Disclaimer: No, writing an article about how I quit writing doesn’t make any sense. You’re brilliant. Kudos on connecting those dots, let me know when you catch the Zodiac Killer. My twitter handle is @Larstradamus.
I’ve written nearly 400 articles about the Oakland/Las Vegas Raiders in my time as a sportswriter for various sites. I got my start on MySpace, believe it or not, writing bulletins about how the 2006 Raiders (the worst team in franchise history) have a bright future because they gave the eventual Super Bowl Champion Indianapolis Colts a really tough run. I moved onto blogging sites before getting my first shot with a sportswriting network. After that, I worked with the fantastic people at the Raider Ramble before starting two sites of my own, including this one. For 15 years, I wrote about the Raiders, and through JaMarcus Russell and Sebastian Janikowski’s 76 yard field goal attempt to the never-ending Derek Carr debate, and until this year, I loved it.
Let me tell you why the Raiders fail to get over the hump. Whether you blame Mark Davis, Jon Gruden, Mike Mayock, Paul Guenther, Derek Carr, or the Warrior Pigeon, let me tell you why you’re right… and also, why you’re wrong. Let me tell you why after 15 years of good money, better people, and dreadful football, I’m not going to write about the Raiders anymore.
The Raider Reality: How This Team Made Me Quit Writing
Rejoice, Carr Stans. First and foremost, the Las Vegas Raiders have an absolutely putrid defense. For “fun,” I decided to look up the PYTS. No, not those PYTs, I mean points, yards, turnovers, and sacks. Dating back to 2010, the Raiders defense has been 26th in points allowed, 22nd in yards allowed, 24th in turnovers forced, and 23rd in sacks. What is really crazy about those numbers? They’re inflated by the 2010 team, that was 11th in yards allowed and fifth in sacks. They had the second best passing defense in the league, partially because of the third worst run defense and the decade’s most underrated player, Nnamdi Asomugha.
By “arbitrarily” only counting the years since 2014, those numbers drop to 26th, 23rd, (still) 24th, and 27th. Teams like the Jacksonville Jaguars have built and destroyed an elite defense over that span. It feels mathematically improbable for the Raiders to have been this bad on defense for as long as they have, but they haven’t ranked top ten in points or yards allowed since 2006 (Seriously, Nnamdi Asomugha belongs in Canton), the year they only won two games.
Last year, many fans would argue that quarterback Derek Carr had a very good year, and if you look at the numbers, his defense… basically gave up what number four put on paper.
This defense was absolutely miserable, and it’s incredible that the Raiders managed to win eight games. They were 29th in forced turnovers, yards per drive, and sacks. Only one team gave up more points per drive, and they were 27th in plays per drive. The Raiders defense allowed a score on 50.3% of their drives, were 30th on third down, and were the worst team in the league on fourth down.
The quarterbacks grabbed the headlines, but both Super Bowl participants this year were top ten in points allowed and turnovers forced. The same is true for the 2019 Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers. The year before that, the Rams were only 17th in points allowed, but they did join the Patriots (who were seventh in points allowed) in the top ten for turnovers forced. The one time in the last 11 years that the Raiders were top 10 in turnovers forced? They won 12 games and made the playoffs.
The Raiders have been objectively horrible on defense. The Raiders have made more stops on twitter than they have on a football field since the website was launched.
Having said that… the Raiders have not been perfect on offense. And frankly, the 2006 Indianapolis Colts and 2011 New York Giants prove that you don’t have to be perfect on defense to win a Super Bowl. Ironically, those 2011 New York Giants, who gave up the 27th most yards in the league, beat the Patriots, who gave up the 31st most. There’s a correlation between good defense and championships, but an elite offense can compensate.
The Raiders have not had an elite offense.
Don’t get me wrong, on paper, in the most superficial of ways, the 2020 Las Vegas Raiders had a great offense. They had the trifecta, a 4,000 yard passer (Derek Carr), a 1,000 yard rusher (Josh Jacobs), a 1,000 yard receiver (Darren Waller). Few teams scored more or turned the ball over less. They didn’t turn the ball over a lot, they controlled time of possession, and did all of the other cliche things you ask from an offense. We’ll get back to this in a second.
