Every cloud has a silver (and black) lining, and the performance of the Raiders against the Steelers yesterday may have been the turning point at which ‘progress’ can now directly correlate into wins.
Derek Carr said it best post-game that this win was the second favorite of his career, and possibly the first if the Steelers were in the AFC West. Nonetheless, this was a full team win against a team who is firmly expected to make a deep playoff run in January.
At this stage of the season, it’s not so much about the wins and losses as it is about seeing signs of progress from players who are part of the long-term plans for the Raiders. Eventually, you’d expect this progress translates into wins in the standings. This may cost the team in terms of draft position, but being able to definitively point to a collective group of players who are part of the future is much more important than hoping that a single pick will change the team’s fortunes.
Yesterday’s game followed this line of thought to a fault. The defense struggled at times when Ben Roethlisberger was in the game, but that goes for the majority of teams this season. Credit must go to Raiders defensive coordinator Paul Guenther for completely shutting down Steelers star Antonio Brown and forcing Pittsburgh to be one dimensional for the majority of the game. On special teams, the Raiders appear to have finally found their kicker of the future in rookie Daniel Carlson while Johnny Townsend nailed all but one of his punts for at least 50 yards with the shortest one landing inside the 20. This game was a team effort, but it ultimately should be looked at as a turning point for Carr.
For a large portion of the season, Carr has been seen as the whipping boy amongst Raider Nation. Fans were seemingly confused that Jon Gruden had traded some of the Raiders best players and cut a few of the more prominent names of the roster, while not appearing to hold Carr to the same standard. Fans were further incensed as Carr remained steadfast in his media appearances with some observers wondering whether Carr fully understood the magnitude of the disappointment this season. The best move of the season, however, may have been keeping Carr at the trade deadline, when it appeared that Carr’s tenure as a Raider was on life support.
At this stage of the season, it’s not so much about the wins and losses as it is about seeing signs of progress from players who are part of the long-term plans for the Raiders.
Carr’s firm belief in Gruden’s system may now be starting to pay off. With yesterday’s performance, Carr has extended his streak of not throwing an interception to eight games and in the last four games has thrown eight touchdowns. He is completing throws at a career-best 69.5% and is also averaging a career-best 7.5 yards per attempt.
Carr’s progression goes beyond the numbers. He is finally looking comfortable in Gruden’s system. He has shown significant improvement in his pocket awareness, extending the play as the offensive line crumbles around him when previously his first instinct would be to brace for contact and to take a sack. He is also directing his receivers with greater ease when extending the play. Ultimately, he’s showing a renewed sense of confidence.
As the team has crumbled around him, Carr has stepped up. He has been playing at a high level the four weeks despite his line falling apart with injuries and a group of wide receivers which seem to have been changing by the week. Perhaps most encouraging of all, Carr has been delivering down the stretch of games. After struggling in the fourth quarter as all season, Carr has led the Raiders on two game-winning final quarter drives in the last four games. He was the epitome of “clutch” as the Raiders rose from the abyss in 2016 and seeing elements of this during a tough 2018 is encouraging.
In 2014, the Raiders season was a mess but Carr was a bright spot for the team. Specifically, his performance against the San Francisco 49ers in the Battle of the Bay was a notion of proof that the Raiders finally had a young quarterback who could be a franchise guy moving forward. Yesterday’s game had similar parallel pathways. Yesterday, again, started to prove Carr can be that Super Bowl-type signal caller.
When the season is over and done, one of the key takeaways may be Gruden and staff – and Carr himself – fixed their franchise quarterback. Raider Nation should be sleeping easier now knowing things are headed in the right direction.
A Quote to Remember
“I just don’t believe in play-action pass against teams that are playing man-to-man coverage. Who are you fooling? You see a team that plays a lot of zone coverage, you fake the ball and you fool the underneath coverage and throw the ball in behind him. When you’re playing teams that play a high percentage of man-to-man coverage, the corner is covering his guy. The safety is covering his guy, he’s not peaking in the backfield. Sometimes it’s the front. Sometimes the pass protection isn’t worth a damn either. That is part of it. We’ve been pretty good. We’re getting better at our play-actions. I would like to use some more down the stretch.”
Jon Gruden explaining why the Raiders have used so little play-action plays this season. Going into this week, per ESPN Stats & Information, the Raiders have run 80 play-action plays this year, with only the Miami Dolphins (79) and Pittsburgh Steelers (66) having run fewer.
A Tweet of Amusement
6 years ago he had the infamous Butt Fumble. Tonight, Mark Sanchez recovered a fumble with his butt ?
