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Can the Raiders be this season’s Titans?

And then some ...

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Tennessee Titans v Oakland Raiders Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

After their 10th game of the 2019 season, the Tennessee Titans must have been feeling really good about themselves. Though they weren’t in line for a playoff berth yet, mounted comeback-after-comeback in a home game against the Kansas City Chiefs, ultimately winning 35-32.

The eventual Super Bowl-winning Chiefs led by scores of 10-0, 19-13, and 29-20, but the Titans would not accept some fate that they couldn’t beat Patrick Mahomes with Ryan Tannehill. But they could. They had to have Derrick Henry and all, but yeah, they could.

First Kansas City botched a snap on a field goal attempt that would have given them an 8-point lead, then Tannehill gained 61 yards on three plays and threw a touchdown to take a three-point lead, then ...

With that blocked field goal, the Titans beat the Chiefs and not only improved to .500 but at that point in the season were only one game worse than 6-4 Kansas City.

One week later, with Tennessee on their bye week, the Titans were also a game worse than the 6-4 Oakland Raiders after they beat the Cincinnati Bengals 17-10. When we look back at the 2019 Titans, we will think of Henry, Tannehill, and an incredible second half and playoff run that helped get them into a second half lead in the AFC Championship game. And yet after 10 games, there was no way to easily identify that the surprise team would be the Titans and not the Raiders, who were a game better than them at that point.

So why not the Raiders now?

Continuing Optimism August, I want to talk about “surprise” teams like Tennessee and see if Las Vegas could be a fit in 2020. After all, there may be many timelines where the Raiders were the surprise team of 2019. Unfortunately for the Jon Gruden in this timeline, Oakland went 1-5 in the final six games, whereas the Chiefs went 6-0 and the Titans went 4-2. What are reasonable arguments for Tennessee-like optimism?

And then some of course, because teams can go even further than the Titans did.

Prior to 2019, Tennessee had spent one year under Mike Vrabel, going 9-7 with the third-ranked scoring defense but the 27th-ranked scoring offense. They were 20th in Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, ahead of 31st-ranked Oakland, like 29 other teams. But their offensive/defensive prowess in DVOA was not nearly as clear as it had looked with total points: the Titans ranked 22nd on offense and 19th on defense.

The Raiders, 25th on offense, were only separated by a couple percentage points of DVOA in 2018 with Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota offense. Vrabel also had three starts, likely forgotten by most by now, from Blaine Gabbert. The pre-Tannehill, non-Tannehill whose stats were still worse across the board compared to Mariota.

2018 DVOA Rankings:

The Titans got 1,059 yards and 12 touchdowns from Derrick Henry, mixed in 517 rushing/400 receiving yards from Dion Lewis, and featured their passing offense around Corey Davis because they had no other options. Were you a talent-hunter traveling to Nashville with a dream of becoming a “talent barren” who has a monopoly on talent so that you and you alone can one day control all the football talent in the world so that you’d be the Daniel Plainview of the NFL, you’d surely plug your talent extraction tools into the Titans offensive line and the running back.

In both 2018 and 2019, Tennessee featured Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin as their book end tackles with Ben Jones as the center. They changed out the guard positions with veteran Rodger Saffold and third round rookie Nate Davis. An already-good line got better and the Titans offense experienced new highs when Henry led the NFL in rushing at 1,540 yards and 16 touchdowns and Tannehill led the league in passer rating and adjusted net yards per attempt.

What really changed for the Titans between 2018 and 2019?

They added the guards, with mixed reviews on Davis, though little can be expected of rookies. Not so the case with receiver A.J. Brown, who at this point may be the most valuable milkshake in the state of Tennessee after catching 52 passes for 1,051 yards and helping to erase the memories of “Mariota to Davis.”

(The memories may be gone, but last season “Mariota to Davis” had a passer rating of 100.1 on 23 attempts, whereas “Tannehill to Davis” had a rating of 78.5 with two interceptions on 48 attempts.)

The offensive coordinator went from Matt LaFleur, now the head coach of the Green Bay Packers, to Arthur Smith. And of course they traded for Tannehill to backup Mariota and I’m sure potentially to challenge him for the job because Mariota was still a player who had only thrown 24 touchdowns and 23 interceptions in his previous 28 starts. The Titans had the offensive line and the running back and two quarterbacks with experience and untapped talent reserves but why weren’t they putting it all together and scoring a lot of points yet?

