As he hopped on a call with Roger Goodell, Las Vegas Raiders owner Mark Davis had no plans to fire his head coach.

It was the afternoon of Friday, Oct. 8, 2021. A few hours earlier, The Wall Street Journal had published a blockbuster story about an email Raiders coach Jon Gruden had sent 10 years earlier, when he worked as a color analyst for ESPN's "Monday Night Football." Gruden, in an exchange with Washington's general manager Bruce Allen, had called NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith "Dumboriss" and described him using a racist trope. To most observers, Gruden's dismissal seemed like a matter of when, not if. But Davis hoped to — at the very least — slow down a hurricane from the center of the storm.

According to sources familiar with his thinking, Davis found the story's timing suspicious. Why were emails coming out now? Who had leaked them? And who had the most to gain?

"It felt like a setup," Davis would later tell an associate.

Even though league officials in New York and a few team owners had known about the Gruden emails for months, as part of the investigation into Commanders owner Dan Snyder and the toxic workplace culture inside his franchise, Davis had learned of them only the day before the Journal's exclusive, when Raiders president Dan Ventrelle told him: "We've got a problem."

After the Journal story, Davis polled current and former Raiders players and staff on how they felt about Gruden. Some wanted him gone; others didn't. Davis knew Gruden could be crass and profane, the sources said, but in a relationship spanning more than two decades, he had no reason to believe Gruden was racist.

So when Davis and Ventrelle took the conference call with Goodell and NFL general counsel Jeff Pash, Davis leaned toward sticking by Gruden. But Davis felt immediate pressure. According to sources with direct knowledge of the call, Goodell repeatedly told Davis, "You have to do something."

"What are you going to do?" Pash asked.

The statements and questions incensed Davis. He believed the league office had no purview to pressure an owner to fire a head coach, regardless of the circumstance.