Hop in your time machine and travel back with me to January 26, 2003. If you made your way over to San Diego, California you’d find the street buzzing with the excitement of the Super Bowl. As you might recall, the teams that met on the field that day were the Oakland Raiders and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs would go on to win that game 48-21 and Oakland hasn’t played in a postseason game or had a winning record since. So what’s gone wrong with the team who’s former owner once proclaimed, “Just win baby!”?
The Raiders were coached that year by Bill Callahan, who was hired after their previous coach, Jon Gruden, was traded to Tampa Bay for four draft picks, two first-rounders and two second-rounders. Oakland bounced back nicely from the dreaded “Tuck Rule” game the previous season, or as it might more appropriately be called in the Bay Area the “Snow Job”, to finish tied for the best record in the AFC. Rich “The Cannon” Gannon was the MVP quarterback of that team. Since those two left in 2003 and 2004, respectively, Oakland has had 17 starting quarterbacks and eight head coaches, so it’s safe to say that instability at key positions has been a key issue.
The current regime is doing its best to instill some semblance of stability to a team that finally is starting to show signs of being a competitive franchise again. Jack Del Rio and Derek Carr are easily the best QB-head coach duo the team has had since the 2002 season, and the Raiders’ defense is currently in the top-20 in defensive efficiency for the first time since 2010. So, in case you haven’t already guessed, for the remainder of this edition of “The Shield” we’re going to take a look at the Raiders and in the words of Matchbox Twenty, “see how far we’ve come”.
Quarterback competency is the most readily apparent reason things are looking upward right now. Derek Carr was taken with the fourth pick of the second round of the 2013 draft, and many believe his falling out of the first round was, at least in part, attributable to his being the younger brother of former first overall pick and bust David Carr. Carr was the fourth quarterback taken behind Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater and Johnny Manziel. He’s easily been the best of the four to date.
He has also shown signs of improvement from his rookie season to this season, which is a very promising sign. Entering the bye week, Carr is on pace to throw 4.6 more touchdowns and 2.4 fewer interceptions than he did a year ago. That’s even more impressive when considering that he is throwing the ball vertically more often than he did last season, averaging almost two yards more per completion than in his rookie season. Part of that might have something to do with the newcomers Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper. Since crossing the bay, Crabtree has 318 receiving yards and a touchdown. Cooper, the fourth overall pick in last spring’s draft, has looked like a stud-in-the-making from day one in the Silver and Black.
It also doesn’t hurt that, according to Football Outsiders, Oakland currently has the fourth ranked offensive line in the NFL in pass protection. That is one thing for which general manager Reggie McKenzie deserves a ton of credit. The least heralded component of Oakland’s improvement is the fact that they are finally an NFL team in the trenches again. The Raiders have a decent offensive line, the run blocking is still merely average, and a deep front seven led by Buffalo product Khalil Mack. Mack is the all-time NCAA leader in tackles for loss and forces fumbles, and recorded four sacks in his rookie season. He already has three sacks this season. Losing Justin Tuck for the year hurts this defensive front, but its not nearly as devastating a blow as it might have been two or three years ago.
Unfortunately, there are still holes in this roster that are going to hinder the team from making the playoffs, especially playing in the tough AFC West. The main one right now is the secondary. Oakland is currently ranked 21st in pass defense, once again according to Football Outsiders, and that is against a clearly aging Peyton Manning, Andy Dalton, Joe Flacco, Josh McCown, and Smokin’ Jay Cutler. That’s not the worst group of five quarterbacks the league could offer, but only one of those (Dalton) has played like a top-10 quarterback this season.
The Raiders won’t make the playoffs this year, but the signs of life this team is showing should be very encouraging. The other three teams in this division all have aging quarterbacks and will probably be looking to hit the reset button within the next five years. Oakland, on the other hand, looks like they have their quarterback of the present and future. He also looks like he might be starting to amass the weapons and line-play around him to make a playoff run in the near future. My prediction is that this franchise wins the AFC West in the next five years. Now the biggest question is will they do it in Oakland or Los Angeles?
My NFL Picks for the week:
Atlanta -3.5 (wrong)
Denver -4 over Cleveland
Buffalo +3.5 against Cincinnati
Kansas City +4 against Minnesota
Houston over Jacksonville
Detroit -3 over Chicago
New York Jets -6 over Washington
Pittsburgh +3 against Arizona
Tennessee -2.5 over Miami
Carolina +7 against Seattle
Green Bay -10 over San Diego
San Francisco +2.5 against Baltimore
New England -7.5 over Indianapolis
New York Giants +4 against Philadelphis