Early Thursday morning, the Denver Broncos announced that they were hiring Nathaniel Hackett, the Green Bay Packer’s offensive coordinator, to replace Vic Fangio as their head coach. Hackett’s offenses have been pretty productive in Green Bay, and he was pretty successful with Blake Bortles in 2017 with the Jacksonville Jaguars, but the most exciting thing about Hackett has absolutely nothing to do with his coaching. To quote Dennis Reynolds, “because of the implication.”
Across the AFC West, the Las Vegas Raiders have not named a head coach or a general manager yet, and with the Broncos potentially on the verge of some major off-season acquisitions, the Silver and Black have a big decision to make.
The Nathaniel Hackett Hire Puts the Las Vegas Raiders at a Crossroads
Absolutely nothing is set in stone yet, but let’s be honest, we’re all thinking it. The Hackett hire feels like a harbinger of Aaron Rodgers’ arrival in Denver. The Broncos have remained “a quarterback away” from contending since Peyton Manning retired, and the second coming of John Elway looks to be the most recent import to save Denver’s offense. Even before the hire, the Broncos were the trendy landing spot for Brett Favre’s successor.
Assuming this comes to fruition, ignoring the possibility of a reunion with Davante Adams, we would find ourselves in a world where the AFC West has Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert, Aaron Rodgers, and… Derek Carr? Does anyone who doesn’t have “Raider” in their twitter handle think Carr is anything but dead last?
Beyond divisive Derek, the Raiders are not “a piece or two away,” despite what his brother will tell you on NFL Network. Most of the offensive line is in shambles, their only dynamic wide receiver is Hunter Renfrow, and while the defense certainly improved in 2021, they were middle of the pack in every category. That’s not to say there aren’t pieces. Darren Waller is elite when healthy, Josh Jacobs came on strong to end the season, and guys like Maxx Crosby, Tre’von Moehrig, and Nate Hobbs are players that you can build around on defense.
But being honest, without a crazy off-season, this is not a team built to contend for a title, even if they were in a weak division, which they certainly won’t be in 2022.
No, They’re Really Not
I know that there will be people who fight me on that concept. They’ll point to everything the Raiders overcame last year, and that they took a team that will be playing in the AFC Championship to the limit. There will be people that insist that in a world where Jon Gruden’s emails are left alone and Henry Ruggs III calls an uber, these Raiders are champions.
Certainly, the loss of Ruggs is one that will forever hurt the Raiders. Not just because the dynamic speedster was developing into a legitimate weapon, but because the consequences of his actions are permanent. There’s no disputing that the Raiders would’ve been better, and likely would’ve beaten teams like Washington or the Giants.
But the Raiders lost two games to the Chiefs by a combined score of 89-23. And make no mistake, if you want to contend in the AFC, you’re going to need to be able to not only compete with, but defeat the Kansas City Chiefs. They haven’t missed an AFC Championship appearance since 2018, and their worst finish in that span was an overtime loss to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. Joe Burrow’s Bengals beat the Chiefs in the regular season, and Josh Allen did just about everything he could to beat them in the post-season, and the Raiders couldn’t even tread water. One great wide receiver doesn’t fix that.
Subject: Gruden Sucked, CC: Raider Nation
Gruden’s inferno was certainly a devastating distraction, but ultimately, one of the best things that could’ve happened to the Las Vegas Raiders. Mark Davis would’ve let Jon Gruden coach the entirety of his ten year contract, and the team never would’ve won anything. Gruden’s second stint with the team was defined by trading away proven stars, whiffing on draft picks, and late-season collapses.
Yes, it was a huge distraction, but the Raiders actually won two in a row immediately following Gruden’s firing. Not only did they win those games, but they won them by double digit points. They had as many wins by double digit points in the two weeks following Gruden’s “resignation” as they did in the entirety of his second run as the head coach. And you can pretend there were unforeseen circumstances all you want, but even the players attributed Gruden’s “grinding” to why they’d always fall apart after thanksgiving.
Gruden traded away Khalil Mack and struggled to find his replacement, traded away Amari Cooper and couldn’t find dynamic receivers, and went 18-31 before him being a toxic piece of shit got him fired. His offenses ranked in the top ten in scoring as many times as they did in giveaways, and outside of inflating Derek Carr’s stats and one now-infamous bus-related upset in Kansas City, did nothing to change the franchise’s fortunes.
Gruden wouldn’t have had the empathy or compassion that Rich Bisaccia had, and while I don’t think the man should be a head coach, there’s no question that he is an incredible human being and leader. The point is, the Raiders don’t win the AFC West and make a run at a title in the alternate universe where Gruden is still the coach. In all likelihood, they don’t even make the playoffs.