Because while the 2020 offense was “good”… the other ten? Not so much. Revisiting the PYT’s from earlier, the Raiders offense has been 20th in points, 17th in yards, and 19th in turnovers. As bad as the defense? No way. But in no way, shape, or form good enough to compete with the good teams in the NFL. Especially considering league MVPs like Patrick Mahomes and Peyton Manning have terrorized the division during that time.
Even in that magical 2016 season, they weren’t top five in anything offensively except avoiding turnovers. People forget that while Derek Carr had a “MVP caliber year,” Matt Ryan was the one that had over 1,000 more yards, as well as ten more touchdowns. This mystical season that Raiders fans obsess over saw Oakland’s offense rank right around where Las Vegas’ did this year, the difference being this guy named Khalil Mack and about a dozen defensive takeaways.
But that’s the argument, isn’t it? If the Raiders just had a competent defense, the 2020 Raiders were right there. They did outscore the eventual AFC Champions in their two games, nearly securing the sweep. All I’ve heard all off-season is how elite the offense was, if only they had a remotely competent defense. And they’re almost right. Almost.
Dirty Little Secrets
Because while the Raiders offense is brilliant on paper, there are some glaring issues underneath the surface. Sure, Derek Carr doesn’t throw a lot of interceptions… but that doesn’t he hasn’t turned the ball over. Playing in 16 games and only throwing nine interceptions is awesome, but when you consider Carr led the NFL in fumbles lost (eight), that diminishes the figure a bit. If you count turnovers instead of interceptions, Carr had 17 this year, trailing only Carson Wentz (on the trade block), Kirk Cousins, and Drew Lock (who had quite a few of those turnovers against the aforementioned not-good-enough Raiders defense).
It doesn’t help that both the Raiders offensive line and their coach, Tom Cable, are overrated. Rodney Hudson (the best center in football) is an elite pass blocker, but a so-so run blocker. Kolton Miller is a good-not-great left tackle. And outside of that, you can’t count on anybody. Trent Brown has rarely been available, the aging Richie Incognito missed most of the 2020 season, and Gabe Jackson is great on a good day and dreadful on a bad day. Josh Jacobs being an absolute tank, and Derek Carr’s proclivity for quicker passes have the NFL and their fans talking about a position group that is a weakness like it is a strength.
And maybe that’s why they’re one of the worst redzone offenses in football. How does a team that scores more than all but two teams, rarely turns the ball over (despite alllllll those fumbles), and is top ten in starting field position, time of possession, plays per drive, and drives ending in points only fringe top ten in points per game? Because they were 23rd in the league in redzone touchdown percentage last year. They got to the redzone 59 times on 169 drives, that’s basically a third of their drives, and they only walked away with 32 redzone touchdowns. A top three tight end in football, a top ten running back, arguably the best fullback, and a head coach synonymous with Spider 2Y Banana, and they got into the endzone on a little over half of their redzone oppurtunities. The Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers had two more opportunities than the Raiders, and scored ten more touchdowns.
For fun, I compared the PYT’s of two 8-8 Raider teams, the offensively loaded 2020 squad and Tom Cable’s 2010 team, and the 2010 squad was actually better. You can’t compare specific numbers to to eras past, as stats are inflated, but you can compare rankings. And the Raiders were, relatively speaking, better at scoring, and universally better on defense. For a franchise that’s “come a long way,” things certainly have come full circle.
Here’s the meat of this article. I said the defense was the reason the Raiders missed the playoffs this year, so now, it’s only fair that I talk about this quarterback. Here it is, the big zinger. Are you ready? Buckle up, because here comes the dish!
Derek Carr is… a top ten quarterback in the NFL. If you look at the whole field, Derek Carr is a top ten quarterback. You absolutely can win a Super Bowl with Derek Carr as your quarterback. If number four went to San Francisco, with that defense? They’d have to be considered favorites to win the whole thing. I feel the same way about Chicago. I think he could make the Washington Football Team a contender. Here’s the issue.
