Will Raiders or Jaguars finish with NFL's worst record?
It’s not just the amount of losses they’ve stacked up, though -- it’s how they’ve lost. The two teams also hold the two worst point differentials in the league and have each been routed by mediocre opponents (Jacksonville lost to Washington 41-10 in Week 2, Oakland was beaten by Miami 38-14 in Week 4).
Upon breaking down these two teams unit-by-unit, though, it’s clear that the causes for their respective struggles are quite different.
One commonality these teams do share is that they’re both starting rookie quarterbacks. However, Blake Bortles and Derek Carr have inspired very different levels of enthusiasm thus far in their young professional careers.
Bortles broke the NFL rookie record for completion percentage in a starting debut (70.3 percent, 29-of-37) during Week 4 against the Chargers. Some scoffed when Jacksonville selected Bortles with the No. 3 overall pick in June, but that record-setting day coupled with his encouraging preseason performance is enough reason to believe he’ll be better than Jacksonville's last rookie starter (Blaine Gabbert).
That’s an admittedly low bar, but Bortles is working with a horde of other inexperienced teammates on offense, so Jacksonville isn’t exactly the ideal petri dish for a quarterback prospect. If Bortles manages to stay upright and a couple of those other young players (Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns, Denard Robinson, Marqise Lee, Storm Johnson) break out, Jaguars fans will rightfully be excited. Their quarterback situation hasn’t inspired this much well-founded hope in a long time.
Derek Carr doesn’t have Raiders fans holding their collective breath for a breakout, though that’s partly because his offensive coaches have rarely let him throw downfield. He’s dead last among qualified quarterbacks in yards per attempt (5.52). It’s one thing to ease a rookie QB into an offense, but here it feels like Oakland’s staff has already pigeonholed Carr as a game manager.
Perhaps Carr’s leash will be loosened a little bit now that Dennis Allen has been fired, but it seems unlikely that interim coach Tony Sparano would want to put the health of the franchise’s quarterback of the future at risk by exposing him too much (he suffered a high-ankle sprain and sprained MCL in Week 4).
Poor Maurice-Jones Drew has had the misfortune of only playing for these tough-luck franchises in his underrated career, which seems to be rapidly coming to an end. After he logged 343 carries for 1,606 yards (both career-highs) in 2011, injuries and age seemingly took their toll. He missed most of 2012 with a foot injury and his production fell off a cliff last year, when he averaged a career-low 3.4 yards per carry.
Jones-Drew signed with Oakland in the offseason and has more or less disappeared into a Black Hole of anonymity. He’s only been healthy for two games, in which he’s totaled a whopping 12 yards on 11 carries.
Jones-Drew is still 29, so he could conceivably turn things around. But the average lifetime of NFL running backs is becoming increasingly shorter, and Jones-Drew has a lot of mileage on his wheels after averaging 20 carries per game from 2009-11. It's unlikely that he serves out the entirety of the three-year contract he signed with the Raiders in March.
Of course, Jones-Drew’s replacement in Jacksonville hasn’t really been doing any better. Out of 50 qualified running backs, Toby Gerhart ranks 48th in yards per carry (2.6) -- only Doug Martin and Donald Brown have been worse.
Denard Robinson and Darren McFadden haven’t been quite as terrible in backup roles in Jacksonville and Oakland, respectively. But McFadden -- who is now in his seventh year in the league -- hasn’t really shown anything that foreshadows a notable increase in production. Robinson is a freak athlete, and though he probably doesn’t have the bulk to be an every-down back, he could very well become a sort of Darren Sproles-lite. That potential alone is more than anything Oakland’s backfield can lay claim to.
The Jaguars are giving up a stunning 308.8 yards per game through the air, which is especially alarming considering head coach Gus Bradley’s past as a lauded defensive coordinator for Seattle.
It’s surprising that Bradley has shown little progress in fixing this glaring weakness, but he does has a severe lack of talent to work with. Raise your hand if you know any first-stringer in Jacksonville’s secondary.
The Raiders, on the other hand, undoubtedly must consider this unit their strength. They’ve only given up 207 passing yards per game this year, which ranks fourth-best in the league.
Oakland’s front seven had high expectations coming into this season, with promising youngsters such as Khalil Mack and Sio Moore heading up the linebacker corps and veteran ends in LaMarr Woodley and Justin Tuck.
Instead, the Raiders have allowed 158.3 rushing yards per game, the second-worst mark in the NFL. Their opponents’ yards per carry mark (4.3) is right around the middle of the pack, but the unit has simply been worn down. Oakland has faced the most rushing attempts per game (36.8) in the league, a problem that largely arises from their offense’s inability to hold onto the ball for long chunks of time.
The Raiders have yet to win the possession battle in any of their contests, and held the ball for just 21:24 in a 30-14 Week 2 loss to Houston that wasn’t nearly as close as the score indicated.
The Jaguars, meanwhile, have allowed a near identical 4.2 yards per carry with a crew of far less recognizable names outside of middle linebacker Paul Posluszny. His leadership and overall excellence has helped stilt up a unit that could otherwise be one of the worst defenses in NFL history.
It’s not that hard to imagine Jacksonville stealing a win in one of their upcoming games (vs. Tennessee, vs. Cleveland). Even though the defense was steamrolled early on, they had to stand up to three of the most robust offenses in the NFL in Philadelphia, Indianapolis and San Diego during these first few weeks. The unit only gave up 17 points to Pittsburgh on Sunday.
Bradley used to control one of the league’s premier defenses, and he should be able to create a more effective gameplan for the relatively vanilla attacks they’re soon to match up against.
Conversely, you have to put on heavily accented rose-colored glasses to spin this season as a positive one for the perpetually sad-sack Raiders, who have yet to top 14 points in a game and are riding a 10-game losing streak. You know things are bad when last year’s offense -- which was led by the likes of Terrelle Pryor, Matt McGloin and Matt Flynn -- sounds like a heavenly alternative to what Raiders fans have been subjected to so far this season.
Oakland might be able to steal a victory on the road at Cleveland in Week 8. If they can’t do that, there’s not another realistic opportunity to win until Week 13 at St. Louis. In their next seven games, the Raiders play teams that owned a collective .616 winning percentage last year (9.9 wins in a 16-game season) and are a combined 20-10 (.667) this season.
There haven’t yet been any substantial rumors as to who might take over the head coaching gig in Oakland on a permanent basis. But whoever does will have a heck of a job to take on.