If you trot out the 2021 Raiders in an AFC West that features a revamped Denver Broncos offense, you’re going to have a bad time. It’s not all Derek’s fault, and they’ll certainly address things like the receiving corps and offensive line (for the fifth straight off-season) this Summer, but the Raiders need to take a hard look in the mirror and make a realistic decision about their future.
Because the way things are, they’re not going to be competitive. They’ll be good-not-great at best, and not only will they waste the youth of players like Maxx Crosby and the prime of players like Darren Waller, but they’ll win just enough games to miss out on franchise-changing draft prospects.
So the Raiders, if they’re being realistic, have two choices, the Los Angeles way, and the Cincinnati way.
The Los Angeles Way
The Los Angeles Rams took Jared Goff with the first overall pick way back in 2016 and thought, “ya know what? This sucks. We should never do this again.” Since then, the reigning NFC West champions have not used a first round pick on a draft prospect. They’ve traded the picks away for players like Brandin Cooks, Jalen Ramsey, and Matthew Stafford. And honestly, it’s panned out pretty well. They played in the Super Bowl following the 2018 season, and will have a chance to go again when they host the NFC Championship this Sunday.
Ironically, no team has had more first round picks over that span than the Raiders. Who have Kolton Miller, Clelin Ferrell, Josh Jacobs, Johnathan Abram, and Alex Leatherwood to show for it. Would you rather have all of those guys or Jalen Ramsey? Asking for a friend.
So the Los Angeles way is simple, and very much appropriate considering the city where the Raiders play their home games. You go all in. Dip into the piggy bank and go after the big coaching name (Jim Harbaugh is reportedly interested for the right price). Draft capital be damned, go out and get proven commodities and shock the system. Sacrifice first round picks for the likes of Davante Adams and Russell Wilson. Go get those difference makers and bet on yourself to win now.
It doesn’t always work, as the Raiders learned when Hue Jackson staked his job on the arm of Carson Palmer, but as the rest of the division improves, the Silver and Black have to get creative to remain competitive.
The Cincinnati Way
Another team that could be 60 minutes away from Super Bowl Sunday are the Cincinnati Bengals. Since we went back to 2016 with the Rams, we’ll go back with the Bengals as well. Between 2016 and 2020, Cincinnati was 25-53, and since they hired Zac Taylor in 2019, they were 6-25. They finished dead last in the AFC North both years, and dead last in the NFL in 2019… and you’ve gotta feel like it was a little deliberate.
Zac Taylor’s Bengals broke the record for most passing attempts in a season with what was left of Andy Dalton and someone named Ryan Finley. When the season was lost, they hardly put up a fight. I’m not going to accuse them of tanking, but based on how well they’ve been coached this season, you have to wonder if things were askew early on in Zac’s tenure.
With the first overall pick secured, they selected LSU’s Joe Burrow, a franchise quarterback hot off the best season in college football history. And Burrow impressed in his rookie season before an injury cut it short. Still not where they needed to be, the Bengals won four games, and had a high draft pick once again… which they used on obvious-really couldn’t be anyone else-shoot me if it’s not rookie of the year, Ja’Marr Chase.
With a healthy Burrow and a new dynamic playmaker, the Bengals ran away with the AFC North, and now look cemented as the division’s new powerhouse. They’re far from perfect, the offensive line is still a sham, and things could’ve been disastrous if Burrow was anything like the last LSU quarterback to be taken first overall. But Burrow is a killer, Chase could be the best receiver in football before his rookie contract is up, and they’re closer to the Super Bowl than the Raiders have been since “How You Remind Me” by Nickelback was at the top of the charts. I wish it was a joke. It’s not.
So the Raiders, for the second time in four years, might consider a firesale and a full tank. If they don’t make big splash moves, maybe it’s time to sell the farm, bring in someone they believe can develop a good system or culture like Taylor did (I’m partial to DeMeco Ryans or Brian Flores), and pray their new GM absolutely nails his draft picks.
The Status is Not Quo
The one thing the Raiders can’t do is keep calm and carry on. Bringing back Rich Bisaccia, Greg Olson, Gus Bradley, and Derek Carr will not win a championship for this franchise. They need change this off-season, whether they’re going all in for one season or starting from scratch, or reduced versions of either philosophy, the way things have gone can not be the way things go.
Otherwise we’ll be here this time next year, 9-8 or 10-7 again, a wild card team at best, watching from the couch as the teams that bet big (namely Kansas City, who got tired of plateauing with Alex Smith and traded up to take a chance on a generational quarterback) or built from the ground up (like Buffalo, who were willing to struggle in order to get the missing pieces) win championships.