HENDERSON, Nev. — The Las Vegas Raiders are working to officially remove the interim tag from Antonio Pierce’s title and make him the organization’s full-time coach, sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter on Friday.
Pierce, 45, was promoted from linebackers coach in the wake of the Halloween night firing of Josh McDaniels. He reinvigorated a then-dour Raiders locker room with post-victory cigar celebrations and his embracing of the team’s culture garnered support from players and alumni alike. Las Vegas went 5-4 to end the season.
His players-first mentality comes from playing linebacker in the NFL for nine seasons with Washington (2001-04) and the New York Giants (2005-09), earning Pro Bowl honors in 2006. He was also a key member of the Giants team that beat the then-undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
Still, after finishing 8-9, the Raiders have two winning records and two playoff appearances — in 2016 and 2021 — since appearing in Super Bowl XXXVII in January 2003.
Pierce is the seventh coach (regular and interim) Raiders owner Mark Davis has hired since assuming control of the franchise upon his father Al Davis’ passing in 2011, along with Dennis Allen, Tony Sparano, Jack Del Rio, Jon Gruden, Rich Bisaccia and McDaniels.
Taking a closer look, Raiders reporter Paul Gutierrez answers four big questions about the hiring of Pierce, including what comes next. National reporter Jeremy Fowler dishes on what he’s hearing about the hire, and draft analyst Matt Miller spins it forward to the draft. Finally, front office analyst Mike Tannenbaum grades the hire.
Why did the Raiders decide to stick with Pierce instead of chasing a bigger outside name?
Gutierrez: Mark Davis has gone down the rock star coach road before with the likes of Gruden and McDaniels. Neither went especially well, for differing reasons.
Pierce understands the mystique, culture and heritage of the Raiders, having grown up in Compton, California, a fan of the Silver and Black when the team played in the nearby Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in the 1980s and early ’90s. He played that card well, considering how important being a Raider is to Davis.
Pierce and interim general manager Champ Kelly presented a masterclass as such, inviting so many Hall of Fame Raiders players into the postgame locker room to help the current class celebrate the season-ending win over the Broncos. From Marcus Allen to Mike Haynes to Charles Woodson to Richard Seymour to Jim Otto to Ted Hendricks to two-time Super Bowl champ Jim Plunkett, with Gold Jackets Tom Flores and Fred Biletnikoff looking on approvingly from the luxury suites.
Then again, as Pierce himself said, he hoped he had “earned” the gig, rather that “deserved” it. Semantics? Perhaps, but it’s true. Pierce changed the culture and the vibe and won games. Going 5-4 and missing the playoffs might not seem like that big a deal, but Pierce had the Raiders in every game — even the one they lost by two TDs to the Kansas City Chiefs, they led, 14-0 — and they had feel-good wins against the New York Giants (30-6), Los Angeles Chargers (63-21), Chiefs (20-14) and Denver Broncos (27-14) while going 3-1 against the AFC West.
And the defense, for the first time in eons, was the Raiders’ calling card. Talk about respecting and honoring Silver and Blackdom’s mystique, culture and heritage.
How big of an influence did the Raiders players have on Pierce’s hiring?
Gutierrez: I’ll answer your question with one of my own — how can All-Pros Davante Adams, Josh Jacobs and three-time Pro Bowler Maxx Crosby, who went so far as to insinuate on his podcast he’d ask for a trade if Pierce was not retained, possibly be ignored?
Perhaps Davis learned from two years ago, when players, including Crosby, stumped openly for Bisaccia to no avail, as Davis wanted an X’s and O’s coach in McDaniels rather than a locker room leader like Bisaccia. It wasn’t that Davis regretted not hiring Bisaccia; it was more he wished he had taken better temperature of the locker room.
While the players’ wishes might not have been what put Pierce over the edge, they were most assuredly a bigger piece of the decision-making pie this time around. From Adams saying his “vote” was for Pierce and that he would “run through a wall for that man,” to Jacobs, a pending free agent, saying Pierce returning would be a factor on if he chose to re-sign with Las Vegas to, yes, Crosby’s flex — which might be interpreted as a veiled threat that perhaps compromises Pierce. All were factors.
Will the hiring of Pierce influence their upcoming decision at GM?
Gutierrez: The NFL has always taken a backward approach to coaches having more say than their supposed superiors and, in some cases, having a say in hiring their purported bosses. Pierce being hired before a GM would suggest a continuation of that trend. Even with recent history.