I truly believe Derek Carr can win a Super Bowl, but I don’t think he can win a Super Bowl for the Raiders.
For all the reasons that Derek Carr’s staunchest defenders have gone to bat for him, questionable coaching (we’ll get there), a bad supporting cast (we’ll get there), dreadful defenses, constant coaching turnover, injuries, some shoddy officiating, and what looks to be a first ballot Hall of Fame quarterback on a much better coached, far more talented division rival, Derek Carr isn’t good enough. He is a top ten quarterback, but it would take a top three quarterback to overcome the adversity Derek Carr has faced, and will likely continue to face as a Raider.
I’m not going to get into his politics, his social media, his brothers, or what happened on that night in Washington. That’s irrelevant to me because nobody seems to care about any of that when the team is winning. Do I think he should be holding his teammates more accountable? Probably, that’s why Nelson Agholor is the picture on this article.
Derek Carr will be thirty when next season starts, and just looking at the tools the Raiders have to improve, it’s hard to imagine Gus Bradley, who I like, is going to fix this defense overnight. Meanwhile there are issues on the offensive line, no true standout at receiver, and as fantastic as Darren Waller is, he’s Carr’s age. If the Raiders knocked three straight off-seasons out of the park, the team would be competitive with Kansas City, and Derek Carr would be older than Russell Wilson is right now… and not as good.
That’s the joke of the Derek Carr debate. They are looking at the same picture, seeing the same thing, and arguing about it. Carr’s “stans” see that Carr is good, and all they ask is that the Raiders put a team around him so he can compete. Carr’s “haters” see how bad the team around Carr is, and know he can’t get the job done on his own. Maybe Deshaun Watson or Wilson could? Who knows? All I know is that some people are willing to take that risk, a leap of faith, with a Lombardi on the other side, and some are hoping the mountain Carr is standing on grows so he can reach it naturally.
And both sides have settled in and made it emotional now. I have flip-flopped on my Derek Carr stance because frankly, he isn’t the most consistent guy, but some people will defend him when he plays poorly and some people will criticize him when he plays well because it isn’t even about Derek Carr or the Raiders anymore, it’s about disagreeing with people you don’t like on the internet.
But sadly, because Derek is THAT good? Jon Gruden will keep him. He won’t move on, he’ll desperately shuffle pieces around to try and build a contender, but as much as I talked about a world where the Raiders rock three off-seasons? I don’t think they can, because of the people behind the wheel.
THE GENERAL MANAGER
Mike Mayock, once a highly respected draft analyst on the NFL Network, has had nine picks in the first three rounds over his first two drafts, including five in the first round. Two years probably isn’t enough time to determine whether or not a player will be good. Not everyone hits the ground running like Justin Jefferson or Nick Bosa. Some players need a little bit of time to develop, and if we’re honest, it’s not like the Raiders have provided the most nurturing environment for young players. That’s not to say he hasn’t made some good picks.
Josh Jacobs is an exceptional player. He’s had to overcome some bad blocking (and even worse play-calling), but he’s played well. Trayvon Mullen has had some bad moments, but he looks like he has the potential to be a very good corner in this league. Maxx Crosby has shown some flashes, even registering double digit sacks in his rookie season, and that’s despite playing under Paul Guenther. Foster Moreau lost snaps to an aged Jason Witten this year, but he has also played well when given the opportunity, and it’s hard to think of a better slot receiver than the shifty Hunter Renfrow.
Having said that… some picks have had a rough start. His first pick, Clelin Ferrell, has six and a half sacks in 26 games. Devin White, the next player taken, is not a pass rusher, but he managed to have six sacks in 15 games this year, and might be the best linebacker in football. Johnathan Abram is an alpha male with a propensity for throwing haymakers, but to say he leaves a lot to be desired in coverage is an understatement. And while I have plenty of patience for Henry Ruggs III, who was hampered by injuries, playcalling, and potentially his quarterback, corner Damon Arnette has done little to justify how high Mayock picked him.
