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Raiders Jack Del Rio has earned place as legit Coach of the Year candidate

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Following a brutal 2014 season that saw the team oust Dennis Allen after two 4-12 seasons and an 0-4 start to his third season, they were at a crossroads. Before any players were to be acquired to try and improve on a 3-13 season, the task of hiring the right head coach took top priority.

They found their man coaching the defense in Denver (again). This time instead of an inexperienced first time head coach, it was former 9-year head coach Jack Del Rio. As a respected longtime head coach, Del Rio was able to assemble a staff of capable assistants with a mixture of proven NFL coaches, and teachers. Mike Tice was arguably the most outstanding hire, coming on board as the Assistant Head Coach and Offensive Line Coach.

As a former defensive coordinator, Del Rio brought in longtime offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave and added defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr who had coached linebackers for the Super Bowl champion Seahawks.

With a now competitive team in place and Del Rio leading the way, the team that had started the previous season 0-10, was instantly competitive. They held a winning record at 2-1 and 4-3, and finished the season with their best record (7-9) since before the new regime took over.

Del Rio, an East Bay native who grew up a Raiders fan, had his beloved team on the rise. He, like Reggie McKenzie, believed a team is built from the inside out. He also had an offensive line guru in Mike Tice to help steer him and McKenzie in the right direction and to coach the acquisitions properly once they joined the team.

Adding Kelechi Osemele and Rodney Hudson made the Raiders offensive line one of the most solid in the league. Unfortunately, former round two pick Menelik Watson was injured in preseason and up until last week was replaced by Austin Howard.

Even with the uncertainty at right tackle, this unit has been a strong one. Osemele and Hudson along with left tackle Donald Penn were all named to the 2017 Pro Bowl with Gabe Jackson as an alternate. The Raiders running game is 5th in the league (124.3 yards per game), and they have given up an NFL low 16 sacks.

All this season, Derek Carr has shown noticeable progress under the same coaching staff for a second consecutive season. Del Rio has made some gutsy calls to win games, including right out the gates in the season opener in New Orleans by going for two for the win instead of an extra point to tie. That set the tone for a season that has seen the Raiders make several fourth quarter comebacks to win games this season, including 7 games in which they trailed by at least a touchdown.

The offense has at times had to make up for a struggling defense. An almost entirely new secondary and linebacking corps took some time to jell, but somehow the Raiders have managed to overcome it against all but two teams this season – the Falcons and Chiefs.

Not bad considering they were without a true middle linebacker for the first month of the season, lost rookie top pick safety Karl Joseph to a toe injury three weeks ago, were without second year defensive end Mario Edwards Jr until he came off IR last week, and have been shuffling defensive tackles all season, unable to find an answer there.

Also somewhat disappointing has been this year’s draft class. The seven drafted players have been overshadowed by their undrafted counterparts. Most notably running back Jalen Richard who is a Pro Bowl alternate as a return specialist. Defensive linemen Darius Latham and James Cowser have stepped up at times as well.

The most notable aspect of Del Rio’s case for coach of the year is just how many ways the Raiders have managed to win this season. You name it, they’ve done it.

Week 1: Of course the 2-point conversion gambit to win the opener in New Orleans.

Week 3: A hard-fought 17-10 defensive game in Tennessee.

Week 4: One-point, come-from-behind win in Baltimore on a late TD pass and sealed by a defensive stop.

Week 5: Forced fumble to end it with the Chargers in range of a game-tying field goal

Week 7: Methodical blowout of the Jaguars in Jacksonville

Week 8: Game-winning 41-yard TD pass in OT despite NFL record 23 penalties and two missed game-ending field goal attempts.

Week 9: Dominating win over reigning Super Bowl champion Broncos.

Week 11: On a slippery field in Mexico City in which they couldn’t get the run game going and the Texans shut down the wide receivers, the Raiders won by passing to the running backs

Week 12: Down 8 points in the 4th quarter to the Panthers only to tie it on a touchdown and two-point conversion, take the lead late, and seal it with a strip sack.

Week 13: Roaring back from a 15-point third quarter deficit to the Bills to retake the lead early in the 4th quarter

Week 15: Coming from behind again to wear down the Chargers despite not scoring a touchdown in the second half.

That’s a team that wins “by any means”-- a mantra that will get its biggest test in the season finale due to the fact that Derek Carr was lost to a broken leg in a win over the Colts last week. If the Raiders can finish out the season with a win in Denver with Matt McGloin at quarterback, they would reach Del Rio’s first goal of winning the division and under the circumstances it would speak even louder to Del Rio’s direction and his credentials for Coach of the Year.

It also speaks to Reggie McKenzie as a potential Executive of the Year for his personnel work putting together a group upon which Del Rio can continue to build for seasons to come.