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) December 4, 2018
— Oakland Raiders (@Raiders) December 10, 2018
1. The Raiders will win against the Cincinnati Bengals this week on the road. The Bengals are a mess having lost Andy Dalton and star A.J. Green to season-ending injuries. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis is also firmly on the hot seat, though he seems to be in this precarious position every year and survives. Nonetheless, this is a winnable game for the Raiders and I see them stealing it on the road. A winning streak coming in Oakland? No one would have thought that would be a possibility a short time ago.
2. The O-Line is going to get a major revamp in the off-season. Guard Kelechi Osemele missed yesterday’s game with a toe injury and has been underwhelming the last two years, while right tackle remains to be an issue and I’m far from convinced they can bank on Brandon Parker developing from where he is now to a solid player in the space of one off-season.
3. Gareon Conley will make the Pro Bowl, eventually. He was an absolute stud against the Steelers which only provides further confirmation of his improved performances over the last six weeks.
7 Things I Think:
1. NFL reporter Ben Allbright last week reported (indirectly) that Mark Davis’ relationship with NFL agent Joel Segal was the primary reason why the Raiders made a lot of moves involving Segal’s clients. Clients of Segal include Khalil Mack (traded), Amari Cooper (traded), Connor Cook (cut and replaced by A.J. McCarron) and Karl Joseph (benched for more than half the season). Many teams have issues with various player agents, though this is one of the rare times when a number of contentious decisions regarding player personnel can be directly linked back to one player agent. It might sound like an unrealistic scenario, but given the volatility of Mark Davis’ actions at times, it is totally believable.
2. The addition of C.J. Anderson is an interesting one. Gruden has stressed the need to have a running back who can pass protect, which does make sense given Doug Martin was questionable due to injury this week. Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington are far from solid as pass protectors. While Anderson barely featured in Carolina this year, he was a 1000-yard runner just last season, and at just 27 years old, could have a few years left in him at a high level. At the very least Anderson should get next off-season with the Raiders to see if he can replicate some of his former success.
3. Donald Penn coming off IR to potentially return for the final few games of the season is significantly telling of the team’s current belief in rookie Brandon Parker. Parker was a developmental prospect and has struggled this season to keep Derek Carr upright. Penn, however, didn’t look the part either during the season but it seems as though Gruden wants to see what he has in the old-timer as the Raiders head into the off-season with a multitude of question marks regarding their player personnel.
4. The Raiders have yet to begin contract negotiations with tight end Jared Cook with some close to the situation believing that Cook will be playing elsewhere in 2019. If it were up to me, should the Raiders be unable to reach an agreement with Cook, they should franchise tag him. Cook is playing at an elite level and going into this game week was ranked fifth in catches, fourth in receiving yards and third in receiving touchdowns amongst tight ends this season. Those numbers are more than worthy of giving Cook the franchise tag. He has become Derek Carr’s top target and is playing at an elite level. Given the lack of playmakers on the roster, keeping Cook needs to be a priority.
5. The Raiders defense is slowly building. Tahir Whitehead, Gareon Conley, Karl Joseph, Nicholas Morrow, and PJ Hall have all showed a significant improvement in their play over the last month and a half. If these players are able to sustain their levels of play the remainder of the season, it will significantly ease the burden the Raiders have when it comes to filling all of their holes on the defensive side of the ball.
6. Amari Cooper had a career day for the Dallas Cowboys yesterday (217 receiving yards and three touchdowns) but that shouldn’t cause concern amongst Raider Nation for having traded him for a first round pick. Cooper never clicked with Carr and his stock was heading in the wrong direction. By acquiring a first-round pick, the Raiders get significant future salary off their books while being able to add another young player. At the same time, the Cowboys now have that true No. 1 receiver they’ve been looking for since Dez Bryant. It is a rare case in which the trade has seen a true “win-win” for both teams.
7. With Green Bay firing Mike McCarthy as head coach, the NFL’s firing frenzy will soon begin in earnest. Given the Packers long-time standing of being a stable and prestigious NFL franchise, anyone less than a high profile name with a history of success to replace McCarthy will be a disappointment. The Packers should swing for the fences and try to bring Alabama head coach Nick Saban back to the NFL. If not Saban, Jim or John Harbaugh would be very solid hires with a wildcard option from left field could be former Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians. Arians has repeatedly stated he would only come out of retirement to coach the Cleveland Browns, but an opportunity for the offensive guru to work with Aaron Rodgers may be too good an offer to refuse.