Lincoln Kennedy, the 6-foot-7 former All-Pro NFL lineman for the Raiders, looked a bit out of place sitting in the front seat of a 1975 Volkswagon Microbus. Kennedy was telling the story of how his illustrious football career began, when he also stood out for his size.
He was discovered by his high school coach, John Shacklett, who noticed Kennedy as the future football star played trumpet for the school marching band.
“He asked me what grade I was in,” Kennedy said of Shacklett. “I told him ‘ninth grade.’ He said, ‘You’re coming out for football in August.’ And the rest is history.”
He was cruising to the Pac-12 Championship game at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, where he represented the conference at a tailgate put on by the game’s sponsor, 76 gasoline. While there, Kennedy revealed insights about his primary employer, the Oakland Raiders. After broadcasting from the sideline for years, Kennedy is now the team’s color analyst.
Kennedy is perfectly positioned to be in the know in regards to the Raiders’ first-year coach, Jon Gruden. He played for Gruden during the coach’s previous stint in Oakland, and he also played against him in Super Bowl XXXVII. Now, Kennedy covers his old coach’s new Raiders squad.
Gruden’s return was supposed to bring a Super Bowl run before the team moves to Las Vegas in 2020, but the plan has floundered. Gruden and the Raiders traded superstar defensive end Khalil Mack before the season began and shipped Pro-Bowl wide receiver Amari Cooper out of town once the campaign was off the rails. The team is 2-10 heading into their Week 14 game against the Steelers.
“They’re just not very good,” Kennedy said. “It’s nothing personal. They still have to learn how to play with one another, they still have to have other weapons.”
But they still have franchise quarterback Derek Carr. The relationship between him and Gruden is of the utmost importance moving forward. The Raiders are rebuilding again, after building up to a 12-4 record in 2016, but Kennedy says the season may have been destined to go this way.
“With the money Khalil Mack was asking for, even if they were to strike a deal, I don’t know how you could [keep Carr, Mack and Cooper]. You might be hog-tied by those contracts and really prevent you from building depth,” Kennedy said. “Khalil Mack’s a game changer and you see what he’s been able to do with Chicago, but they also have a few more pieces on defense. It’s not just him doing his own thing.”
Chicago’s defense does have more players in place to help Mack thrive. But one thing was clear after the first day of Gruden’s return campaign: The Raiders may have traded their season away in dealing Mack.
Mack’s career with the Bears started with a tsunami-sized splash on Sunday night football Week 1. He recorded a sack, a forced fumble, an interception and a touchdown. The Raiders were waiting to play on Monday night against the Rams and undoubtedly saw the show — or at least heard all about it.
The Mack deal was an appropriate re-introduction to the NFL for Gruden, according to Kennedy. The coach last patroled an NFL sideline in 2008 with the Buccaneers, and he’s faced plenty of questions about whether he could thrive in the league today.
“He’s the same. The game is the same,” Kennedy said. “The only thing that’s different is the attitude of the players. That’s something that Gruden has to get used to and he also has to deal with – the business side with the players. Now, there was always the salary cap when he was coaching so it’s not anything new”
“But the economics of it has to weigh into how you conduct business as a general manager slash head coach. These are all things Jon Gruden needs to be prepared for in today’s NFL.”
Quarterback Derek Carr’s contract is a good example of that. Carr’s $25 million salary made it difficult to pull the trigger on a deal for Mack, who is now the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL.
Carr earned his deal by playing at an MVP level in 2016. The Raiders were on an upswing at the time, and they’ve got to rebuild around their fifth-year quarterback once again. Carr’s play has suffered in spots this season, leaving some to doubt his standing with Gruden.
But Kennedy sees a quarterback that’s playing at a disadvantage.
“He doesn’t have enough weapons to go to. Secondly, his offensive line hasn’t done a good job protecting,” Kennedy said of Carr. “So how can you truly evaluate him when all these obstacles and circumstances are against him?”
The Raiders traded Cooper, the man that was to be their No. 1 target. Wide receivers Jordy Nelson and Martavis Bryant have both battled injury. Running back Marshawn Lynch is out for the year. And the offensive line has allowed 39 sacks this season, the most since 2006.
The poor performance from the line comes despite heavy investments in the front five. Center Rodney Hudson and guards Kelechi Osemele and Gabe Jackson are all signed to lucrative deals. Rookie left tackle Kolton Miller is a first-round pick, and the Raiders traded up to draft right tackle Brandon Parker two rounds later.
The line’s development, like the entire rebuilding process, will take time, according to Kennedy.
“Offensive line play is hell-bent on consistency. It succeeds when you keep the guys together,” Kennedy said. “There is so much miscommunication and non-communication between say, Parker and Jackson on the right side, and Kolton and Kelechi are getting a little bit better. But still, when you watch other teams run stunts and games against this offensive line, see how quickly those guys break down.”
