Jon Gruden hasn’t been out of coaching long enough to have forgotten what it’s like to try to run his offense without enough frontline wide receivers. To that end, he isn’t letting go of Michael Crabtree unless he already has a proven replacement under contract.
You don’t have to track down Alex Smith, Jim Harbaugh or anyone else who was with Crabtree when he played for the 49ers to discover that he can be a royal pain in the backside. That he has kept his churlish side in check for most of his Raiders tenure is somewhat surprising.
That side of Crabtree may have rubbed fired coach Jack Del Rio the wrong way, given Crabtree was little more than an afterthought in Oakland’s final two games last season. Then again, who cares? That was last season. Del Rio is gone. Crabtree still is better than any wide receiver on the Raiders roster, with the possible exception of Amari Cooper.
Oh, and Crabtree also is better than almost every wide receiver slated to hit free agency March 14, save maybe Jarvis Landry.
See, Gruden remembers how difficult it was getting the most out of his West Coast-style offense in 1998, when his top three receivers were Tim Brown, James Jett and Terry Mickens. From there, you’re talking about Kenny Shedd and Desmond Howard, who combined for five receptions for 66 yards.
Things didn’t get much better in 1999, with Brown, Jett and Mickens the lone receivers catching any passes during the regular season.
It wasn’t until 2000, when the Raiders signed veteran Andre Rison and drafted Jerry Porter in the second round, that Gruden had a stable of receivers to work with. In 2001, the Raiders added Jerry Rice.
You get the picture. Gruden knows what it’s like to play with one legitimate starting receiver. He isn’t going that route again.
So, where does this leave Crabtree?
Well, still in the Raiders’ plans, despite how last season ended, despite Crabtree’s penchant for getting sucked into Aqib Talib’s mind games, despite an almost $7.7 million salary for 2019.
You think Tim Brown was a joy to be around for an entire season? He threatened to call his own plays in 1997, with Joe Bugel the head coach. And, no, he wasn’t kidding. He can probably show you the wristband, if you like.
You think Andre Rison was easy to be around on a daily basis? Don’t make us call Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes to the stand for help with this one, either.
You think Jerry Porter was someone Gruden didn’t have to coddle?
Here’s an excerpt from something I wrote about Porter during one of his many tantrums:
“He took exception to the Raiders drafting kicker Sebastian Janikowski in the first round and waiting until the second round to select him out of West Virginia. He showed his discontent by holding out of training camp and finally arriving with a jersey emblazoned with the No. 1.
When asked the significance of the number, Porter said it was to show that he should have been a first-round selection. That, among other things, landed him in then-coach Jon Gruden’s doghouse.
Porter requested a trade at the end of his rookie season.”
So, don’t pay too much attention to anything you hear or read in the coming days. Think logically on this one.
In Cooper and Crabtree, Gruden has his Brown and Rice, his Brown and Rison, his Keyshawn Johnson and Keenan McCardell — those were his starring receivers (he also had Joe Jurevicius on the team) the year he won the Super Bowl with the Buccaneers in 2002.
Take away Crabtree, and the Raiders are left with Cooper, Seth Roberts, Cordarrelle Patterson and Johnny Holton. Replacing Crabtree with a top-tier free agent such as Landry would cost more than what the Raiders would save by cutting Crabtree.
The more likely scenario is, the Raiders keep Crabtree and add a third frontline receiver, be it through free agency or the draft.
There’s only so much Mickens, Shedd and Holton that one coach can take in a career.