Recently Pro Football Focus predicted the Raiders would go 11-5 this season, posting the AFC's third-best record. I hate to rain on anyone's parade. But PFF appears swept up in Silver and Black fever.
I remember this type of hype before the '94 season. Head coach Art Shell had all these innovative strategies and "name" players. Quarterback Jeff Hostetler sported a NY Giants Super Bowl ring. Fullback Tom Rathman crossed the bay from San Francisco. Rocket Ismail returned kicks. Hall of Fame wide receiver Tim Brown was in his prime and James Jett was the fastest thing in cleats.
The 49ers hammered Oakland in the season opener, 44-14, and it could have been worse. That team, which had just as much hype as this year's, finished third in the AFC West.
According to PFF, "In 2015, the Raiders were a team that played better than their record indicated." I beg to differ. You are the record you earn, nothing more, nothing less.
Having watched every snap of every single 2015 game, the Raiders played exactly like a sub-500 team. A lot of that falls on an inconsistent and now-defunct secondary. But if not for the arrival of David Amerson, Oakland's record could have been worse.
Has the organization made significant roster strides during the off-season season? Absolutely. Going forward, the Raiders certainly aren't lacking talent. In terms of ability, the secondary leapt forward by light years.
Frankly, last season's team had enough quality athletes to go 8-8. But they didn't. One of the key reasons behind the 7-9 record was the Raiders inability to close out weaker opponents.
Take, for instance, Week 3 against Cleveland. Oakland prevailed 27-20. They won by only a single touchdown against arguably the worst team in all of pro football. Despite sacking Browns quarterback Josh McCown five times, he threw for 341 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Teams with winning records like the NY Jets, Arizona Cardinals, Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks smoked the Browns by two touchdowns or better.
Against Tennessee, the Raiders allowed the second worst team in the NFL to hang around and only squeaked out a 3-point victory (24-21). When Derek Carr throws for 330 yards, three touchdowns and puts up a passer rating of 120, Oakland should be giving reserve players reps in the fourth quarter. Such was not the case.
Perhaps the worst performance of 2015 was the 22-20 loss to a lackluster Bears outfit that was 0-3 at kickoff. Ultimately, the Bears drove 48 yards in the final two minutes to nail a 49-yard game-winning field goal with .02 seconds remaining.
The 2015 Raiders simply didn't possess the ability to put their foot on opponents' throats, so to speak. That kind of thing won't change with shiny new personnel or coaching wizardry. Closing people out comes from continuity, attitude, and killer instinct.
Hall of Fame defensive lineman Howie Long used to drive a shoulder into pulling guards and block them when running plays went away from him. Despite being one of the all-time greatest, Long was as much a role player as a sack master. Performing that unselfish play allowed others to down ball carriers. He disrupted everything opponents tried to do, often getting no statistical credit for his efforts.
The 2016 Oakland Raiders will need to learn how to do those little things that produce excellent team defense. A bunch of "stars," like Shell's '94 unit, could have the franchise backsliding very easily in 2016.
This 11-5 PFF notion may have a few fans giddy, but the current schedule doesn't include doormats like Cleveland. Weak teams, based on 2015 win-loss records, like Jacksonville and Tennessee, have greatly improved their personnel. Jacksonville's roster equals the Silver and Black's.
Perhaps the time has come for a little perspective. All this playoff talk amounts to nothing more than just, well . . . talk.
Granted, G.M. Reggie McKenzie again proved brilliant by not disturbing the passing offense. That unit played well together last season and it's reasonable to expect improvement. By the same token, the defense was sub-par and fields four potential new starters that have not played a single down together. Despite the PFF rah-rah prediction, an uncharted road lay ahead.
To be winners, the star-studded defense will need to gel quickly. Role players must emerge. And, more importantly, those 11 men must dictate to offenses, not the other way around.
For all Raider Nation's optimism, the franchise hasn't earned a winning record since 2002. Hopefully, we're not looking at paper champions.