Jemal Singleton’s cell phone rang and soon he heard that famous football voice, a voice filled with gravel and passion, a voice inspired by a fresh mission.
Jon Gruden wanted to talk to Singleton about a job on his Oakland Raiders coaching staff. The call came in the first days of 2018, before Gruden had officially been named coach.
“He called out of the blue,” Singleton says. “I was hoping for it, but I wasn’t expecting it.”
Soon, Singleton joined forces with Gruden. He’s now the Raiders running backs coach.
When you think of the classic Raiders type, you think of football outlaws. You think of owner Al Davis and the sneer and the weird, greasy hair. You think of Jack Tatum and criminal behavior in the defensive secondary. You think of late hits, penalty flags and bizarro fans who look straight out of a “Star Wars” bar scene. You think of mothers begging sons and daughters to never — God forbid! — become followers of the Raiders.
“Anyone who wants to be bad on purpose wants to be like the Raiders,” wrote Chuck Klosterman in an accurate summary of the franchise.
You do not think of Singleton, a virtuous, diligent, sunshiney type.
He was an overachieving football player at the Air Force Academy, a 5-foot-9 high school linebacker who became an undersized yet powerful running back for the Falcons. He served as captain for the 1998 team that finished 12-1 and 13th in the final AP rankings.
Later, Singleton returned to his alma mater as running backs coach. He crafted Chad Hall’s transformation from a fumbler to game-altering runner. In 2007, Hall trampled defenses for 1,478 yards under Singleton’s relentless and careful direction. Singleton later coached running backs for Oklahoma State, Arkansas and the Indianapolis Colts.
But Gruden is not a classic Raiders type, either. He’s never been drawn to those sinister biker bars where Raiders fans dwell. Instead, Gruden strolls ultra-posh Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, carrying his wife’s shopping bags.
It hasn’t been long since Gruden was considered a towering football genius. From 2000-2003, he directed the Raiders and Buccaneers to 39 wins and 16 losses. Gruden was only 39 when his Bucs won the 2003 Super Bowl.
Then, suddenly, the boy genius vanished. After the Super Bowl victory, Gruden’s Bucs crawled to a 45-53 record and failed to win another playoff game. The Bucs fired him in 2008.
But Raiders owner Mark Davis — son of Al — never stopped believing in Gruden and never stopped pursuing him. Gruden was earning $6.5 million as the voice of ESPN’s “Monday Night Football,” but Davis didn’t flinch. He handed Gruden $10 million per season to return to the Raiders.
Here’s the question that will define the Raiders’ future:
Can Gruden rediscover his lost coaching magic?
Yes, says Singleton.
“He has been involved with football like no other,” Singleton says. “Even when he was broadcasting, he was breaking down film with coaches. He hasn’t been out of football, and he really hasn’t been out of coaching.
“The game has changed. He watched it change. It’s not like he’s been in pharmaceutical business or something.”
Singleton has a point. During his nine seasons with “Monday Night Football,” Gruden set up the equivalent of a coaching office, where NFL coaches and players traveled to study video and engage in deep football conversation.
One thing to remember about NFL coaching: Passionate, obsessed men often fail. Lack of a franchise quarterback — the rarest creature in American sport — is the prime reason for failure.
During Gruden’s long fall at Tampa Bay, he never found a worthy starting quarterback. Brad Johnson, Brian Griese, Chris Simms, Jeff Garcia, Luke McCown and Bruce Gradkowski were nothing special, which meant the Bucs were nothing special, too.
Singleton understands the prime reason Raiders fans should be hopeful and Broncos fans should worry.
“I really, really like Derek Carr,” Singleton says of the Raiders’ 27-year-old quarterback. “He has the intelligence and the ability. It all starts there, with the trigger man.”
The Raiders Mystique has become drenched in nostalgia. The franchise has recorded one winning season (12-4 in 2016) and a miserable 81-159 record since 2003. Yes, the Raiders once were mighty, but so was the Roman Empire.
A few days after accepting the Raiders job, Singleton was sorting possessions as he prepared to depart Indianapolis. He found a book he studied and loved in 2003. The author was Gruden, then at the height of his powers. The title, “Do You Love Football?”
The answer, for Gruden and Singleton, is an emphatic yes.