Mercifully, the 2017 Oakland Raiders season is over.
As expected the 2017 NFL season started with fun and fireworks for the highly touted Raiders. That lasted a mere two weeks, and the rest of the way the Raiders did just enough – and the AFC was just wide-open enough – to tease with lingering yet unrealistic playoff hopes. That was perhaps the cruelest part of 2017 – that there was still a chance so late yet the team didn’t muster any effort when it really mattered.
After riding a gutsy season-opening win to an improbable 12-4 record in 2016, expectations were understandably high for 2017. Derek Carr, before breaking his leg in Week 16, had played MVP-caliber ball and was rewarded with, at the time, the richest contract in the NFL at $125M over 5 years.
The Raiders also drafted two young and talented players in the secondary, added Oakland native Marshawn Lynch, dynamic return man Cordarrelle Patterson and Jared Cook at tight end. This looked, on paper, to be a better offensive team than the 2016 version – which was 6th overall in the NFL.
It was the one person they didn’t bring back, though, that would turn out to make the biggest difference to this offense – former OC Bill Musgrave.
In the offseason, the Raiders let Musgrave walk to the rival Broncos in favor of promoting in-house QB coach Todd Downing. Downing, it was said, was something of a QB whisperer, a big reason for Carr’s 2016 success, and very close with the $25M dollar man.
The coaching staff, including offensive line coach Mike Tice and head coach Jack Del Rio, sold owner Mark Davis on the fact that Downing was a hot commodity. To keep him, they said, they had to promote Downing.
Turns out, this was a bit of a snow-job and Davis was reportedly livid about the way it went down. Particularly after Downing struggled mightily in his first season.
The wheels fell off in a Week 3 Washington game that was as ugly for off-field connotations as the on-field performance. Whispers of a locker-room division arose after Derek Carr stood somewhat apart from his kneeling teammates after President Trump’s inflammatory statements. Whispers of racial, political and religious divides abounded, with Coach Del Rio a known Trump supporter while many on the Raiders are distinctly not. It may have gotten ugly, but all the right things were said and the problem solved.
Except, no. The next week, things got even uglier. After a week of speculating this team was broken and wondering just how they could play THAT badly in Washington, Carr got sacked awkwardly in Denver, resulting in fractured bones in his back and was never the same throwing the ball in 2017 after this injury.
What makes it worse is that many speculated at the time the offensive line was still upset with Carr from the Washington game, and let him get injured. This is bogus – the tape doesn’t support this, nor do the repeated and vehement denials from the lineman (or their stalwart blocking numbers), Carr and all levels of the Raiders organization. But it’s out there – and still something some question to this day.
The Raiders lost this one as well to fall to 2-2. The dynamic team that flew through the first two games disappeared, and they dropped their next game to begin an ugly four game losing streak.
After scoring 71 points in the first two games they mustered only 53 points in the next four.
They bounced back Thursday night, Week 7, against the Chiefs in their most 2016-like game of the 2017 season. Carr went off for 400+ yards, Amari Cooper channeled his inner amazingness and put up 210 yards and 2 TDs and the Raiders fought to the end and won a gritty game for the first time.
Plus, there was this highlight from Khalil Mack which is just amazing and great fun to watch:
But more fractures, at least within Raider Nation. There were some who were none too pleased that Marshawn Lynch came to the defense of Chief Marcus Peters during a 3rd-quarter fracas, one that led to Beast Mode being ejected for putting his hands on an official. Whether it bothered you or not, it was drama that wasn’t present during the 2016 season. Lynch, to his credit, is a stand-up guy who puts family first and Peters is his Oaktown “cousin,” plus if you watch again he isn’t trying to do anything but get Peters out of his own player’s faces.
Digression – Peters is a phenomenal player but makes too many emotional mistakes. One can’t be faulted for passion, but one can be faulted for repeatedly losing their temper at critical junctures of games and costing their team yards and points. If the Raiders even consider bringing Peters in, they’d do well to ensure Lynch is re-signed.
Back to the misery as the Raiders toured to Buffalo and promptly forgot how to play football yet again. I was at this game live, and Carr looked visibly frustrated on a regular basis – and it was mostly on the sidelines. After numerous stagnant plays went nowhere, a visibly agitated Carr would come back to the sidelines shaking his head and frequently gesturing down the field. One can only surmise he was saying “let’s do something here!”