Six games into the season, Mariota had posted the exact same passer rating as 2018 — 92.3 — but Tennessee was not nearly the only 10 I saw. They weren’t even a 10. I wrote letters to the gov to tell them to change the name of the state to “ThreeISee” but to no avail. Good thing they ignored me because suddenly they were the only Tannisee.

2019 DVOA Rankings:

Ryan Tannehill made the start in Week 7 and the Titans beat the LA Chargers 23-20. They had scored seven points total in the previous two weeks, losing both games even though the defense had held their opponent to 16 points or less each time. Six games in, the Titans were 28th in points scored and fourth in points allowed. It was a repeat of 2018 — a repeat that this time might only help Vrable win five or six games.

And if that had been the case, I wouldn’t be writing about them for Optimism August.

Tannehill won six of his first seven starts, ultimately getting to 8-5 after a 42-21 win over the Raiders in Week 14. Tied 21-21 at halftime, Oakland was one barely above-average half away from having the same 7-6 record as Tennessee with a head-to-head tiebreaker. Instead, the Titans scored 21 unanswered and things unfolded as they did.

In the final 10 games of the season, the Titans ranked fourth in scoring offense and were tied for 18th in scoring defense with the Cleveland Browns. They had flipped from a defensive team to an offensive team, or at least from a point suppression team to a point supplier. You need points? See: TANNEHILL, RYAN.

Ryan Tannehill, 31st in DYAR and 33rd in QBR in 2018:

Of course, with Henry Derrick, they were also second in rushing yards in the final 10 games behind only the Baltimore Ravens. And even as amazing as Baltimore’s rushing offense was last season, setting numerous records I am not fact-checking right now, Henry’s Titans still averaged more yards per carry and scored five more touchdowns than the Ravens did.

Tennessee lost December games to playoff teams Houston and New Orleans but beat a Texans team resting Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins (among others) for the postseason in order to secure their own berth. Had they played a normal Houston team, the unforgettable 2019 Titans could’ve been 8-8 and Henry’s 211 rushing yards in Week 17, 182 yards in the wild card round, and 195 yards in the divisional round, may have never happened.

But it did.

Despite Vrabel’s defense barely moving an inch from 2018 to 2019 (19th in DVOA to 16th, 21st in passing defense DVOA both seasons) and even though the Titans didn’t improve their record at all, everybody loves the Tennessee story and why not? However they got there, they got there. They were one of the teams that nearly upset Mahomes during the Mahomes run ... but didn’t.

Could this be the 2020 Raiders in any way, shape, or Henry?

First of all, were Daniel Jones Plainview to make his way to Las Vegas — and I have no doubt that he would as that is the city of riches — he’d also tap his extraction tools into the Raiders’ offensive line and running back.

Left tackle Kolton Miller may have not even been an above average left tackle in year two, but he was better in year two than in year one. Trent Brown is at least being paid like the second-best right tackle in the NFL, with only Philadelphia’s Lane Johnson making more annually. Third is former Titans right tackle Jack Conklin. And Vegas boasts a superior interior o-line to Tennessee and most other teams with center Rodney Hudson and guards Richie Incognito and Gabe Jackson.

The line has gone from being ranked 28th by PFF after the 2018 season to 15th after the 2019 season. They had the Titans ranked eighth after last season and that type of quality doesn’t sound unattainable for Gruden and Tom Cable’s unit headed into 2020.

In 2015, Alabama won the national title with a 45-40 victory over Clemson. While Watson to Hunter Renfrow helped the Tigers take a 14-7 lead early, Henry — who as far as I’m concerned won the Heisman Trophy that year* — scored three touchdowns and rushed for 158 yards. His final score came with 1:07 remaining and helped Alabama build the cushion necessary to win by five.

Then he entered the NFL and was drafted to backup DeMarco Murray and Nick Saban handed the future of the position over to several names instead of just one. That included true freshman Josh Jacobs.

Though he didn’t win the Heisman or come close to that kind of talk, Jacobs averaged 5.9 yards per carry in his career, comparable to the 6.0 college average of Henry. In Henry’s Heisman season he averaged 5.6 yards per carry with 28 touchdowns on 395 attempts, a score for every 14 carries.

In Jacobs’ final season he averaged 5.3 yards per carry with 11 touchdowns on 120 attempts, a score for every 11 carries. With similar opportunities in an NFL season, they have produced similar results already:

In 2018, Henry had 215 carries for 1,059 yards, 12 touchdowns, 4.9 yards per carry, and one fumble.

