The Las Vegas Raiders will host the Buffalo Bills this Sunday, their second game in Allegiant Stadium and fourth opportunity to get a win this season. The Raiders have succeeded a couple of times this year in that regard but are hoping to erase the memory of an ugly defeat to an AFC East team by beating an AFC East team that now appears to be even better than the New England Patriots.
Yes, some things this year are different.
With three games out and 13 to go, it was a good chance to collect some thoughts on the team this season. I’ll take a look at their results so far, the importance of having elite play at quarterback and a peek at the schedule ahead.
I was barely funny today. Typical.
The 2020 Raiders have not been as different from the 2019 Raiders as you may think
Jon Gruden is 2-1 for the first time since 2008.
That season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was so long ago that Gruden’s assistants included three people who have since been hired and fired as NFL head coaches: Jay Gruden, Raheem Morris and Gus Bradley. Scour those sidelines from 12 years ago and you’ll also spot a 22-year-old Sean McVay.
Gruden didn’t just open the season 2-1, he had the Bucs tied for the lead in the NFC South with four games to go. Tampa Bay was 9-3 and facing the 9-3 Carolina Panthers on Monday Night Football in Week 14; a perfect setup for a night of football that is rarely perfect with its late season matchups. The Bucs tied the score at 17 all with a Cadillac Williams touchdown run late in the third quarter, but the Panthers didn’t even see a third down on either of their next two possessions and Tampa Bay quarterback Jeff Garcia couldn’t get anything going to keep pace.
The Panthers won 38-23 and dropped the Bucs to 9-4 but well within the fight for a wild card and the division. Especially if they could beat the 8-5 Atlanta Falcons the following week.
The Falcons took an early 10-0 lead with rookie quarterback Matt Ryan at the helm, but he threw two interceptions that day and Tampa’s defense was stout other than one 72-yard touchdown drive on Atlanta’s third possession. But the Bucs punted on their first five possessions and then went punt, interception, punt, punt, missed field goal, field goal in the second half to force overtime.
There wasn’t to be an unexpected offensive outburst in the extra period however and after punting the ball back to the Falcons, Ryan converted a key third-and-three with a three-yard run and Jason Elam kicked a game-winning field goal. The Bucs lost both of their last two games, including a 31-24 loss to the Oakland Raiders in Gruden’s final game as head coach in Tampa Bay — a game in which the Bucs blew a 24-14 fourth quarter lead.
Gruden left the Bucs under terms that nobody expected following his start in Tampa Bay but the truth is that he came within maybe a field goal and a fourth quarter collapse of taking a Jeff Garcia-Brian Griese led offense to 11-5 and potentially even getting a bye week. Which is important for two reasons today:
- Jon Gruden wasn’t that far away from getting at least one more year with the Bucs and potentially turning the franchise around again if he had.
- The four-game losing streak still exists and therefore it is not unreasonable to understand why Jon Gruden was fired.
Gruden is now in his third year back as head coach of the Raiders and if progress is to be made for the second season in a row, he’ll have to do more than simply best his 7-9 record of 2019. Las Vegas is 2-1, but as we’ve seen from many teams in the past, even a strong start after 12 games won’t guarantee you a trip to the postseason. Gruden can’t only exorcise early season demons, he also must defeat the possibility of collapsing.
Are the Raiders improved after three games?
In 2019, they ranked 25th in DVOA, including ninth on offense and 31st on defense.
So far this season, Las Vegas ranks 25th in DVOA ... ninth on offense ... 31st on defense.
Let’s wait and see what happens over the next 13, but right now it’s more of the same actually.
Derek Carr can’t be “Derek Carr good,” he needs to be “Better Derek Carr”
It’s a proud moment when someone accuses me of being a biased Raiders fan who has been itching for years to see the team bench Carr once and for all. Reality? I have no franchise bias involved here and have typically spent my “Derek Carr” time over the last seven years defending him as adequate and often underrated.
But as the NFL evolved around him and as the Raiders have attempted to keep up with that movement — including drafting Henry Ruggs III, Bryan Edwards, finding Darren Waller, building a strong offensive line — so too must the expectations of the quarterback go up.
During this offseason, I would have advocated for the team to explore other options but to also keep an open mind that Carr would improve with better weapons. As I wrote in June, Carr most favorably compares to his brother David Carr when looking at their first six seasons. That is not entirely encouraging either. But as I wrote this week, the NFL is so much different that it’s hard to even know what to do with historical signposts anymore.