The same people that argue Mike Mayock has done a good job as a general manager will argue that Carr doesn’t have the offensive line, the weapons, or the defense to be competitive. If Mayock didn’t draft Carr, and Carr is the “only good player on the team,” then how is he good at his job?
The only true superstar the Las Vegas Raiders have is tight end Darren Waller, who Jon Gruden discovered on Baltimore’s practice squad the year before Mayock arrived. So far, Mayock has drafted as many Pro Bowlers (Josh Jacobs) as he has players he’s traded away (Lynn Bowden Jr.). The 2021 draft will be very telling about Mayock’s actual ability as a draft wizard… which is unfortunate, because we know who the man behind the curtain really is.
When Jon Gruden traded Khalil Mack in late 2018, I remember telling my friend that if he didn’t deliver a championship, he’d be the worst thing that ever happened to this franchise. If Gruden closed up shop right now, riding off into the sunset with Cindy and Deuce, this is how his Silver and Black legacy reads…
- Coached in the Tuck Rule game that created Tom Brady.
- Eviscerated the Raiders in the Super Bowl by using his knowledge of the playback.
- Trading the franchise’s first Defensive Player of the Year award winner since 1980 (Lester Hayes belongs in Canton as well).
There have been moments, however brief they may be, where Jon Gruden has looked like a genius. Khalil Mack has as many playoff wins as the Raiders since he was traded, and the Silver and Black have looked playoff bound on multiple times over the last two years. Jon Gruden is an offensive coach, and his offense was top ten in points, yards, passing yards, passing interceptions (only 10), rushing touchdowns, yards per attempt, turnovers, yards per drive, points per drive, and percentage of drives ending in points.
But, like we discussed, the Raider offense is a bit superficially good, isn’t it? Much like Las Vegas itself, there’s a seedy darkside to the shiny, pretty exterior. I blamed a shoddy offensive line for a lot of the Raider struggles, but there were some asinine coaching decisions as well. I listed his Silver and Black legacy, why not list the things he did this year that drove me insane.
- Ran it out of the shotgun on third and two.
- Designed screens to Jason Witten.
- Drew up redzone plays for Jason Witten.
- Played Jason Witten instead of Foster Moreau, despite the fact that six of Moreau’s seven career touchdowns came in the redzone.
- Came out in the most obvious run formations, with a fullback and three tight ends, before handing it off to Josh Jacobs and wondering why he didn’t score.
- Keeping Paul Guenther as long as he did.
- Lacking imagination with Henry Ruggs III. If you’re going to draft a guy to be “your Tyreek Hill,” maybe use him like Kansas City uses Tyreek Hill.
- Starting a not-100% Derek Carr over Marcus Mariota in a must-win game.
- Settling for field goals when the team needed touchdowns. Being down two scores, kicking a field goal, and still being down two scores, is not what a smart coach does, ask Matt LaFleur.
- Not kicking his team’s ass when they were flat in practice before pivotal game versus the Atlanta Falcons
And those are just the greatest hits from this year. It’s so frustrating to look at the list of things this team needs and seeing dynamic wide receiver (Amari Cooper) and pass rusher (Khalil Mack), and knowing they’re not Raiders because of his ego.
Decembers to Remember
In the months of September, October, and November, Jon Gruden is 88-69. That’s not bad. But in December? He’s 28-41. That means to start the year, his teams average a 6-5 record, hovering around .500, and then disaster strikes and they go 2-3. Something happens to Jon Gruden at Thanksgiving every year that completely derails his season. Hell, Jon Gruden hasn’t had a winning season since George W. Bush was President of the United States, and even then, he finished 9-7 after starting 9-3.
Eerily similar to how Gruden’s teams will often start hot and then falter as they fail to put opponents away (Paging the Los Angeles Chargers and Miami Dolphins), Gruden’s teams seem to lose traction as the post-season approaches. Jon Gruden is not getting it done as a head coach, and to date, is not worth the contract that Mark Davis gave him.
