Week 17’s showdown against the Green Bay Packers could be a defining moment for Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford.
For more than four decades the Oakland Raiders lived by two monikers which were “Just Win Baby”, and “Commitment to Excellence”. From 1960-2002, the Raiders won an American Football League Championship, along with three Super Bowl Titles as they were one of the most revered organizations in football. But following the Raiders 48-21 loss in Super Bowl 37 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, things drastically changed for this once proud organization. The Raiders have failed to post a winning season since then while they’ve become one of the most futile organizations in the National Football League. Over this stretch the Raiders have had 10 seasons where they’ve lost at least 10 games, while they have also employed nine different head coaches. But things appear to finally be turning for the silver and black.
Following the passing of longtime Raiders owner Al Davis, his son Mark assumed control of the team. The younger Davis began to do things his way which included him doing something that his father didn’t prefer to do which was to hire a general manager. Reggie McKenzie was named as the Raiders general manager in 2012, and slowly, but steadily he has been putting a team together through the draft. At first it was difficult for McKenzie due to the fact that the Raiders had a limited amount of draft picks to work with. However the fortunes of the Raiders would begin to change in 2014 when they selected quarterback Derek Carr.
The Raiders used a second-round pick on Carr which might have been the steal of the 2014 National Football League Draft. During Carr’s collegiate career with the Fresno State Bulldogs, he was one of the better quarterbacks in the nation which was highlighted by him being a two-time Mountain West Conference Offensive Player of the Year, and taking home the Sammy Baugh Award as the nation’s top passer in 2013. But all of that didn’t prevent Carr from not being a first-round pick.
What hurt Carr was that he was the younger brother of former National Football League quarterback David Carr. The elder Carr was the first overall pick of the 2002 NFL Draft by the Houston Texans, but he was never able to live up to the hype as the organization made the mistake of starting a rookie quarterback on an expansion team, and the mental and physical beating that he took nearly ruined his career. Carr was able to salvage his career as a backup quarterback which included him winning a Super Bowl Title as a member of the New York Giants in 2011. And the older Carr’s lack of success hurt his little brother’s stock as he had teams, including the Texans who were in need of a quarterback pass on him.
But McKenzie wasn’t ready to pass on Carr as he saw his potential to be a franchise quarterback and he would begin the process of putting quality players around his young signal caller.
In 2015, the Raiders used their first-round pick on wide receiver Amari Cooper, while also signing former San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree in free agency. In 2015, Carr passed for 3,987 yards as he became the first Raiders quarterback to be selected to the Pro Bowl since Rich Gannon in 2002. And now in 2016, Carr is taking his game to another level.
Through eight games this year, Carr has already passed for 2,321 yards and 17 touchdowns as he is on pace to become just the third quarterback in Raiders franchise history to pass for 4,000 yards in a season. Carr’s season has been highlighted his game this past Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers where he passed for 513 yards as the Raiders got the 30-24 victory in overtime. But the most impressive stat for Carr is wins as the Raiders find themselves with a record of 6-2 which has them tied for first place in the competitive AFC West with the defending Super Bowl Champions in the Denver Broncos. And for the first time in a long time, the silver and black are thinking about the postseason.
McKenzie has built this team piece by piece, but he needed a head coach that was going to help him change the culture in the Raiders locker room. And in 2015, McKenzie hired Jack Del Rio to be the Raiders head coach.
Del Rio is a football lifer as after being a two-time, first-team All Pac-10 member as a linebacker for the USC Trojans and the co-MVP of the 1985 Rose Bowl, he enjoyed an 11-year playing career in the National Football League. Del Rio won a Super Bowl Championship as the linebackers coach of the Baltimore Ravens in 2000, while he was the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars for nine years. From Del Rio’s first day he has made the Raiders believe that they can not only compete with other teams in the NFL, but defeat them as well.
