Three weeks ago, the Las Vegas Raiders experienced an event that — by football standards — was nothing short of tumultuous. Head coach Jon Gruden, reeling from revelations about racist, homophobic and misogynistic emails he’d sent before his tenure, abruptly resigned, leaving assistants and players to scramble in his absence.
Commendably, the Raiders rallied amid the chaos, winning a pair of games to improve to an AFC West-leading 5-2 heading into their bye week. It was a nice story, with the potential to become a heartwarming one.
Then, early Tuesday morning, organizational adversity struck in a brutal, horrific and far more wrenching manner.
According to the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, Henry Ruggs III, a swift wide receiver selected 12th overall in the 2020 NFL Draft, was involved in a car accident that claimed the life of another driver. Ruggs, the LVMPD said, showed signs of impairment when police officers arrived at the scene at 3:39 a.m. PT. He was transported to University Medical Center hospital with non-life-threatening injuries and will be charged with DUI resulting in death.
The Raiders, in a statement, said that they “are devastated by the loss of life and our thoughts and prayers go out to the victim’s family.” That’s important for all of us to remember at a time like this. Though Ruggs faces a daunting future that will impact his team and the NFL world, the primary focus should be on the victim’s loved ones.
So, no — Ruggs is not the victim, by any stretch. That said, his teammates and coaches will be among those dealing with the fallout from this tragedy in the coming days and weeks, and it will necessarily amplify the upheaval that began when the Gruden email scandal erupted.
As one assistant coach told Bally Sports on Tuesday, “This season has felt 10 years long.”
The Raiders entered the 2021 campaign in “playoffs or bust” mode, having failed to reach the postseason or achieve a winning record in any of the previous three seasons of Gruden’s second stint as the team’s head coach. Gruden, who’d been out of football for a decade, had received a 10-year contract upon his high-profile hiring in 2018, but the pressure had clearly been cranked up.
In June, Raiders defensive lineman Carl Nassib announced that he was gay in a social media post, becoming the first active NFL player to have done so. By all accounts, the revelation didn’t cause so much as a ripple in the Raiders’ locker room, and his impact was felt immediately. In the team’s season opener, a Monday Night Football clash against the visiting Baltimore Ravens, Nassib’s overtime strip sack of star quarterback Lamar Jackson set up Las Vegas’ game-winning touchdown.
Two days after the Wall Street Journal revealed the first of Gruden’s offensive emails — which had been uncovered during an investigation into the Washington Football Team’s workplace culture — the Raiders lost their second consecutive game, a 20-9 home defeat to the Chicago Bears that dropped them to 3-2. When Gruden resigned the following evening, shortly after additional emails were published, it seemed likely that Las Vegas would struggle in his absence.
And yet, amid the turmoil, the Raiders stayed resilient and connected. Interim coach Rich Bisaccia, newly elevated from special teams coordinator, scaled back the practice schedule to keep players fresh and proved to be a cool and centered presence on the sideline. Offensive coordinator Greg Olson, who replaced Gruden as the primary play-caller, expanded the team’s passing attack (adding more play-action, movement and “quick game” plays) and thrived. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley continued his transformative effect on a unit that had struggled mightily in Gruden’s previous three seasons.
Best of all, Raiders players put their heads down, resisted the temptation to feel sorry for themselves and performed at a high level. There was leadership everywhere, most notably from veteran quarterback Derek Carr, who has helped pick up the motivational slack in Gruden’s absence while elevating his game in the process.
“We rallied around Rich, and the leaders are stepping up,” one player said Tuesday. “I think we boiled down the offense — we’re not trying to trick people with all these formations and shifts. We just line up and run our stuff. It’s very hard to tell whether we’re running or passing, and that allows us to use play-action and get into a rhythm. And the defense is much improved.”
It was a feel-good story — until Tuesday’s horrible news hit.
Most coaches were already inside the Raiders’ Henderson, Nev., training facility, game-planning for Sunday’s road game against the New York Giants, when the team’s security officials arrived to inform them of Ruggs’ accident and the brutal details that surrounded it. The news was jolting, on many levels.
For one thing, Ruggs has been a popular presence inside the building. After a somewhat disappointing rookie season, one that he admitted was “frustrating” in a story on the team’s website, the speedy receiver had become a bigger presence in the Raiders’ passing attack. In seven games, Ruggs had 24 catches for 469 yards (17 more than his total for all of 2020) and two touchdowns.
“He’s starting to figure it out, and it’ll get even better,” one Raiders coach said last week.
On Tuesday, another coach described Ruggs as “one of the nicest, best people I’ve ever been around.” Another said of Ruggs: “This kid’s not a partier! … It’s so frickin’ sad.”
The toxicology report and other evidence will reveal Ruggs’ culpability, but it certainly appears as though the 22-year-old made a terrible decision that carried some horrific consequences.
Obviously, tragic accidents such as this can and do happen all across America. Yet, truth be told, the temptations of Sin City and the late-night lifestyle it encourages concerned many Raiders coaches heading into the 2020 season, the team’s first in Vegas after its relocation from Oakland.
“In that sense,” one coach said in the spring of 2020, “Derek Carr is the perfect quarterback for Las Vegas. He doesn’t party. He doesn’t go out. He won’t get caught up in any of that. But for some guys, it’s gonna be hard to avoid.”
This wasn’t much of an issue last season, in Las Vegas or elsewhere, because of the NFL’s strict COVID-19 protocols. On Tuesday, the Raiders experienced every team’s worst nightmare, and like others in this unrelenting sport, they’ll have to try to block it out and focus to perform at a high level.
“It seems like it’s just always something here, and this is obviously a different level of tragedy,” said a person in the team’s personnel department. “But we have a phenomenal locker room. It’s gonna be tough.”
Added one Raiders player: “This is just terrible. It’s been a crazy f------ year.”
Now, the players and coaches face a challenge that makes Gruden’s resignation seem mild by comparison. It won’t be easy to navigate, and even if the Raiders do so successfully, it definitely won’t be heartwarming.