Las Vegas Raiders coach Jon Gruden might have watched more college football film than anyone in the world since the beginning of the year.
Most NFL coaches binge college games for a few months as a way to scout going into the draft in April and then check out until the next year. The Raiders had no choice but to keep going this season, however, because of their week 1 opponent.
The Carolina Panthers are breaking in an entirely new coaching staff, led by a trio that spent the last several years coaching collegiately, as they host the Raiders at 10 a.m. Sunday at Bank of America Stadium. And with no preseason games out of coronavirus precautions, the Raiders’ best guess as to what schemes Panthers coach Matt Rhule, offensive coordinator Joe Brady and defensive coordinator Phil Snow will run comes from diving into their recent stops like Baylor and Temple.
“We watched anything we could get our hands on,” Gruden said. “It’s a little like when you were a high school coach and you used to drive across the county to exchange film, but unfortunately their coach never showed up, so you didn’t get any tape to look at. It’s a challenge, there’s no doubt.”
There’s been a lot of talk on how teams with continuity should have an advantage this season, an edge the Raiders should hold over the Panthers with Gruden entering his third season on the sidelines. On the flip side, however, Carolina can certainly threaten with more of an element of surprise.
With Gruden’s system fully implemented, the Panthers know what to expect. The Raiders, on the other hand, have no way to tell the specifics of what Rhule will run in Carolina, and digesting too much material from his past teams could backfire.
Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady both skew more towards a new age of coaches that stick less to a rigid approach and instead conform their strategies to the talent around them. At Rhule’s first head-coaching job, he helped Temple to the first back-to-back 10-win seasons in school history in 2015 and 2016 with heavy reliance on the power-run game and one of the nation’s most deliberate offenses.
His approach had transformed by his third season at Baylor last year as the Bears ran at one of the fastest paces in the country and reached the Sugar Bowl behind tactful use of the run-pass option. Meanwhile, Brady was 450 miles East of Waco, Texas in Baton Rouge, La., architecting one of the best offenses in college football history at LSU to help take quarterback Joe Burrow from fringe NFL prospect to No. 1 overall draft pick.
“We did watch quite a bit of LSU tape,” Raiders defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. “What are the types of routes and runs and those types of things? It’s part of the preparation. We’re going to play our defense, trust our eyes and our keys and if something comes up, it’ll be, ‘Come over on the sideline, let’s get it drawn up, let’s get on the same page and let’s go play.’”
The Raiders aren’t explicitly stating it, but they seem much more puzzled about what Carolina will do on offense. Las Vegas’ offense performed at a relatively high clip a year ago, providing confidence it can handle whatever it faces, and Snow has been forthright about Carolina’s intention to run a base 4-3 defense.
The Raiders' defense has much less of a track record, and the amount of looks the Panthers’ offense could use appears substantially longer. Gruden and his staff could go crazy questioning all the possibilities.
Will Brady build his attack solely around running back Christian McCaffrey like the previous Carolina staff? Does he think quarterback Teddy Bridgewater’s skillset is a match to employ what he did last season with Burrow? Or does he poach some of the concepts that the New Orleans Saints utilized last year to go 5-0 when Bridgewater was pressed into action?
The Saints are the NFL team the Raiders have studied most intently going into the opener. In addition to Bridgewater playing in New Orleans for the last three seasons, Brady was an offensive assistant there in 2017 and 2018.
“No matter who’s the quarterback, it’s always apply pressure,” Raiders linebacker Cory Littleton said of the team’s approach. “Put them in situations where they don’t always make the right choices. Teddy is a smart dude that normally makes all the right choices, so we have to put him in uncomfortable positions where we can rock his game a little.”
Week 1 carries some level of uncertainty for every team in the NFL considering the circumstances, and the Raiders’ concerns go beyond their opponent. Shortly before leaving for Charlotte, N.C., Gruden admitted he wasn’t sure exactly how life on the road would work given the NFL’s strict guidelines. He said the league sent a 70-page rulebook.
He also wasn’t sure how much artificial noise would be pumped in on gameday, and had the Raiders practice at a variety of decibel levels in preparation. The mystery of how the Panthers will look just adds to a long list of unknowns.
“I’ve never seen Carolina on tape so I have negative feelings on that,” Gruden said. “I wish I could see something but I’m confident. Our coaches have done a great job. Our players have done a great job.”