Can Antonio Pierce Make the Leap as Raiders Head Coach?

The 1984 season wasn’t going well for the Cleveland Browns. After eight weeks, the Browns were 1-7, and their head coach, Sam Rutigliano, had lost the locker room. Rutigliano was the ultimate salesman.  He had a PT Barnum charm that was endearing to the local media, yet wore thin with the players over time.  Browns owner Art Modell loved Sam as they were cut from the same cloth— charming, funny and they both spoke Brooklynese. In spite of his love for the coach, Modell needed a change. Modell approached then defensive coordinator Marty Schottenheimer to become his interim head coach. Having played and coached in the league, Schottenheimer understood the interim tag was a tenable position. He knew to get the players to adhere to his program, he had to change the culture. He required the players to know he was their fulltime coach.

Schottenheimer needed strength in his position, which can only come from a commitment by the owner. Without this commitment, Schottenheimer would have to make concessions to gain player support to secure the head job. Demanding hard work, holding everyone accountable isn’t easy for any interim coach, as the players will revolt privately and publicly because the firing of the former coach absolves them from blame. The narrative becomes, it was all Rutigliano’s fault—which in a large part is true. 


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Then, if the interim coach is elevated to the head coach position permanently, he would have to alter his behavior, causing the players who supported his hiring to say, “The dude has changed.” This is why, over the last 24 years, 46 coaches had the interim label, and 12 were promoted to full-time. And the twelve who gained the ultimate promotion had modest success for a few seasons. (For the record, Doug Marrone in Jacksonville and Jason “The Clapper” Garrett in Dallas were the most successful).

So, when Modell made his offer, he said no. Eventually, Modell agreed to Schottenheimer’s demands.  The team went 4-4 over the next eight games with Schottenheimer completely in charge. 

Antonio Pierce became the interim coach in Las Vegas, going 5-4 over the last nine games. Pierce had tremendous player and fan support, which left owner Mark Davis little choice as to who was going to be his next head coach. Prior to Josh McDaniels becoming the head coach, interim coach Rich Bisaccia was 7-5 and led the Raiders to their second wildcard playoff appearance in the last 19 seasons. Davis bypassed player-favorite Bisaccia for McDaniels, causing many to ask why. Clearly, the “Patriot Way” was a dramatic shift from the Jon Gruden/Bisaccia regime, causing the locker room to become unsettled, which resulted in McDaniels lasting only 25 games. Davis couldn’t risk bypassing Pierce this time. 

Now, Pierce is the man, running his program without any restrictions. As he sits in the big chair, he must wonder why the last 12 coaches with battlefield promotions couldn’t sustain success. What can he do differently?  Why did many of them fail? And how can he break the trend? 

The term “player’s coach” is often misjudged.  What is a player’s coach? Does this imply the coach does what the player wants? Or the player doesn’t need any coaching? Is the atmosphere lackadaisical?

There are three stages of being a player-friendly coach. The first is what occurred with Pierce when he took over from McDaniels. Being an ex-player, he understood their frustrations, relaxed the atmosphere, and allowed the players to have a major voice in the direction. The results created a positive sensation, an uplift, which then bonded the team, helping them win games. Pierce lifted the dark cloud that hung over the franchise as the McDaniels method wasn’t working. 

The second stage won’t occur until this season, when the momentum of the past year is gone. The uptick from the change no longer applies, forcing Pierce to set his direction, establish his standard of excellence, and hold those accountable. This stage never looks bad until the games begin, until the wins or losses are reflected in the standings. If all goes well, there is no need to fret. If it doesn’t, then Pierce will need to swing from being player-friendly to being player-demanding without ruffling any feathers. 

Deion Sanders has been quoted as saying he doesn’t want to coach in the NFL. “I don’t have any desire or ambition to coach in the NFL,” Sanders told “I have a problem with men getting their checks and not doing their jobs. I would be too tough as a coach in the NFL because I still have those old-school attributes.”  

Sanders knows balancing that fine line of being demanding without causing conflict isn’t easy. And because the NFL keeps score each week, there is always some form of conflict a head coach must address. Some are visible to everyone, some only in the locker room. Fortunately for Pierce, he has a few ex-NFL head coaches on his staff to help navigate this delicate terrain. Even still, it won’t be easy. 

The third stage of being a “players coach” occurs when the season is over, prompting changes to the roster. Someone has to be responsible for the losing, someone has to be accountable to the record. Which then forces the cord to be broken, the friendly confides of the player-coach relationship becomes a business transaction. And whenever money becomes part of the equation, people get upset, relationships can be terminated, and hard feelings emerge. 

When Michael Jordan first arrived at the Bulls, they sucked. They had no culture or standard for winning.  Once Jordan set the championship standard, he then held everyone accountable. As the years and winning went along, the standard was the standard, enforced harshly by Jordan. For most interim coaches, they don’t have a standard. They inherited one, a bad one. And they managed the ship to avoid as much turbulence as possible throughout the year. Once a new year arrived, the new coach had to instill his standard. 

These three stages ultimately are the reasons why interim coaches fail. The initial spike never sustains.  For Pierce, he has to hurdle the interim tag and find ways to win games with a roster that is not built to win right now. In fairness to Pierce or any other coach, the Raiders’ personnel acquisitions have been a disaster. Since the Khalil Mack draft in 2014, with Derek Carr, the Raiders’ misses far outweigh their successes in the first round. Amari Cooper, who Gruden traded and then blew the pick, to Kolton Miller and Josh Jacobs, who left for Green Bay this offseason, the Raiders have nothing else to show for the first round. This doesn’t include Tyree Wilson from last year, as it’s too early to tell on his talent level.  Since 2015, the Raiders have had four top-12 picks, with only Wilson still on their roster. In some cases, the head coach orchestrated the draft, in others the General Manager. Either way, their eye for talent is a huge part of their problem today. 

Pierce not only has to overcome the interim tag, he has to overcome a roster lacking in talent at the quarterback position. Last year, the Raiders won games in weird ways. Nine completed passes for 62 yards vs. the Chiefs for a win. Getting shut out by the Vikings in a loss, then scoring 63 vs. the Chargers in a win. In the nine games Pierce was the interim coach, the Raiders held their opponents to under 15 points in four of their five wins. Can they continue that level of defense into this season? Can Gardner Minshew help solve this huge problem? Call me skeptical. 

Has Raiders new general manager Tom Telesco changed this? We shall see. Drafting Brock Bowers improves their talent base, but does he help a Raiders offense that is void of the quarterback position? 

The reason the betting money is coming in on the Raiders under is their lack of quarterbacking play, their place in the AFC West, and the history behind interim coaches becoming in charge. Factor in the schedule, which has them opening with two road games against the Harbaugh brothers, and an October stretch that features games in Denver, LA to face the Rams, and Cincinnati, with home games sprinkled in against the Chiefs and Steelers. Not an easy month. And potentially not an easy year, which will force Pierce to be different than he was in 2023.