Kennedy was Gruden’s starting right tackle from 1998-01, only missing two games and making the Pro Bowl team twice during Gruden’s first tenure in Oakland. Kennedy was voted All-Pro in 2002, the year the Raiders lost to Gruden’s Buccaneers in the Super Bowl.
The Raiders offensive line was a force during all five of those campaigns. They blocked for quarterback Rich Gannon, who was the league MVP in 2002. Gannon was an elite scrambling quarterback that had mastered Gruden’s offense, and he had superb skill players around him. Yet Gruden and Gannon were known to argue on the sideline and elsewhere, much like Carr and Gruden have been spotted doing.
“[They argued] quite a bit. I mean they were constantly against one another,” Kennedy said of his former coach and QB.
Kennedy says the creative friction between Gruden and Gannon was beneficial, and the same dynamic can work with Gruden and his new pupil, Carr.
“You want to have sort of that combative nature. You basically have two quarterbacks going at it,” Kennedy said. Gruden was a backup QB at Dayton in the early 1980s. “One sees one thing and the other sees the other thing.”
Carr needs to mimic Gannon in one other way, according to Kennedy.
“I think the relationship could work because I do think that Derek Carr’s a quarterback that can make every throw. However, he has limitations. This offense has limitations. I firmly believe that there are times when Derek holds onto the ball too long. He should just take off and run — much like Rich Gannon did,” Kennedy said.
Gruden agrees with his former lineman.
“We would like to get more rushing yards from him because he is capable of doing it,” Gruden said of Carr, during the Raiders’ Week 14 edition of In the Huddle with coach Gruden.
Gruden also said this about being able to make something out of nothing: “That’s what I think the great quarterbacks do.” Gruden was talking about Colts QB Andrew Luck before Indianapolis came to Oakland Week 8.
Kennedy says Carr’s key to unlocking a Gannon-like command of the offense, whether he becomes a scambler or not, is to make his thoughts a bit more elementary.
“There are times when Derek overthinks things. Gruden’s offense really is simple. It really is. But if you tend to complicate it or try to over-read things then you put yourself in a disadvantage.
“And he tries to come off [the field] and explain himself, why he’s thinking, and that infuriates Gruden. It’s dropping drives. It’s not scoring points. It’s giving up a turnover, it’s that type of thing,” Kennedy said.
And that’s where the Raiders are right now. A depleted roster stitched together with Gruden-endorsed veteran free agents, an underperforming offensive line, and a high priced coach and quarterback that have to figure each other out and lead the franchise.
But the Raiders have assets — five first-round draft picks in the next two years, thanks to the Mack and Cooper trades, and loads of salary cap space. Gruden and general manager Reggie McKenzie had a good draft haul in 2018, and their magic needs to continue if the team is to be on the rise again in 2020.
The Raiders franchise found some magic when they signed Kennedy in 1996. A former No. 9 overall pick for the Falcons in 1993, Kennedy started just six games his final two years in Atlanta. Al Davis, the late owner of the Raiders, came calling.
“When I heard that Al Davis was going to make a play for me, when I got here, I talked with Al Davis and Joe Bugel, who was the offensive line coach at the time, and they were like ‘look, your a Raider, you’re here,’ and so I was happy to get another chance to prove myself,” Kennedy said.
When asked about some of his best memories playing for the Raiders, Kennedy highlighted his All-Pro nod, winning the AFC championship against the Titans, playing in the Pro Bowl, and playing in the Super Bowl in his hometown of San Diego.
“I wish we could have won the game,” Kennedy said. “But it really was a dream come true.”
Kennedy is, of course, still a Raider. Plus, he’s the co-host of “The Fellas” on Fox Sports Radio on Saturday mornings, a Pac-12 studio analyst and he’s found time to be a motivational speaker for about five years now.
And he owns his own cigar company, El-K Cigars.
“It’s more of a fun hobby,” said Kennedy, who created his own custom blend. “I’ve been smoking cigars … even back when I was playing. I’ve always enjoyed having them to relax.”
There was no smoking at Great America, the site of our tailgate, as far as I could tell, but it was one heck of a party — complete with two marching bands. Although Kennedy’s trumpet-playing days are over.
Plus, Kennedy’s alma mater, the Washington Huskies beat Utah for the Pac-12 crown. It was just another busy day for Lincoln Kennedy, who was enshrined into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2015. But his most demanding endeavor, covering the Raiders, makes everything worthwhile.
“The opportunity after I hung up my cleats, to still be a part of it in some capacity is another blessing itself,” Kennedy said. “To be an ambassador for people in the organization, being a conduit, to be able to keep the passion alive, it’s special to me.”
Note: Photo credit- Aubrey Aquino