The Collapse of the Oakland Raiders

In 2016, the Oakland Raiders were finally back. After 14 years without a winning record, the Silver and Black went 12-4 and returned to the playoffs for the first time since losing to Tampa Bay in the Super Bowl. This was a team on the rise. They had a young stud at quarterback. They had a defensive player of the year. They had a brash coach who was unafraid to gamble with the game on the line. It seemed like the Raiders were once again in the mix to compete for a championship.

DeAndre Washington, Derek Carr
Carr is already fourth in franchise history for passing yardage and touchdowns in just his fifth season. (Wikimedia Commons)

That 2016 season ended in bitter disappointment. Third-year quarterback Derek Carr suffered a season-ending injury in week 16. The Raiders lost their final regular season game with rookie Connor Cook under center. That loss cost Oakland the division and a first-round bye in the playoffs. Instead, the Raiders had to travel to Houston to play against the vaunted Texans defense in the Wild Card round. Cook struggled mightily in the game and the Raiders lost 27-14, ending their season.

Many felt that had Carr stayed healthy, that team could have made a deep run in the postseason. After all, Oakland had seven Pro Bowlers and three players named to the AP All-Pro team. Still, despite the abrupt end to the season, it seemed like the Raiders were poised for another great season in 2017.

That great season never came. Oakland struggled through the 2017 season, facing a much tougher schedule. The 2016 Raiders had the 15th hardest schedule in the league. The 2017 Raiders had the fourth. Injuries limited the team as offensive tackle Donald Penn finished the season on IR. So did Oakland’s first two picks in the 2017 draft. Oakland still had bright spots. Khalil Mack dominated, becoming the first player ever to be named first-team All-Pro at two different positions in the same season.

However, in addition to the tougher schedule, there are some easy things to point to as the reason for regression. The offense fell off a cliff. The Raiders gained 50 fewer yards of offense per game and scored eight fewer points per contest. Not exactly a recipe for success. Oakland also went from the top team in turnover ratio in 2016 to tied for 29th in 2017. That was a swing over 30 possessions, roughly two per game. That could help explain some of the scoring and yardage difference.

After a 6-6 start, the Raiders finished the season on a four-game losing streak. That cost Jack Del Rio his job as the head coach. Little did we know, he would be the first of many crucial pieces to leave Oakland.

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Gruden is 101-88 in his career as a head coach, including the playoffs. (Wikimedia Commons)

It ended up being a tumultuous offseason for the Raiders. During the 2017 season, the team announced it would be moving to Las Vegas for the 2020 season. The fan base was already unsettled as a result. Then the Raiders signed Jon Gruden to a massive deal, reportedly worth about $100 million over 10 years.

Here’s the thing, Gruden hasn’t coached a football team in 10 years. His last gig was as the Buccaneers coach from 2002 to 2008. He did win a Super Bowl during that first season, beating none other than the Oakland Raiders.

The move made a lot of sense from the story perspective. Gruden had been the head coach of the Raiders 1998 to 2001, only to be forced out by former Raiders owner Al Davis. Gruden has said he feels like there is a lot that he would like to do to finish his legacy in Oakland.

When you pay a coach that much money though, it makes it really difficult to explain to your players that you can’t pay them. The team elected to extend Derek Carr’s contract with a lucrative deal that was the richest in NFL history for a short period of time. It seemed like the logical move, until the consequences quickly followed.

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Mack signed a six-year $141-million contract, the richest for a defense player in NFL history, after joining the Bears. (Wikimedia Commons) 

Khalil Mack is one of the best defensive players in NFL history, yet the Raiders did not pay him. Mack held out all summer long in hopes of landing a new contract. It never came, at least not from Oakland. Just before the start of the season, Gruden shipped Mack to Chicago for a package of draft picks. Mack has been a beast through the first four weeks of the NFL season. He is tied for second in the league with five sacks. He also leads the league with four forced fumbles alongside J.J. Watt, and has an interception.

The loss of Mack leaves the Raiders seemingly in a rebuild mode. Oakland has started the season 1-3 and shows no signs of turning it around. It needed overtime and a bit of assistance from the officials to pull off the victory and avoid what would have been a truly terrible start to 2018. The Raiders have scored the fifth fewest points this season. Apparently, Gruden does not really know how to rebuild either.

Thinking about it, it’s not too shocking considering this is a franchise known for the mantra “Just Win Baby.” The Raiders were never good at rebuilding. They struggled to do so for the aforementioned 14 years without a winning record. Oakland failed to draft well or attract free agents to help turn the franchise around. The environment for this Raiders franchise has been toxic for years. Even when it did bring in top-tier talent, like Randy Moss or Charles Woodson for the second time, it couldn’t convert that into true success. Looking at this Raiders team now, one that is going to require a ton of roster turnover and a general talent overhaul, Gruden has not positioned himself to rebuild in the coming years.

Oakland has the oldest roster in the NFL. The Raiders on average are 27.32 years old, according to Spotrac. The next youngest team is the Atlanta Falcons at 27. Oakland is more than a full year older than the league average. It also has the most players signed over the age of 30. Gruden has built a team ready to win this season, but it will come nowhere close to even making it to the playoffs. Gruden is also burying Marquel Lee and Karl Joseph, young players with bright futures, on the depth chart.

At this point just two years ago. The Raiders were 3-1 and seemed like a team destined to compete for the next several years. Today, this team is years away from competing. Gruden has one hell of a task ahead of him and this organization has some explaining to do as to how quickly it let the team fall into turmoil.

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Who takes over after Brady?

I hate to break it to you Patriots fans, but Tom Brady can’t play forever. The legendary New England quarterback is in his 16th year in the league, and while he hasn’t shown signs of slowing down, at age 39, you have to think he will be looking to hang up those cleats in the next 2-3 years.