The absolute worst thing about Jon Gruden has nothing to do with Jon Gruden. The worst thing about Jon Gruden, is how Jon Gruden’s boss feels about Jon Gruden.
I work really hard at my day job. I nearly always tease or reach overtime, I wear many, many hats, and I don’t think any of my coworkers would argue that I’m the most valuable employee we have, I’m that good. But do you know what would happen if that changed? If next week, I stopped performing at that level? If I failed to reach my employer’s expectations? I would be fired. I’d have a tense, uncomfortable conversation with my boss and someone from HR. And I’m okay with that, because a gear is only good when it’s spinning.
The threat of being fired if my work ethic should falter helps keep me motivated. It holds me accountable. I’m a competitive person (who has bills to pay), and I pride myself on my work ethic, but there are definitely sick days I didn’t take because that little voice in the back of my head says job security is an oxymoron.
Jon Gruden doesn’t have to worry about this. The man they call “Chucky” has seven years left on his 10-year, $100 million contract, the longest for a coach in NFL history. That means, even if Mark Davis fired Gruden tomorrow, he would be getting paid handsomely to “not” coach the Raiders for more than half a decade. So even though Gruden’s second tenure with the team has produced a 19-29 record thus far, his seat is far from warm.
Mark and Chucky
And sadly, even if the Raiders continue their commitment to mediocrity for the next seven years, I don’t believe Davis would fire Gruden. The maverick’s son is infatuated with Jon Gruden, to the point where he told Jack Del Rio during the hiring process that he would rather have Gruden. Imagine getting married, and during your vows, your spouse says, “I wouldn’t be marrying you if my ex would take me back.”
That’s next-level unreciprocated love. Severus Snape thinks Mark Davis might be a little obsessed. Joe Goldberg thinks Mark Davis should give Jon Gruden some space. Helga from “Hey Arnold” wonders if maybe, Davis’ feelings for Gruden are a little inappropriate. Desiring a football coach your dad traded nearly two decades earlier enough to undermine your current coach, before essentially handing him a blank check.
Donald Trump was President when Gruden returned. Now, Joe Biden is President. The next Presidential election is in 2024, and Gruden will still be collecting paychecks from Mark Davis in the election after that in 2028. Mark Davis gave this contract to a man that hadn’t coached in ten years, and hasn’t won a playoff game since 2002, when George W. Bush was President.
If Mark Davis is going to be making football decisions (which he claimed he wouldn’t do back in 2012), he needs to be held accountable too. His father may have made some bad football decisions, but he never would’ve tolerated this kind of sustained mediocrity. If Jon Gruden makes it to year five without a playoff appearance, will Davis be able to pull the plug on his infatuation?
The Not-So-Silver (and Black) Lining
Am I going to stop being a fan of the Las Vegas Raiders? No. I’ve invested hundreds and hundreds of hours (and dollars) into this franchise, and for the little voice in my heart that says “they might be good again” someday, I can’t bring myself to root for another team. I can’t bring myself to disavow this storied, if absolutely dismal team. I’ll still be watching the Silver and Black every time they suit up on Saturday, Sunday, Monday, or Thursday.
Once upon a time, the Raiders were “fun” bad. Al Davis fired Lane Kiffin via overhead projector. They lured Marshawn Lynch out of retirement. If someone ran sub-4.2, the Raiders were taking him in the first round, even if he wasn’t a first round talent. Even during four-win seasons, the Raiders maintained a mystique, a swagger, by doing things their way. The Raiders were the outlaws, and I was more than happy to pontificate about them, searching for a reason to the madness.
But writing about a team that seems destined to teeter around .500 in Patrick Mahomes’ AFC West? Well, to quote… myself, “if you don’t love it, and you don’t need it, don’t do it.” Once upon a time, the Raiders were “The Pirates of the Caribbean,” a lovable ragtag group of renegades that took what they wanted, and gave nothing back. These days, they’re more like the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, a cheap knock-off cash grab desperate for a sliver of the charm that once made them great.
If the Raiders prove me wrong, and I desperately hope they do, starting a streak of dominance in the AFC, I’ll be watching… as a fan.