HENDERSON, Nev. — The Las Vegas Raiders‘ vaunted starting offensive line, which has a combined salary-cap number of more than $46.76 million for 2020, has played three snaps together this season.
The Raiders, as an organization and as individuals, have been fined close to $1.2 million, and they were docked a sixth-round draft pick for violating COVID-19 protocols. Team owner Mark Davis, in telling ESPN the fines were “draconian,” said the Raiders have made great strides in battling the virus and would appeal said fines.
And the first draft class in Las Vegas history has been mostly invisible. Even coach Jon Gruden joked recently he “pretty much forgot” who the Raiders drafted in this era of a virtual draft and offseason.
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“Virtual,” Gruden grumbled, “is for the birds.”
And yet here the Raiders are, flying high at 5-3 midway through Gruden’s third season of a massive rebuild. (Six players on the current 53-man roster appeared in a game for the Raiders before Gruden returned in 2018.) They are thriving on adversity, self-inflicted and otherwise, and winning games in all manners despite constant lineup shuffling, distractions and, yeah, the NFL’s toughest schedule through the season’s first eight weeks, per ESPN’s Football Power Index.
How did they get here? Silver and Black smoke and mirrors?
“Well, adversity sometimes is a perception,” Gruden said this week. “There is a lot of perception out there, and the reality is here we really like each other. We respect the job that we have done against COVID. We have fun coming to work; we have fun competing together. It’s a tight group of players and coaches, and it’s a great environment. I wish you guys could see it, but we have a lot of confidence in the next man up.
“We have a good young team, and it was a competitive training camp. We had a hard time cutting down to 53. The guys that made this team deserved to make this team, and they are going to be asked to play. Like I said, it’s a combination, I think, of good, young emerging players, competition and attention to detail.”
It is also the first time in quarterback Derek Carr‘s seven-year career he is playing in the same system for the third straight season. His comfort level is obvious, as he is letting the game come to him and again extending plays with his legs, like he did before breaking his right ankle in the penultimate game of the 2016 season.
Consider: Carr, who signed a five-year, $125 million extension in the summer of 2017 that briefly made him the highest-paid player in the history of the game, is on pace for his third straight 4,000-yard passing season, a career high-tying 32 touchdown tosses and a career-low four interceptions. He has cooled off a bit over the past two weeks but is still completing 69.8% of his passes, and his 77.2 Total QBR would be a career high.
“I love having all our guys out there,” Carr said after the Raiders improved to 4-1 on the road with Sunday’s white-knuckle 31-26 victory at the Los Angeles Chargers.
“I love putting up big numbers and all that stuff, but I’ve done those things. Been to the Pro Bowl, done that. It’s all cool. It’s fun for people to pat your back, but none of that stuff matters unless you win. You know what I’m saying?”
The myriad ways in which the Raiders have defeated the Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Kansas City Chiefs (the Super Bowl champs’ lone loss in the last calendar year), Cleveland Browns and Chargers are what has Carr excited.
“We won games where we’ve had to throw it for 300-plus yards,” he said. “We’ve won games where we’ve rushed it for 200-plus yards. Then it’s fun. This is a fun group, because, depending on what we’re seeing and depending on the adjustments, we can win in a lot of different ways. I’m really proud of the guys who have stepped up, really proud of our coaching staff for getting those guys ready.”
Those are guys like backup offensive lineman Denzelle Good, who has played right tackle and left guard and who has been called an “unsung hero” by Gruden and the “team MVP” by Carr.
It is an offense that ranks 14th overall in the NFL, 19th in passing and ninth in rushing.
And while second-year running back Josh Jacobs might not hit his goal of 60 catches (he is on pace for 38 receptions), he is on pace for 1,426 total yards. (Jacobs had 1,316 yards from scrimmage as a rookie, despite missing three of the Raiders’ final four games.)
The defense is a work in progress, ranking 23rd overall (26th against the pass, 16th against the run, 24th in points allowed per game), but it authored signature games at Kansas City and Cleveland and held on at the Chargers.
“We thrive in adversity,” said defensive end Maxx Crosby, whose five sacks are more than half of the team’s total. “Even though we make it a little bit too hard on ourselves sometimes, we’ve just got to come out with the win at the end.”
Only one team has fewer than Las Vegas’ nine sacks, and just four teams have a worse turnover differential than the Raiders’ minus-four mark.
Again, how are the Raiders on pace for a 10-6 record and just their season winning season and playoff berth since playing in Super Bowl XXXVII on Jan. 26, 2003?
“We feel good about winning four games on the road,” Gruden said. “Five of our first eight were on the road. I think we’ve been competitive week in and week out. We’ve adapted to a lot of different circumstances — missing players, missing practice, different types of weather.
“Obviously, the COVID experience has really made things bizarre and different, but I compliment our team, our players, our coaches for being able to concentrate, prepare hard and compete hard. That’s what I’m most proud of. But we still have a long way to go.”