Tell your garden variety Raiders fan on Sept. 9 their team would be 6-6 and a game behind the Kansas City Chiefs with four games to play and there would have been toasts all around at the next Coliseum tailgate.
Who am I kidding?
There are no garden variety Raiders fans. They’re different than any other fan base. And they’d be having toasts anyway.
But they know their team, and chances are they would have felt good about 6-6.
Yet NFL seasons have a way of creating their own story lines, and the Raiders are limping home with back-to-back 31-point road whippings against the New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs.
In terms of point spread, the Raiders haven’t taken worse back-to-back losses since the pre-Al Davis and pre-Coliseum days of coach Eddy Erdelatz. In 1961, the Raiders were beaten 55-0 and 44-0 in losses to San Diego to open the season.
Mark Davis remains convinced hiring Jon Gruden was the right thing to do, and he’s probably right. But he didn’t count on this. Nor did Gruden or the portion of the East Bay fan base which had its hopes raised with a 6-4 start and a three-game home winning streak.
The 2019 season looks like an enormous tease, even with the No. 6 Tennessee Titans (7-5) on deck and the Raiders holding the No. 7 position with six AFC teams making the playoffs.
The Jets and Chiefs losses were distinctly different despite the end results that found the Raiders down 74-12 after eight quarters.
The Jets physically dominated the Raiders and had some matchup advantages. Yet New York is an NFL also-ran in 2019, as evidenced by a loss Sunday to the previously winless Cincinnati Bengals. The Chiefs can’t stop the run, and didn’t against the Raiders, but are a perennial playoff participant under Andy Reid because of a definite identity and idea of who they are.
The Raiders were dominated against the Jets, and blundered their way to a loss against the Chiefs.
Gruden has reminded everyone on a weekly basis the Raiders are building something. It’s a good company line because he truly believes it, with the ancillary benefit of explaining the rough spots. The Chiefs loss was no different.
“We just never found our rhythm at all,” Gruden said at the podium. “That’s disappointing, but I know who we are, I know where they are as a football team. We’ve got work to do and we’re going to continue to try to catch the Chiefs.”
Again . . .
“I know who we are . . . I know where they are”
Left unsaid but implied is the Raiders will be still chasing the Chiefs next season when they’re in Las Vegas.
Getting beat up by the Jets is bad, but absorbing a one-sided loss to a rival because of sheer ineptitude may be worse.
Center Rodney Hudson, who started his career with the Chiefs, usually says little or nothing at all. But he was perturbed at how the Raiders self-destructed.
“Don’t get me wrong, they’re a good team,” Hudson told reporters. “They won the ballgame. But we did make mistakes that hurt us. We didn’t help ourselves today.”
Before Gruden talks Monday, here are three things to watch closely over the last four games of the season:
How Derek Carr finishes 2019
Another Arrowhead atrocity isn’t going to necessarily move Gruden off Carr in 2020. But it was an important game for Carr, and his two interceptions led to 14 early points and the second one, a pick six by Juan Thornhill, made it 21-0.
After the second interception, Carr went straight to the sideline without talking to Gruden, according to the Raiders radio report. He spoke with offensive coordinator Greg Olson. Probably a wise move. Carr and Gruden can hash out what happened behind closed doors.
Running back Josh Jacobs said afterward of the Thornhill interception, “It took our morale.”
Carr credited the Chiefs with both interceptions for changing up their coverages and presumably knowing what was coming. Tyrann Mathieu, who drifted to his right and anticipated a medium-deep attempt from Carr to Darren Waller for an interception on the first series, sure made it sound that way.
“We knew that when he did take shots down the field, we were able to understand it pre-snap by the formation, and it would put us in a position to make a play,” Mathieu said. “Derek is going to try to take care of the football. Tight ends, running backs, check-downs, that’s kind of his game. I was glad that we were able to capitalize on him when he did try to throw the ball down the field.”
Carr is likely still the quarterback next season, but it’s less of a lock today than it was Saturday.
Finding some targets
Hunter Renfrow is one of the least impressive physical specimens in the NFL, but he was clearly missed against the Chiefs. Renfrow is a rookie sixth-round draft pick, out possibly for the season with a rib/lung injury sustained against the Jets.
That’s where the Raiders stand at wide receiver. By the time Carr acquainted himself with wideouts against the Chiefs, the game was over. He had one end zone downfield throw to Zay Jones but it wasn’t close. Carr and Jones haven’t played together much, but how long did it take Emmanuel Sanders to be a factor with the 49ers? Or Amari Cooper with the Cowboys?
Whether it’s been his foot injury or something else, Tyrell Williams hasn’t been the factor the Raiders hoped for, and with the presence of Darren Waller, he should be a viable option for more targets each week.
Keeping the faith
The Raiders have been buttoned up in terms of their outward message since Antonio Brown was sent packing.
Jacobs, however, has offered a couple of insights uncommon from a rookie. He was the only one last week who wondered if the Raiders took the Jets seriously enough, and after the Chiefs loss said, “The thing I like this week better than last is that no one gave up.”
It’s amazing to think any Raiders players thought they were good enough to walk over the Jets, considering the effort it took to beat three straight teams with losing records at home. But if Jacobs is the closest thing the Raiders have to a public conscience, maybe they actually did think they were better than they were.
The playoffs are a major reach. What we’ll find out over the next four weeks is which players stay and which ones go when the new era starts in Las Vegas.
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