With minutes left in the Raiders week 15 game against the Colts on Christmas eve, the Raiders were a playoff team, headed for win number 12 and on top of the AFC West. Then Derek Carr was twisted down awkwardly on a sack and all their hopes came crashing down.
Without Carr at quarterback, the Raiders were easily beaten in Denver in the finale, while the Chiefs would win to steal away the division and send the Raiders to the five seed, headed to Houston for the wild card game.
In that final game, more bad luck would befall the Raiders. They would lose Matt McGloin to a shoulder injury and left tackle Donald Penn to a knee injury.
It isn’t often a team has 12 wins and that still isn’t enough to take their own division. And with the playoff format as it was, they were forced to go on the road to face a Texans team that won their division just one game above .500.
McGloin’s injury meant rookie Connor Cook would be making his first career start just a game after being active for a game for the first time. And Penn would miss the first game of his 10-year NFL career, making Menelik Watson the man protecting Cook’s blindside against Jadeveon Clowney.
It meant an unceremonious end to an otherwise miracle season that saw the Raiders make their first trip back to the playoffs in 14 years.
“I don’t think you can eliminate the abrupt ending you don’t want, but I don’t think you can dismiss what we accomplished,” said Del Rio after the game. “We had a great beginning. Won 12 of our first 15 games. That’s outstanding. And we just had an abrupt ending.”
In the end, what this team as currently assembled was asked to overcome too much. The loss of Derek Carr was too great. He had made up for a porous defense all season with several late comebacks and game winning drives.
With him out, everything had to go right. Namely the quarterback needed good protection, the running game needed to get going, and the defense needed to play its best football of the season. They would get none of those things.
Penn’s value became apparent very quickly with Watson in his place, and for some reason, the Raiders were not utilizing extra protection to help him out very often.
“Yeah, we missed Donald,” Del Rio added. “I mean, Donald had a great year for us, he had a Pro Bowl year for us and he was hoping to make it back, he just wasn’t…it was just to where he could almost walk normal, but he can’t quite do more than that. So, as much as I love the way that he fought to get back and as much as he wanted to that was obviously, you lose your Pro Bowl left tackle, that was a blow.”
Getting the run game going against the Texans stout run defense was asking a lot. The Raiders would pick up just 64 yards on 21 carries (3.0 yards per carry). Without the run game functioning, it meant Connor Cook passed the ball 45 times, completing just 18 of those. That’s a lot to ask of Cook making his first career start on the road in a playoff game against the number one ranked defense. But falling behind 20-7 at the half gave them little choice in the matter.
“It was a tough draw for him,” Del Rio said of Cook. “Sure, we had hopes that we would be able to do enough around him that he wouldn’t be called on to do as much. I think we ended up throwing it 45 or more times in the game. That’s not the design, I can assure you that. We’d like to go into this game and pass it 20 or 25 times and run it the other 45 or 50 times. It got out of whack there.”
As for the defense, it was more of the same we had seen from them all season. Only made worse by the Raiders punting a season-high ten times along with three turnovers. Give the offense enough chances and they will break through, including scoring on their first touchdown off an interception that gave them the ball in first and goal inside the 5-yard-line.
Del Rio summed up the performance nicely in one sentence; “To me the defense was similar to what it’s been a lot of the year.”
That defense was 26th in the league, giving up over 375 yards per game and 20th in the league giving up over 24 points per game. They allowed Houston to score 27 points which matches the most points they had scored all season.
So, where do they go from here?
“This is just the beginning,” Del Rio told his players. “We’re just getting started. We need to learn from what we feel and the experiences that we had throughout the year, both good and bad, and learn from that and go forward ready to do more.”
It’s a tough end to a resurgent season for the Raiders. The offseason earlier than they thought it would prior to the injury to Derek Carr. Now they must go about continuing to build a team around him and be ready to start the process over against in 2017.
Del Rio wishes the ending would have been less painful, but understands there is a good thing being built here that will continue to improve.
“The way I approach it is you go forward, you believe and you teach and you grow and you continue to add and you grow stronger and you know what you want it to look like and you keep pushing for it. Do you end up having some growing pains? Typically I would say probably yes. Does that mean I’m gonna sit here and feel good about it? No.”
This team is filled with young stars who are either under contract for multiple years to come, or will be in short order with the Raiders having plenty of money to spend to hold onto their top players long term and add more pieces in the offseason.
This is indeed just the beginning for these Raiders. The present is not pleasant, but the future is still very bright.