Consider: when Gruden resigned in October 2021 in the wake of his email scandal and Bisaccia was elevated to interim coach, Davis told ESPN.com then-GM Mike Mayock would have a 51/49 percentage advantage in personnel matters over the coach. Davis maintained that position for GM Dave Ziegler over McDaniels and seemed initially more excited about the prospect of Kelly as interim GM than he was intrigued by Pierce as interim coach.
Have those feelings and roles reversed? It’s tough to say because Kelly and Pierce do seem connected at the hip. Then again, so were Ziegler and McDaniels, and you saw how that worked out.
Pierce developed a bond with rookie QB Aidan O’Connell. Does this hire indicate O’Connell is the Raiders’ QB1 entering 2024?
Gutierrez: Only if the Raiders do nothing in the current QB market or in the draft. So, in a word … no. Hear me out, though: Yes, Pierce called O’Connell his “BFF” in one early presser. And sure, it seemed as though Pierce sunk his candidacy by sticking with the erratic and immobile fourth-rounder in a 3-0 home loss to the Minnesota Vikings. But O’Connell did rebound with eight touchdown passes and no interceptions in Las Vegas’ final four games.
Still, Pierce, who benched high-priced-but-oft-injured vet Jimmy Garoppolo in favor of O’Connell — no doubt with Davis’ blessing — would not go so far as to say O’Connell would be the guy going forward. Instead, Pierce said he had done enough to be in “consideration” to be the starter going forward.
The Raiders, who are likely to part ways with Garoppolo and his expensive contract, are still in search of a franchise quarterback, a year after moving on from nine-year starter Derek Carr. Kelly was with the Bears when they drafted Justin Fields, who is still on his rookie contract. Fields, a potential trade candidate, will be under financial control the next two seasons.
The Raiders have the No. 13 overall pick in April’s draft, but the top three QB prospects — USC’s Caleb Williams, North Carolina’s Drake Maye and LSU’s Jayden Daniels — all figure to be long gone before their selection. The next wave of QBs — Washington’s Michael Penix Jr., Oregon’s Bo Nix and Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy — might be gone by then, too.
Drafting a quarterback likely requires a trade up, but at what cost? And keep this in mind: While there is a connection between Kelly and Fields, there is a bond between Pierce and Daniels. Pierce recruited Daniels to his first school, Arizona State, and the Heisman Trophy winner shouted Pierce out in his acceptance speech. Daniels was in the Las Vegas locker room to support Pierce, sharing the same cigar smoke-filled air, with the Raiders legends after the season finale. Stay tuned.
What are you hearing around the league on the hire?
Fowler: Some industry sources believed the Raiders had interest in Jim Harbaugh, but what was unclear was his level of interest in that job, and how far Vegas would have been willing to go, and in a way that could risk alienating Pierce.
Two major questions: Did Pierce use the leverage of locker-room support to secure a long-term contract? And who will be his offensive coordinator? Also, while the Raiders were focused on getting a deal for Pierce done, Las Vegas now has to address the general manager position. Interim GM Champ Kelly is firmly in the mix.
If the Raiders decide to go the draft route to address QB, who could be there at No. 13 for Pierce?
Miller: It’s unlikely one of the top three quarterbacks — USC’s Caleb Williams, North Carolina’s Drake Maye and LSU’s Jayden Daniels — would be there at No. 13, but Michigan signal-caller J.J. McCarthy would be an interesting option. The Wolverines’ system focused on running the ball, but McCarthy is an efficient passer (88.2 QBR), has great mobility and shows enough arm strength to open up the field both vertically and horizontally.
At 20-years old, there is time and room for McCarthy to develop, but his toughness, leadership and movement traits are why scouts like him in Round 1. His dual-threat ability and readiness to play right away would be attractive to Pierce if he goes with a quarterback in Round 1. The Raiders scored the fewest points in the AFC West, and they need a quarterback who can create on his own to keep pace. As a former linebacker, Pierce knows the stress that mobility under center puts on a defense, so McCarthy at No. 13 is an intriguing fit.
How would you grade this hire?
Tannenbaum: B. Pierce earned this job thanks to the Raiders’ impressive play after he took over as interim coach in early November. Beating the Chiefs in Kansas City on Christmas Day was significant in showing what he can do as the leader of this team.
I worked with Dan Campbell in Miami in 2015 for 12 games, and this situation reminds me of when he took over the Dolphins down the stretch, as the team exceeded expectations. Pierce has great leadership qualities, but getting some veteran coaches on his staff will be important to having success.