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Raiders' foundation of youth offers light at end of the tunnel

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Hope is not a familiar word in Oakland — in fact, it's actually been a source of pain for almost a decade. But is that decade really nearing an end? Could hope really be just around the corner?

Ezra Shaw

A great philosopher once said, " If we look at the big picture, you can get really lost and sometimes you can get a little bit depressed."

That philosopher was interim head coach Tony Sparano as he addressed the media Monday morning, but I've got news for you Tony: the big picture is a lot less depressing than the immediate one!

In fact, I believe that the 0-6 Raiders are in better shape than they've been in since 2002!

Wait, what?

I know, I know — you've heard this story before: the Raiders draft some young guy, tell us the future is going to be bright and then eight games later, we're muting SportsCenter to avoid the embarrassment. So could this year really be different?

I say yes, and the reason begins with a story.

As a Raiders fan living outside California, the ability to watch games on Sundays is not easy. With as bad as Oakland has been, I never see them in nationally televised time slots, which leaves NFL Sunday Ticket on my computer as my only option.

The problem is, even that is sometimes a challenge. After watching Kerry Collins, Jamarcus Russell, Josh McCown and Andrew Walter, just watching games at all had become discouraging.

Which leads me to Sunday, when, despite how bad the Raiders have looked, I couldn't turn off the game.

Something about this team is different, and on Sunday I realized what it was: it has nothing to do with the amount of games they'll win this season, but it's all about what this team is previewing for 2015 and beyond.

"I think that our kids are starting to believe they're close," Sparano said after Sunday's loss to Arizona. "As I said to them today, this thing is going to happen. It's going to turn. There's no question about that. I believe it. But we have to continue to work."

Now, I've resigned myself to the fact that this team probably won't win more than two or three games this year (despite how hard they might work), but considering the talent coming out of college this year — I'm actually okay with that. As a team who doesn't need a quarterback, can you imagine the haul the first or second pick would get on the trade market?

And speaking of quarterbacks, it's Derek Carr that's the real source of hope here. On a team with some surprisingly bright foundation pieces, it's Carr who headlines the crew and makes them all tick.

In six starts — mind you, with no time sitting out to "learn the offense" and "adapt to the speed of the game from the sidelines" — Carr has completed 60.5% of his passes for 1,189 yards with eight touchdowns and five interceptions.

Are those numbers world-changing? Of course not. But are they a fantastic start? Absolutely.

Consider Andrew Luck's first six games — seven touchdowns, seven interceptions and a completion percentage of 53.6% — decent, but a step below Carr's.

Forget the numbers, though, because the thing that is most impressive about Carr is that he just doesn't look like a rookie. He doesn't get flustered, he doesn't throw into triple coverage, he doesn't stare down his first option and he doesn't get over-matched. It's really pretty remarkable.

On the other side of the ball is Khalil Mack — Oakland's first pick in last year's draft and another rookie who has been stellar while being thrown into the fire. While he hasn't made the impact the most optimistic fans could have hoped for, considering the weapons (or lack thereof) around him, his output has been commendable.

While Carr and Mack will (hopefully) be the headliners for years to come, some other guys also warrant some attention. First is the rebuilt offensive line, which has been a rare bright spot in keeping Carr upright. If Oakland can continue to build around Gabe Jackson, Stefen Wisniewski and Menelik Watson, this unit could be a foundation piece for years to come.

Others to mention are rookie corner TJ Carrie and second-year linebacker Sio Moore — guys who have shown flashes of talent that point to the idea that there might be more to come from them.

Now imagine all of that, but add in any production Oakland can get from DJ Hayden, a fresh slate of high draft picks this spring, the excitement a new coach could bring this off-season (especially given the job's growing attractiveness) and the fact that Oakland is projected to have the most salary cap space of any team in the NFL next season, and, well, you can see why there's hope.

So yes, we've all been here before, being sold on hope and the future numerous times since our last trip to the playoffs. Then again, something feels different this time — something feels real.

I'm just hoping I'm not making it all up.