In 2019, Jacobs had 242 carries for 1,150 yards, seven touchdowns, 4.8 yards per carry, and one fumble.

Last season they both had very comparable receiving number too.

We know that Gruden wants to run it more already even though the Raiders were already one of the most run-heavy teams in the league through the first three quarters. Per Warren Sharp’s 2020 preview, Oakland ran 62-percent of the time on first down in the first three quarters, third-most in the NFL after the Titans and Football Team. They were also pretty successful in these situations, but were unable to finish many of these series and drives with touchdowns and that’ll be the change they hope to find next season.

Just as Tennessee did a year ago with fairly subtle changes on offense.

They added a receiver in the draft last year and he turned out to be A.J. Brown. The Raiders just picked Henry Ruggs III, the first receiver taken in the 2020 draft. As bonus insurance, they also took Bryan Edwards, who went only one round later than Brown did a year earlier. When you include the fact that Las Vegas already has two former 1,000-yard “receivers” in Darren Waller and Tyrell Williams, I think they have a distinct roster advantage if you’re comparing these teams to where they were at headed into the seasons, respectively.

The Titans went in with the disappointing Davis, the rookie Brown, Adam Humphries, Tajae Sharpe, Darius Jennings, and Kalif Raymond.

The Raiders may go into 2020 with Williams, the rookie Ruggs, Renfrow, the rookie Edwards, Nelson Agholor, plus a productive tight end.

The offensive line, the receivers, and the running back — I would have little to negative qualms about comparing these units between each team. Even the Henry to Jacobs comparison is warranted. The “Dear Lord, please don’t make me think prior to yesterday” crowd may not want to hear it, but Henry was not that special prior to the previously mentioned win over the Chiefs.

After spending 2016 as Murray’s backup, Henry got more action in year two, and while he had his first two 100-yard efforts, he also had 36 carries for 71 yards in his first two official starts. As the main back headed in 2018, Henry carried the ball 128 times for 474 yards with 3.7 yards per carry in the first 10 games, with his season-high total being 58 yards. Then out of nowhere he rushed for 238 yards and four touchdowns against a Jags defense that seemed more than ready to quit on a disappointing follow-up to 2017.

Henry gained 99 yards on a single play after not gaining more than 58 yards in any of the 16 games he’d played in since his first career start.

This is a good run. But the defense looks like it already got a visit from Mr Plainview.

Even after that game, Henry did not take off.

In his first nine games of 2019, Henry averaged 3.9 yards per carry and had one 100-yard game, rushing for exactly the century mark in a win over the Falcons. Prior to his 188-yard effort against KC, Henry hadn’t rushed for over 100 yards in any of his previous 11 games. When Henry was 21, he won the Heisman at Alabama. When Josh Jacobs was 21, it was 2019 and he was with the Raiders.

I think Jacobs looked better at 21 than Henry looked at 24.

Of course, if all those things are in place, it only leaves one massive Paul Dano in the room: does Las Vegas have its “Ryan Tannehill” and is it actually the guy who Ryan Tannehill replaced?

As sexy as it is to think that this is leading towards a Marcus Mariota endorsement, you’d have to be a fool to not see the comparisons between Carr and Tannehill instead.

Entering his seventh NFL season in 2019, Ryan Tannehill had started 40 games in the previous three years, completing 64.1% of his passes for 9,182 yards, 60 touchdowns, 33 interceptions, 7.4 yards per attempt, and 229 yards per game.

Derek Carr, who is entering his seventh season in 2020, has started 47 games in the previous three years, completing 67.4% of his passes for 11,599 yards, 62 touchdowns, 31 interceptions, 7.3 yards per attempt, and 246 yards per game.

Both QBs started immediately, showed enough success for their franchises to give them extensions, and then disappointed when it seemed apparent that they couldn’t tap into their talent resources after six seasons. The Miami Dolphins opted to move on from Tannehill in favor of Josh Rosen and a bad enough record to pick high in the 2020 NFL Draft. The Raiders haven’t moved on from Carr, but toyed with bigger names like Tom Brady and eventually settled on the method of adding a veteran who could at least make him believe that it is possible he won’t win the starting gig this time.

It also seems to me that Tannehill experienced more success in the 2018 season than most realize now.

In his first eight starts of 2018, Tannehill completed 67-percent of his passes for 1,578 yards, 16 touchdowns, six picks, 8 yards per attempt, and a rating of 105.7.

