Everyone in the Nation is sick and tired of hearing about the 2017 Oakland Raiders. They came in with super expectations and limped to an underwhelming record of 6-10. Their MVP candidate had a mediocre season and struggled with injuries, their defense didn’t improve, and the leadership of “Captain” Jack Del Rio faltered when they needed it most. It was a disaster. But like Harvey Dent said, the night is darkest just before the dawn, and as the off-season kicks off, daylight is breaking.
Everything Is Falling Into Place for the Oakland Raiders
For the Oakland Raiders, the off-season already started with a bang when Mark Davis fired Del Rio to bring back the ol’ ball coach, Jon Gruden. Gruden’s press conference was a media circus, and a lot has been made about whether or not he’ll be able to help the Raiders return to relevance. After a decade away from the sideline, it’s fair to wonder if he’s still got what it takes.
But that’s all speculation. We won’t know how good Gruden is or isn’t until the season kicks off. However, we can apply what we do know about Chucky to our predictions for the off-season and beyond. After all, regardless of what he’s learned or done in the booth, the core of Gruden almost definitely remains the same.
Gruden is a fiercely competitive, no-nonsense guy that doesn’t tolerate stupid mistakes. He has a definitive idea of the kind of offense and defense that he wants to run, and it looks like he’s not going to waste any time shaping his roster. He’s already started, cutting corner David Amerson, and reportedly, nobody is safe.
After last season, it’s easy to see why Gruden would want to make some changes. When it’s all said and done, it wouldn’t be surprising if Gruden released Sean Smith, Michael Crabtree, Seth Roberts, Bruce Irvin, Marshawn Lynch, Marshall Newhouse, and even Cordarrelle Patterson before free agency kicks off. And thanks to Reggie McKenzie’s brilliant contract design, the team would barely accrue any dead money while freeing up $37,871,875 in cap space. That, combined with the original projected cap, would give the team $57,823,088 to spend.
It’s true that Khalil Mack needs to be re-signed this off-season, and he won’t be cheap, but he’ll hardly cripple Gruden’s free agent fun. It’s hard to tell who will actually hit free agency, but there will inevitably be talented players, like Jarvis Landry, Tyler Eifert, or a Carlos Hyde, that slip through the cracks. Not to mention, there’s a possibility someone like Le’Veon Bell doesn’t get the franchise tag and hits the open market.
Gruden has a blueprint for the team he wants to win with in Oakland, and between free agency and the draft, he won’t have to wait very long to add some big pieces. I’m not a betting man, but if I were, I’d believe that at the very least, the Raiders would be interested in corner Malcolm Butler.
The Rest of the West
The thing that’s really working in Oakland’s favor? The AFC West is on a bit of a downslide. Once upon a time, it was the best division in football, but those days are gone. The best team in the division only went 10-6 and nobody in the west had a winning record on the road. Heading into 2018? It’s not looking pretty for everyone else in the division.
The Los Angeles Chargers are talented on paper, but they never seem to get it together when it matters. Since 2010, the Chargers only have two winning seasons and have failed to make the playoffs once. It’s hard to figure out why the team is bad. Last season, they had a top five offense, and while the defense was middle of the pack, they weren’t terrible either. They were top six in sacks, interceptions, and points allowed per game.
Yet, they only won nine games this year, and they couldn’t get out of their own way. The same was true in 2016 as well. The Chargers lose games in ridiculous ways. They miss extra points or throw last-second interceptions. They play down to bad teams and can’t finish the job. Maybe it’s bad coaching, maybe the team is cursed, and maybe it’s because they’re the least popular team in America.
Denver’s defense is intimidating, but they just can’t find a quarterback, and in order to get in on the Kirk Cousins sweepstakes, they’d have to release some players, likely one of their corners, both of whom are making over ten million dollars this season. If you’re going to start cutting your best players, your team will suffer. Right now, the Broncos only have about $26.8 million in cap space, and now that Jimmy Garoppolo is making about a million dollars more than that per season, they’d have to really free up some cap.
Without a real quarterback, the Denver Broncos will never be legitimate contenders again. It’s quite obvious Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch aren’t real quarterbacks at this point, and it’s hard to imagine that Josh Rosen or Sam Darnold fall to Denver’s pick at number five overall.
While the Chiefs have beaten the Raiders far more often than the Silver and Black have prevailed, things are changing in Arrowhead. Just last week, they pulled the trigger on the Pat Mahomes project, trading Alex Smith to the Washington Redskins. The Chiefs had no choice, as they traded up to draft Mahomes last year, but it’s a huge risk.
Obviously the Chiefs believe in Mahomes, and while he didn’t reinvent the wheel in his NFL debut last season, he wasn’t terrible either. But here’s the thing. Alex Smith didn’t consistently beat the Raiders because he was an unstoppable passer. He had Oakland’s number because he just wouldn’t make mistakes. In his time with Kansas City, he went 180/281 for 2,362 yards, 17 touchdowns, and only four interceptions in 10 games against the Raiders. That means his average game against the Raider looks like 18/28 for 236 yards with two touchdowns.
It’s hard to imagine that Mahomes comes in and is as careful as Smith was. There’s been a ton of talk about how Andy Reid is this quarterback whisperer, but this isn’t the first time Reid has traded away a washed up franchise quarterback for the next big thing. This is the same man that traded Donovan McNabb away because Kevin Kolb was Philadelphia’s quarterback of the future.
The faces of Kansas City’s elite defense, Eric Berry and Justin Houston, can’t seem to stay healthy and they’re not getting any younger. Moving forward, the Chiefs are going to rely on Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, and Kareem Hunt to carry the team, and as we saw against the Tennessee Titans, that might not be enough.
Tucking Tom Bomb
This is a bit of a leap, but did anyone else feel vindicated when Tom Brady was stripped at the end of the Super Bowl and they actually called it a fumble? It wasn’t quite as cathartic as an Oakland win in Foxboro would (will?) be, but it was nice to see the man that sent the Raiders down a dark path get what was coming to him.
Like many members of the Raider Nation, I’ve lost sleep over what could have been if they had called the Tuck Rule as a fumble. The Raiders might’ve gone on to win that Super Bowl, and Gruden never would’ve been traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He certainly wouldn’t have been there in Super Bowl XXXVII with all of our plays. And who knows? Maybe by Brady going one-and-done in the playoffs, the Patriots give the starting job back to Drew Bledsoe and the Brady/Belichick dynasty may have never dominated.
While it’s a little ridiculous to assume the Patriots have taken a massive step back a week after Brady threw for 500 yards and three touchdowns, things do feel different. Maybe it’s because of all the chatter about tension between Brady and Belichick. Maybe it’s because their defense couldn’t stop Nick Foles. Or maybe it’s because for once, Brady didn’t pull off the impossible comeback, but the Patriots feel vulnerable. There’s something poetic about Jon Gruden returning to an Oakland team that has a lot to prove being in position to take down Brady and the Patriots once and for all.
This is all off-season fluff. 31 other fanbases are saying the exact same thing rights now. For all we know, Gruden has been away from the game too long, and the 2018 Oakland Raiders will be a disasterpiece, sinking to new lows, even for us. But when you look around the league, if there was ever a time for the Raider Renaissance, it’s now. They don’t have to reinvent the wheel or draft the greatest player of all time, they don’t have to lead the league in sacks or touchdowns, they just have to do one very, very important thing.
Just Win, Baby.