshawn ‘Beast Mode’ Lynch know that he’ll be expected to carry a heavy workload. Gruden’s main task will be to return quarterback Derek Carr to pre-2016 injury form and help Amari Cooper recover from a third-year slump. Defensively, the Raiders’ best player Khalil Mack remains at loggerheads with the team over a pay hike and could be traded. That might not go down too well with the fans in the Black Hole.
The most complete team in the division looks to be San Diego Los Angeles Chargers, who had their first winning season in three years in 2017. Their 36-year-old quarterback Philip Rivers threw 28 touchdowns to 10 interceptions, while running back Melvin Gordon and receiver Keenan Allen topped 1,000 yards rushing and receiving respectively. The addition of Mike Pouncey at center further solidifies the offensive line and has Anthony Lynn gunning for a first playoff spot in five years in his second season and a first divisional title since 2009. On the other side of the ball, Gus Bradley rebounded from losing his job as Jaguars head coach to co-ordinate the defense to third in the league in scoring. Pro Bowl pass rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram combined for 22.5 sacks and Casey Hayward at cornerback was rewarded for his four interceptions with a three-year $36-million extension. In April’s Draft, Bradley got a new tool in the form of game-changing safety Derwin James, who fell to the Chargers’ 17th pick.
Division champs in 2017 were Andy Reid’s Kansas City Chiefs. That didn’t help them in the playoffs as they blew a 21-3 lead to crash out of the Wild Card Game against Tennessee. That was Reid and the Chiefs’ latest playoff failure but not the worst – that was a going down 45-44 after being up 38-10 on the Colts after the 2013 season.
The rotund coach kept his job but his quarterback Alex Smith wasn’t so lucky. Reid traded Smith to Washington and Patrick Mahomes, who was drafted last year and threw for 284 yards in his Week 17 audition, inherits the starting role.
Last year’s NFL rushing leader as a rookie, Kareem Hunt returns, as does stellar tight end Travis Kelce and Tyreek ‘The Freak’ Hill, who broke out in 2017 with 1,183 yards and seven TDs. Sammy Watkins was brought in from the LA Rams to give Mahomes another receiving option. The Chiefs D will have a different look after the team traded star cornerback Marcus Peters and Derrick Johnson left for the arch-rival Raiders after 13 years in KC, but it should be once more marshalled by the recovering Eric Berry, who tore his Achilles’ tendon in Week 1 last season.
Just three seasons ago, the Broncos were Super Bowl 50 champions, led by a punishing defense and a barely passable imitation of Peyton Manning. Since that balmy evening in Levi’s Stadium, a combination of Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler and Paxton Lynch have disappointed in the Manning role. That led general manager John Elway to reach into free agency to grab Case Keenum, who unexpectedly led the Vikings to the NFC Championship Game in place of the injured Sam Bradford a year ago.
The vaunted defense took a step back last season, head coach’s Vance Joseph’s first, as the pass rush slumped. With the fifth overall draft pick, Elway snapped up a remedy for that. The 6ft 4in, 269lb Bradley Chubb had 20 sacks in 23 games for North Carolina State over the last two college seasons and should provide a disruptive force opposite six-time Pro Bowler Von Miller. Unless Keenum is on the case, however, it could be consecutive fourth-place finishes for the Mile High club.