In Derek Car’s first eight starts of 2019, he completed 71-percent of his passes for 1,984 yards, 13 touchdowns, four picks, 7.94 yards per attempt, and a rating of 105.1.

So if Tannehill can get MVP consideration a year after doing that, why can’t Carr find similar success? There’s no tangible evidence that he can’t because we just saw it happen with a player who looked even less likely to ever be leading his team to an AFC Championship game with an average defense.

After a slow six-game start, the Titans finished 2019 ranked sixth in offensive DVOA, including sixth in passing and fifth in rushing. I would not spend much time arguing against Las Vegas being capable of doing this too because they have comparable starters across the board and in some cases those starters (Hudson vs Jones, Waller vs Davis) look considerably better with few position-by-position arguments I can see for being considerably worse.

Who looks better:

Tannehill headed into 2019 or Carr headed into 2020?

Henry headed into 2019 or Jacobs headed into 2020?

Davis headed into 2019 or Tyrell Williams or Darren Waller headed into 2020?

I see a complete offensive match. And even if offensive coordinator Greg Olson’s track record is totally uninspiring, Arthur Smith had no track record headed into 2019 as he had spent the last six years working with tight ends.

Turning it on the defense then, the bar isn’t as high as it seems. Tennessee’s best players on defense were defensive lineman Jurrell Casey (now with the Broncos), free safety Kevin Byard, cornerback Adoree’ Jackson, and linebackers Jayon Brown, Rashaan Evans and Harold Landry.

Should the Raiders feel heavily outmatched in talent? Is there talent in them hills?

Of their best players, really only Logan Ryan, Casey, and Byard had proven to be high quality players at the pro level going into the season. Evans had been the 22nd overall pick in 2018 and barely got his feet wet as a rookie. Landry was the 41st overall pick in that class and in a similar situation.

Well, the Raiders picked Johnathan Abram with the 19th overall pick in 2019 and he didn’t get his feet wet at all as a rookie. They’ll be counting on him to have a similar impact as someone like Evans, just at a different position, and 40th overall pick Trayvon Mullen is also going into year two. The same will go for fourth overall pick Clelin Ferrell, who had the same number of sacks in the same number of games as what Landry had as a rookie. As their defensive bonus, Maxx Crosby came in as a fourth round pick and posted 10 sacks from the edge, already eclipsing what Landry had in 2019 with nine sacks.

How’s that for a comparable core of defensive players?

Add to that free agent signees Cory Littleton, Nick Kwiatkoski, Maliek Collins, Damarious Randall, and Prince Amukamara, the Raiders believe they’ve got enough good players to at least be an average defense. Remember that Tennessee doesn’t only start Jurrell Casey and Harold Landry, but also had “OK” vets like Kenny Vaccaro, Ryan, Malcolm Butler, DaQuan Jones, Kamalei Correa and Wesley Woodyard.

My bar isn’t to project the Raiders as an elite defense but as a defense that could be 16th in the NFL. If the 2019 Titans is what that looks like, I don’t see a reason that the 2020 Raiders can’t also do that. The names give me plenty enough confidence for average.

Something, something, special teams. (Too much variance anyway.)

From 2018 to 2019, the Titans kept most things the same, had the same record, and went to the playoffs by tapping into their point reserves after a switch at quarterback in Week 7.

Las Vegas is looking to go from 7-9 to at least 9-7 after mostly keeping things the same on offense, re-tooling a lot on defense, and hoping that there’s more talent buried within Derek Carr — or Marcus Carr-iota — than he or anyone else knows about. It’s not just that I think that it is possible for the Raiders to do like the Titans, get really hot, rush for a lot of yards, and play well enough on defense to make a playoff run ...

It’s that I think it is so possible it’s worth deep excavation during Optimism August.

Now something else, and please don’t be insulted if I speak about this: playoffs. Let’s talk about playoffs. Now to my mind, it’s an abomination to consider that any man, woman, or child in this magnificent country of ours should have to look upon a January football game as a luxury. We’re going to add offensive linemen here. Adding offensive linemen means blocking; blocking means rushing yards. We’re going to pass for first downs here where before it just simply was impossible. You’re going to have more State Farm endorsements than you know what to do with. Playoffs will be coming right out of your ears, ma’am.

I assure you ladies and gentlemen, that if we do find talent here, and I think there’s a very good chance that we will, this community of yours will not only survive, it will flourish.