Kenyan Drake: Gruden’s new Charlie Garner

Source: Elise Amendola/AP Photo

When the Raiders signed Kenyan Drake this offseason, it caught a lot of people around the league off guard, including Raider Nation. What would be the motivation for adding a high-priced free agent to a backfield that features Josh Jacobs, fresh off his first Pro Bowl selection? I however, immediately thought of one of Jon Gruden’s all-time favorite players, Charlie Garner.

During his 21 seasons as an NFL coach, few players earned a spot in Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden’s heart the way Charlie Garner did. The two go all the way back to 1995 when the 31-year-old Gruden was hired to be Ray Rhodes’s offensive coordinator with the Philadelphia Eagles. That offseason, the Eagles signed all-purpose running back Ricky Watters from the 49ers fresh off a Super Bowl victory.

Watters was no doubt a tremendous player. His production in Philly exploded during his three years under Gruden’s tutelage. However, it was another player that intrigued offensive coordinator Jon Gruden the most. Second year player Charlie Garner was Gruden’s favorite, and he was not shy about letting everybody know about it. He quickly dubbed Garner “I.O.” which stood for “Instant Offense.”

Garner was the antithesis to the melodramatic Watters. When Watters would shy away from contact, Garner would slingshot himself into a DB’s chest to remind him he wasn’t #32. His competitive fire left an indelible mark on the eccentric Gruden. After three seasons with the Eagles, Gruden was hired as the head coach of the Oakland Raiders. He was on a mission to get Charlie Garner in Oakland. After three years, it finally happened in 2001.

Charlie quickly became the lead back, starting over the incumbent Tyrone Wheatley. Wheatley was a punishing power back with surprising straight-line speed. His one-dimensional style handcuffed Gruden from opening up the offense. Garner added that missing element to the offense. Someone Gruden could move around to create favorable matchups. He was equally adept at running a draw as he was catching a seam pass while blowing by defenders for a TD.

When Gruden was traded to Tampa Bay in 2002, he made it a priority to reunite with Garner. In 2004, Gruden’s offense was in need of some I.O. and signed him in free agency. In Week 3, Garner unfortunately suffered a career ending knee injury, ironically against the Raiders. Despite the injury, Garner’s legacy was cemented as one of the best dual threat running backs the league had ever seen.

Since returning to the sidelines for the Raiders, Gruden has been searching high and low for the new I.O. He thought he had him in Jalen Richard but he never developed. He tried to catch lightning in a bottle with Doug Martin and that failed. In 2019, he drafted Josh Jacobs, who has been everything the Raiders had hoped. 2020 was supposed to be the year Jacobs would be featured more in the passing game, but that turned out to be fool’s gold. As great as Josh has been, he lacks that extra gear to pull away from the secondary.

This offseason Gruden locked in on free agent Kenyan Drake. Drake has a similar skill set to Garner. He’s a bigger, faster, and taller version of the diminutive I.O. He compares favorably to Garner in production as well as their career YPC are nearly identical (4.6 YPC for Garner vs. 4.5 YPC for Drake). In a pinch both could return kickoffs as well.

It’s no secret that Gruden loves to pound the rock. He enjoys watching your team bleed out as he bludgeons your defense snap after snap after snap. Shortening the game is a time-tested way to keep the opposing offense off the field. In a division with Patrick Mahomes and 2020 Offensive Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert, you want to limit their opportunities.

This type of football is ideal when you have a historically great defense like the 2002 Buccaneers had. It’s not so great when you have a defense like the Raiders have had since Gruden’s return. If your offense goes on a 15 play, 80 yard drive that drains 11 minutes off the game clock but your defense can’t hold the lead, you need to do 2 things.

First, you must get better on defense, obviously. Late game collapses against the Chiefs, Colts and Dolphins last year are inexcusable. It seemed as though no lead was safe in 2020. Second, the Raiders needed to get more explosive. It was evident with their decision to draft Henry Ruggs III with the 12th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. After struggling as a rookie, he appears ready to do some damage this season. The addition of Drake brings the I.O. element out of the backfield this offense has lacked since Darren McFadden.

One glance at Drake’s game logs will reveal he is a legit home run threat every time he touches the football. Gruden has the pieces to create a juggernaut on offense. His unit is so diverse it forces the defense to play honest by default. If you try and double team any of his weapons, he has a counter for each and every scheme.

Part of Drake’s allure is his ability to find the endzone. In 23 games as a Cardinal, he score 18 TDs, most coming in the redzone. Heavy emphasis was placed on improving the team’s redzone offense this offseason. Hence the aggressive pursuit of Drake. Raider Nation will soon come to appreciate the dynamic that Drake brings to the offense, like Garner did for Gruden all those years ago.

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