Don’t you just hate May? Sure, summer is just around the corner, kids are looking forward to the end of school, and everyone has vacation fever, but there’s no such thing as good NFL news. Every big NFL-related headline is about controversial political subjects or off-the-field disasters. There’s basketball and baseball if you’re so inclined, but for members of the Raider Nation, nothing is quite is like silver and black football.
So, to help ease the never-ending bore of the off-season, here’s some pure, unadulterated, unfiltered optimistic fluff about why the best fanbase in professional sports should be excited about next year’s squad.
Reasons to Be Excited About the 2018 Oakland Raiders
Jon Gruden’s Social Media Impact
What a ridiculous headline. I bet you didn’t think you’d read the words Jon Gruden and Social Media together in this article, did you? Well, while Snapchat and Instagram are hardly viable or reliable news sources, this year, Oakland’s social media has been very telling during the OTAs. In years past, the Raiders were relatively private about off-season workouts. You’d see snapshots of guys running or laughing by the water cooler, but nothing like what we’ve seen so far in head coach Jon Gruden’s return to Oakland.
For instance, this video of Carr practicing dodging the pass rush, in the sand, throwing to bag targets. This is an interesting drill anyway, because as great as Carr has been, he definitely looked flustered under pressure at points last year. You can attribute that to his injuries, a lack of faith in the offense, or just bad luck, but it’s reassuring to see Carr practicing this, especially in the sand. Planting and stepping up in the sand is actually harder than it is on turf, grass, or pavement, and you have to use more muscles to power through.
Now, I’m not saying that the Raiders are going to go 19-0 because Gruden likes his quarterbacks to go for long walks on the beach, this is just an example of something I’ve noticed, and been encouraged by this off-season. For all the flack that Coach Gruden has received for his misinterpreted “take football back to 1998” quote, it seems like he’s doing some fresh, progressive stuff.
Just from the limited peek behind the curtain the casual fans get from social media, the Raider Nation can breath a sigh of relief. It looks like Gruden is still the same super-competitive psychopath that watched film at five in the morning and pushed his players to get the best out of them, which sounds completely different than what we suffered through with Jack Del Rio last year. Speaking of which…
Oakland’s Biggest Rival
Last year, coming off of their best season in over a decade, the Raiders had their eyes set on one rival, and one rival alone, the Kansas City Chiefs. After getting his first career win against the team in his rookie year, Derek Carr had lost five in a row to Oakland’s most bitter division rival. Fortunately, Carr would have his best game to date against the Chiefs in week seven, throwing for over 400 yards and three touchdowns as the Raiders stole a dramatic last-second win. Unfortunately, the Raiders were so bad, it didn’t matter.
Now, there’s no question that the road to the AFC West title goes through Andy Reid’s Kansas City Chiefs, but as far as being competitive with a rival is concerned, the Raiders shouldn’t be worried about the Chiefs just yet. They shouldn’t be worried about the Denver Broncos or the Los Angeles Chargers either. The Oakland Raiders should be trying to compete with… the Oakland Raiders.
Words like apathetic, enabling, and impotent could be used to describe the way that Jack Del Rio ran the Raiders last year. His coordinators failed to assemble a logical game-plan, he failed to develop younger players, and when his locker room was divided, he was helpless. Much like the Raiders of old, the veterans were allowed to skate by, unchallenged and unmotivated.
Gruden’s Raiders aren’t going to be anything like that. The signings of older veterans like Leon Hall, Jordy Nelson, and Derrick Johnson send a clear message to the younger Raiders, and that message is that potential is meaningless until it becomes production. If Gruden and general manager Reggie McKenzie can find someone with veteran savvy to come in for cheap and play better, than they can be replaced. We’ve seen that already with Gruden swapping Michael Crabtree for Jordy Nelson.
The new/old ball coach is not going to let complacency fester on the roster. He’s going to demand the best out of his players, and if reports from OTAs are any indication, he’s getting it so far. I can only think of one other coach in football who follows this philosphy strictly, and that’s New England’s Bill Belichick, a controversial figure that Gruden and the Raiders are all too familiar with.
It’s hard to look at a defense that was historically bad at forcing turnovers, couldn’t generate a pass rush until it was far too late, and that gave up at least 30 points five times, and to say they’re underrated, but they really were. Between Jack Del Rio and Ken Norton Jr, this team’s defensive scheme made no sense.
Pass rusher Bruce Irvin dropped back in coverage on 17% of his plays under Ken Norton Jr, which is blasphemous when you think about how thin Oakland was at pass rusher. Norton’s defensive scheme was nonsense, and it’s not like Del Rio was drawing up plays in the dirt to make anything better.
Paul Guenther, Oakland’s new defensive coordinator, is far more qualified and equipped for the job than Ken Norton Jr. was. Guenther was Gruden’s first pick for the position, and it’s easy to see why. He’s a creative mind that studied under Minnesota’s Mike Zimmer, and knows how to maximize production (he made a pro bowler out of the undrafted Vontaze Burfict) and create chaos on the defensive side of the ball.
Not to mention, people forget just how banged up the Raiders were on defense. Oakland’s first and second round picks, defensive backs Gareon Conley and Obi Melifonwu, basically missed the entire pre and regular season with injuries. Veteran corners David Amerson and Antonio Hamilton were banged up for most of the year as well, and when you look at some of the additions the team has made, namely Rashaan Melvin, Marcus Gilchrist, and Tahir Whitehead, and the defense is almost guaranteed dramatic improvement.
If you’re active on the wild world that is Nation twitter, you’ve undoubtedly seen the hashtag regarding Clapback Carr. Two years removed from a season where he threw 32 touchdown passes, and one year removed from being a veritable MVP candidate, a nightmare of a season gave Carr’s critics a ton of ammunition.
Suffering from a variety of injuries, a broken locker room, and a catatonic offensive gameplan, Carr had his worst season as a starter and had many lazy analysts with an axe to grind saying that he was overrated and didn’t deserve his contract. Ignoring the simplicity of supply and demand as it relates to the quarterback position, anyone who actually watched the Raiders play last year knows that while it certainly wasn’t Carr’s best work, it wasn’t entirely his fault either.
This season, with a loaded offense, Carr is set to bounce back in a huge way. If rookie Kolton Miller is even adequate on the line, Carr will enjoy the best protection of his career, a strong run game, and more receivers than he knows what to do with. “The Chosen One” is set to have his best year yet.
The Silver (and Black) Lining
Last year sucked. The Silver and Black came in with all the hype in the world, and for 1,000 reasons, they didn’t live up to their expectations. In a way, the 2017 Oakland Raiders were more frustrating than the teams that lived inside the top five between 2003 and 2016 because they were just too good to be that bad.
But by just making a few quick observations, it’s obvious that there are a ton of reasons to be excited about next year’s Raiders. Here’s hoping that I’m right and that this isn’t just another in a long-series of overly optimistic off-season fluff pieces.