So throw out history and look at today: Carr is completing 74-percent of his passes with 7.8 Y/A and no interceptions. That’s nice!
But also look at today: His numbers across the board are above average, especially completion percentage, interceptions and passer rating, but they are not great. Do the Raiders “need” him to be great? If your expectations of Jon Gruden is that he will get the Raiders in position to at least compete for a Super Bowl in late January, then I’d think so, given that their defense is 31st.
The question for Raiders fans who defend the current version of Carr as good enough to win a Super Bowl is: did you believe that the Kansas City Chiefs were as likely to win a Super Bowl with Alex Smith as they are with Patrick Mahomes?
In 2016, Smith went 11-4 as the starter in Kansas City, completing 67.1-percent of his passes with 15 touchdowns, eight interceptions, 7.2 Y/A and a rating of 91.2. At the time, Smith was above average, nearly across the board. Especially in completion percentage and interception rate. The team went to the playoffs and had a bye week but lost 18-16 to the Steelers. In the 2017 draft, the Chiefs traded up 17 spots to get Mahomes prepared to be better than good.
In 2017, Smith had his most dominant career season, leading the NFL in adjusted yards per attempt and passer rating with a remarkably efficient campaign. He had 26 touchdowns and five interceptions with 8 Y/A, numbers that you’d think Las Vegas would want to see from Carr in 2020. But what’s the ceiling for the Raiders offense with an “Alex Smith” at quarterback?
Is the Raiders goal to be the 2017 Chiefs or the 2018/2019 Chiefs? If your personal goal would be to be the 2017 Chiefs, I’d ask “Why?” And if you think that Carr’s ceiling is higher than that of Smith, I’d ask the same again.
I’ve recounted the story of how close Gruden came to leading the Bucs to glory in 2008 (or at least, some glory) but Marcus Mariota has his own case to be made. The Tennessee Titans were 2-4 with Mariota last season and he was clearly not as good as Ryan Tannehill (if you want to accuse me of being anti-Carr, you should ask me about my history of arguments for being anti-Mariota in 2018) he still had his moments and prior to being benched/hurt had thrown seven touchdown and no interceptions.
That stat line seems familiar to me now ...
Tannehill was 31 last season and yet he was a first time leader in Y/A and passer rating, completing 70.3-percent of his attempts. Mariota was “good” according to plenty of people last year and yet the Titans offense had scored 17, 7, 24, 7 and 0 in his final five starts.
In 13 starts with Tannehill, Tennessee has only scored fewer than 20 points once and they are 3-0 this season despite giving up 30 points twice.
I don’t know if that should be encouraging news for Carr or Mariota becoming better as this season goes on, but for the Raiders to be at the level Gruden says they’ll be getting to, one of the quarterbacks will need to improve over everything they’ve given up to this stage in their careers.
Schedule might not relax
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Going 1-1 against the Saints and Patriots over the last two weeks could be a fair outcome for the Raiders, especially given that September could be the last time either of those quarterbacks seem close to youthful. Let’s see how Cam Newton does with 15 carries per week for another month.
Their next three quarterbacks to face are Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady.
(If you want to remain optimistic, remove the part of your brain that remembers the Raiders’ defense.)
Once they get through that and a bye week mixed in, the Raiders will face the Cleveland Browns, a team that has scored 69 points in the last two weeks and Baker Mayfield’s stats are headed north. The Chargers and Broncos follow before a re-match with Mahomes and a ry-match against Matt Ryan.
Let me quickly recap the next eight games again for 2-1 Vegas:
Bills, at Chiefs, bye, Bucs, at Browns, at Chargers, Broncos, Chiefs, at Falcons.
If a team splits that schedule, they’d be 6-5 into the final five. The Raiders final five games are: at Jets, Colts, Chargers, Dolphins, at Broncos.
The Colts, Chargers and Broncos could present some defensive issues for the Las Vegas offense but seem to have offensive struggles, depending on how Philip Rivers progresses this season in Indianapolis.
If Jon Gruden is 9-3 after 12 games this season, that will imply quite the turnaround for the Raiders defense and/or an explosion on offense. And if he didn’t finish 12-4 or better after that, he’d definitely have more questions to answer than three.