After the Raiders went 7-9 under Del Rio last year, they were expected to somewhat improve this season; however skeptics weren’t sure if they’d be able to take the next step in order to become a contender.
But Del Rio and the Raiders changed that in Week 1 with their 35-34 road victory over the New Orleans Saints. All afternoon the Raiders went back and forth with the Saints at the Superdome. And in the final moments of the game, Carr would lead Oakland’s offense on a scoring drive. With 47 seconds left in the game, Carr would connect with wide receiver Seth Roberts on a 10-yard touchdown pass to make the ledger 34-33 in favor of the Saints. However when everyone expected the Raiders to kick the extra point and settle for overtime, Del Rio decided to roll the dice on and go for the two-point conversion. And on that two-point conversion, Carr would find Crabtree for the score as the Raiders won the contest which has set the tone for their season.
The Raiders have become the “cardiac kids” on the National Football League this season as they have comeback wins over the Saints, Baltimore Ravens, San Diego Chargers, and Buccaneers. And although that none of these teams currently have winning records, the wins by the Raiders are still important as these were contests two years ago that they would have lost. This has shown up in the Raiders record as they are 5-0 on the road which gives this young group confidence as they’ll more than likely have to win on the road some more if they expect to be a playoff team. But the biggest thing that the Raiders have improved on is their execution.
McKenzie has worked on improving the offensive line as he has drafted offensive tackle Menelik Watson and guard Gabe Jackson, while signing free agents such as offensive tackle Donald Penn, center Rodney Hudson, and guard Kelechi Osemele. This unit has provided quality protection for Carr who has only been sacked 9 times this year, while the Raiders have the fourth best passing offense in the National Football League.
Defensively the Raiders have had their issues as they are 31st in the National Football League in total defense, but they’ve found a way to make the key stops late in contests which gives Carr and the offense a chance to win the game. The Raiders do have talent on the defensive side of the football in defensive end/outside linebacker Khalil Mack and outside linebacker Bruce Irvin. The Raiders only have 11 sacks this season, but they should get a boost in two weeks when outside linebacker Aldon Smith who was the National Football League’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2012 returns returns from his one-year suspension which will give Oakland another quality pass rusher.
But one of the things that has soured the Raiders resurgence is the fact that there is a strong possibility that this team could be relocating to Las Vegas, Nevada. Davis has been seeking funding for a new stadium from the City of Oakland for several years which he has been unable to receive which is something that Las Vegas is more than willing to do. And unless Oakland is able to wow Davis in the next few months, their time in Northern California will be a thing of the past. And if the Raiders were to leave Oakland, it would be bad for the fan base there that has had to sit by and watch this team be so bad for so long only to have them depart for success in another city. However under the watch of Del Rio, the Raiders have been able to focus on their business on the field which is why they are currently tied with the Broncos for first place in the AFC West.
For the first time in a long time, the Raiders will find themselves playing a prime time game as they will host the Broncos this Sunday night and the Oakland Coliseum should be buzzing. But being that the Raiders already lost at home this season to the Kansas City Chiefs, this is an important game as they need to show that they are for real as they seek to defeat a quality team. And aside from a combined three games with the Chiefs and Broncos, the Raiders do have a favorable schedule that awaits them. However they must find a way to clean up in the penalties category which saw them tally 23 penalties for 200 yards this past Sunday against the Bucs as that is a new National Football League record.
But ESPN’s Herman Edwards said it best this past Sunday when he mentioned that when the Raiders have a good team, it is indeed a benefit to the National Football League. The Raiders are in that rare air of iconic NFL franchises as their fan base spreads across the entire United States. And as the Raiders have always been viewed as the outlaws of the NFL with their iconic silver and black uniforms, anytime that they become competitive brings back memories of Hall of Famers such as Kenny Stabler, Howie Long, and Gene Upshaw. However these young Raiders that are led by Carr, Cooper, and Mack are out to make their own name as they look to end the second longest postseason drought currently in the NFL.