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Brady surpassed Peyton Manning’s record of 200 career wins this season. (Wikimedia Commons)

With Brady being the undisputed (or as close as you can ever get to undisputed in sports) best quarterback in the league, his eventual retirement will open the door for someone else to take that crown.

Brady represents the end of a very dominant era, where he and Peyton Manning rewrote the record books practically every year. They squared off in some of the most memorable games of the last decade and consistently drew in viewers whenever the two matched up. Manning is already gone and with Brady set to follow in the near future, who exactly will step up to fill the void.

It is kind of hard to say. The iconic 2004 draft class of quarterbacks featuring Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers likely still have a few more years in them. However, Rivers turned 35 today, Roethlisberger will be 35 in March and Eli Manning turns 36 in January. That group likely won’t be around for a whole lot longer to constitute an era or start an awe-inspiring rivalry. Most of their time in the league will be remembered as part of the legendary Brady-Peyton era.

Aaron Rodgers
Rodgers has an MVP award and a Super Bowl ring to his name since taking over for Brett Favre in Green Bay. (Wikimedia Commons)

You next look to Aaron Rodgers, who joined the league in 2005. Rodgers just turned 33 last week, so he might be able to hang around a little longer than the three I just mentioned. However, he might have already started showing signs of slowing down with his rocky start to 2016. I could see Rodgers having a three-year run as the unquestioned top signal-caller. He might be the best-suited to succeed Brady in the short term. Keep in mind that even though this is his 12th NFL season, Rodgers did not start his first three years in the league, so he might have a bit more left in the tank than we think.

After Rodgers, well I’m kind of stuck. Drew Brees is a Hall of Famer, but approaching 38, I’m not expecting him to take over. Carson Palmer is on his way out as well. As will Alex Smith.

There is an interesting crop of three quarterbacks that offer some intrigue. Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson and Cam Newton all bring a lot to the table. All three of them are 28 years old or younger, all three are rather mobile and all three have the ability to take over a football game.

The major knocks against Newton are his ball security and his completion percentage. For his career, Newton sits at around 59 percent through almost 6 seasons. While he may be a huge asset with his legs, he is prone to fumbling and trying to do too much with the ball, often leading to mistakes. Another big red flag is that despite tossing 35 touchdowns in 2015, it is the only season he has thrown more than 25 scores. This year, he has just 14 through 12 games. Those numbers don’t exactly scream elite.

Luck was named the heir apparent to the NFL quarterback throne around his junior year of college. He started with two solid campaigns, followed by an outstanding 2014, only to fall into a weird funk for the last year and a half. 2015 was a lost season for Luck as he only played 7 games and likely played all of them hurt. The big knock against him has to be his lackluster completion percentage, which is only fractionally better than Newton’s. He also has a tendency for interceptions, with 63 picks in 66 career games. Part of that is due to the amount of pressure he faces. Luck is the most sacked quarterback in the league despite missing a game already this year. Luck is actually trending up after the last few weeks we’ve seen him play. Even though he has a poor supporting cast, Luck has failed to live up to Manning-sized expectations laid on him back in 2012.

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Wilson has already played in two Super Bowls, winning one. (Wikimedia Commons)

Then there is Wilson. He already has a Super Bowl ring. Point all you want to a great run game and defense, but that’s a good chunk of why Brady got his first three rings. Of these three, he seems the most poised to take the throne. Wilson has only 39 interceptions in 72 career games. He is closing in on his second consecutive 4,000-yard season and his career completion percentage is around 65 percent. However, when Wilson is off, he is really off. In Seattle’s three losses this year, he has thrown zero touchdowns, three picks and has a yards per attempt average under 6.5. If I had to pick someone long term when it comes to taking up the quarterback mantel, it would be Wilson. He already has that championship background and I could see him getting more.

And he might just have a West Coast rival to deal with as well. There are a number of intriguing young quaterbacks in the league right now in Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston, Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott. Long term, we might see a really fun rivalry between Prescott and Wentz, both being in the NFC East. However, there is one young quarterback that stands head and shoulders above the rest.

Derek Carr
Carr was the fourth quarterback in the 2014 draft, but looks to be the best one selected that year. (Wikimedia Commons)

Derek Carr is in the midst of an MVP-caliber season. At only 25 years old, Carr has been lighting up NFL defenses all year long. He launched 32 touchdown passes a year ago, in just his second NFL season and threw for just shy of 4,000 yards. This year though, Carr is set to break that 4,000-yard mark and throw for close to 32 touchdowns again. What is more impressive though is the increased completion percentage and absence of turnovers. The young Raiders quarterback has only thrown five interceptions this year and raised his completion percentage four plus points to a healthy 65.5 percent. This is just one year for Carr, but based on the jump he has made in each of his first two seasons, I am beginning to think that this kid is for real.

I would be remiss not to mention Matt Ryan in this conversation. Ryan is in the midst of a career year at age 31. He is on pace to set career highs in completion percentage, passing touchdowns and yards per attempt as well as set a personal best for fewest interceptions thrown. If Carr is considered an MVP candidate, Ryan certainly has to be in the mix. He currently sits second in passing yards and passer rating, third in touchdowns, fourth in completion percentage and leads the league in yards per attempt. Given that he has a host of offensive weapons and a young offensive line, Ryan is set to play at a high level for the next several years. The tough thing is figuring out if 2016 is an anomaly based on his normal level of play or a sign of things to come. Also, if Brady hangs on for three more years, Ryan will already be 34 himself and running out of time to capture the league’s attention.

The world without Brady is kind of hazy and there is no telling if we will ever see the type of rivalry we saw between he and Manning. The league seems to be running out of elite quarterbacks, but we will have to wait and see who steps up to the plate in the next few years.