This was the beginnings, it seems, of the Carr-Downing rift with both leveling veiled criticism after the game, with Del Rio also invoking Carr’s unwillingness to throw the ball downfield. Whatever the truth – and based on Carr’s gunslinging ways his first three seasons it would not seem to be him – the Raiders were playing scared and getting beaten accordingly.
At this point the team was 3-5 and a major disappointment. Halfway through the year, with the toughest part of the schedule yet to be played, they were two games out of a wild card spot and three games out of the division lead.
Yet somehow the AFC kept cannibalizing itself and the Chiefs began the start of their annual collapse, so the Raiders were still in the hunt. A winnable game against Miami was won, and then the Raiders went on bye while awaiting the Patriots in Mexico for their Week 11 showdown.
Wasn’t much of one. The Raiders defense literally looked asleep most of the game – perhaps this was by design, as DC Ken Norton Jr. was fired almost before the plane left Mexico. Defensive assistant John Pagano, who had held the DC title with the Chargers and was at the time coaching the Raiders secondary, was promoted to DC.
And he made a HUGE difference on that side of the ball. He began to have players play to their strengths, and the results were palpable on the field. The Raiders pass rush improved dramatically, with Bruce Irvin rejuvenated under Pagano.
How rejuvenated? The pass rushing maven played more than 60% of his snaps in coverage under Norton – less than 20% under Pagano. In his first ten games (with Norton), Irvin had 34 total tackles, 2.5 sacks and 3 run stuffs.
In six games under Pagano, Irvin had 24 total tackles (4 per game), 5.5 sacks and 6 run stuffs. In 60% of the games, he doubled his sack and run stuff total – the impact plays he is known for.
Under Norton, the Raiders allowed 24.7 ppg in their first 10 games. Under Pagano, they allowed 21 ppg, including 30 points given up to the Chargers in Week 17 in a game where nobody showed up.
Speaking of not showing up, while the Raiders defense was making these improvements and holding opponents to reasonable, beatable scores – the offense was somewhere else entirely.
Sure they were giving up 21 ppg – but they were only scoring 16.2 ppg. That’s how you go 2-4 to end the season, with those two wins coming over the terrible Giants and rudderless Broncos.
Or, even better – despite offensive struggles, key injuries, your quarterback losing confidence along with velocity due to a wonky back, locker-room issues, coaching mistrust, an inconsistent and misused running game and a porous secondary, you’re 6-6 and tied for first place in the division, with a chance to take the lead against the Chiefs.
So you go out, lay a massive egg and then proceed to drop your next three games to not only fall out of contention, hope for a winning (or .500) season or any semblance of positivity – and into the Top 10 of the draft.
Over their last four games, all of which were key to keeping the Raiders in a very, very makeable AFC playoff race, the Raiders scored 13 ppg. THIRTEEN POINTS PER GAME!! It’s clear that Downing should’ve accompanied Norton out the door after Week 11.
And that will do it, folks. Thirteen points per game. During the most critical stretch of the season. Against teams that, excepting the Eagles, are not defensive stalwarts. That is simply pathetic – a lack of ability to get your team ready to play important games is one of the biggest failings in coaching, and it was all over this team the last four weeks.
Suffice it to say, between the lack of offensive creativity and effectiveness, season-long defensive struggles in the secondary and the linebacker position, in-fighting in the locker room and rumours of coaching rifts, lies, and mistrust with ownership, and the looming spectre of Las Vegas ever present this was an incredibly disappointing season.
Hell, from 2003-2014, Raider fans were pretty resigned to garbage seasons like this and would be looking forward to a top pick yet again.
But not with the culture change Del Rio ushered in – not with the success he cultivated early on.
Like him or not, agree with his personality and politics or not, there are facts that cannot be denied with Del Rio. He brought love and passion to the team as a native Oaklander, and that was pure and obvious on a regular basis. He came in to a franchise with a long-standing toxic losing culture, and said no more – and then lost his first ten games.
To his credit, that didn’t deter him or his vision, which he implemented in 2016 with aplomb. Beginning the season with giant onions on that 2 point call, “Black” Jack Del Rio was christened a gambling man, which would ultimately be his downfall.