For how he navigated the past three months, and with Las Vegas clinching its first playoff berth since 2016, Bisaccia deserves to be voted the NFL Coach of the Year. Even though he was head coach for 12 games, there’s precedent for it, as Bruce Arians won the award in 2012 when he was interim head coach as Chuck Pagano was treated for cancer.
(This writer is not one of the 50 voters who chooses the annual Associated Press awards which the NFL recognizes as its official postseason awards at the Honors ceremony, but is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America, which also does yearly awards.)
Bisaccia was named the Raiders’ interim head coach on Oct. 12, after Jon Gruden resigned in the wake of a torrent of leaked emails from the investigation into the Washington Football Team showed him to be racist, misogynist, anti-gay and xenophobic. He remains the only person who has faced any real consequence in the wake of that investigation, but we digress.
Gruden, one of the game’s biggest personalities because of his years on “Monday Night Football,” wasn’t having much success in his second go-round with the Raiders after franchise owner Mark Davis finally got his wish to lure him from the broadcast booth and back to the sideline. He’d won just 19 of 48 games in his first three full seasons, and his frenetic approach meant he often lost sight of the big picture when it came to personnel.
When Gruden stepped away after a Week 5 loss to Chicago, Las Vegas was 3-2.
The Raiders’ special teams coordinator, Bisaccia had never been a head coach at any level before Davis named him as interim. But as the man in charge of special teams, he had experience working with pretty much every player on the roster.
He also apparently has a calm demeanor that would come in handy on and off the field in the coming months.
After the Raiders’ first game post-Gruden, a win over division rival Denver, running back Josh Jacobs said, “Man, the sideline … it was like [there was no] anxiety. It was weird. It was like everybody felt calm. You didn’t have somebody cussing at you or going crazy at the refs. None of that.”
Three weeks after taking over, Bisaccia had to navigate the Raiders through another major event. Wide receiver Henry Ruggs III, a 2020 first-round draft pick, was arrested and is facing multiple charges after a car crash in which he was allegedly driving drunk, hit over 150 MPH on a city street and slammed into another car, killing a woman inside.
Just three days later, the team’s other 2020 first-round draft pick, Damon Arnette, was seen on video brandishing a gun and threatening to kill someone, just the latest of several incidents the Raiders tried to counsel him through, including a hit-and-run and an incident with a valet worker on the city’s famed Strip. Arnette, like Ruggs, was released.
After winning their first two games under Bisaccia, the Raiders lost three in a row, beat the Cowboys in overtime on Thanksgiving, then lost two more, falling to 6-7. They looked poised for a late-season fade.
But Bisaccia did what Gruden hadn’t. He got Las Vegas over the finish line.
In 2019 under Gruden, the Raiders started 6-4 but finished 7-9. In 2020, they started 6-3 and finished 8-8.
With Bisaccia at the helm, and despite a 48-9 dismantling at the hands of the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 14, the Raiders didn’t fade. They fought. He’s said to have the trust and buy-in from players essential to every coach, and that was key over the final month of the regular season.
Las Vegas beat the Browns, Broncos and Colts, setting themselves up for Sunday night’s finale against their AFC West foe, the Chargers. Whoever won would be in the playoffs, though thanks to Indianapolis’ Florida face-plant earlier in the day, if the game ended in a tie both Las Vegas and Los Angeles would have made the postseason.
It was an incredibly entertaining game, both because of the stakes and the play. The Chargers’ Justin Herbert firmly declared himself a franchise QB for those who may have still been on the fence about him, and the Raiders, while they gave up a 15-point lead, didn’t ultimately collapse and won in overtime on a last-second field goal.
All four of Vegas’ wins to get to the postseason were close, by a total of 12 points, and three came via walk-off field goals. They won three games in overtime this season, too. They’re a team that knows how to persevere and perform when it’s close.
Tennessee’s Mike Vrabel certainly deserves a great deal of consideration for Coach of the Year as well. The Titans are the No. 1 seed in the AFC despite losing superstar back Derrick Henry for the final nine games of the regular season (in welcome news he returned to practice last week) and setting an NFL record for most players used in a season. Green Bay’s Matt LaFleur has his share of supporters for the recognition as well.
But for our money, it should be Bisaccia for leading the Raiders through some terrible circumstances and into the postseason.