Raiders unlikely to succeed this year, while Aldon Smith unlikely to change
OAKLAND – Aldon Smith was in no hurry to get dressed. The newest Raider wasn’t looking forward to fielding questions from the swelling semicircle of reporters around his stall following his new team’s ugly, dispiriting 33-13 loss to the Bengals. So Smith took his time pulling on the blue socks with white skulls on them; the designer jeans, white tee-shirt with exaggerated tail-drop; the tan zip-up jacket and, finally, the cream-colored moonboot hightops. Asked how he’d felt out there, taking the field for more than half of Oakland’s 65 defensive snaps, despite not playing a single preseason game, and not practicing since the 49ers released him on Aug. 7, Smith replied with honesty, and a dash of humor:
“Felt fresh,” he said. He smiled.
His stats were modest—two tackles, a quarterback hit—but remarkable for a man who was signed Friday, and who has yet to participate in a real practice with the club. First-year defensive coordinator Ken Norton kept it simple for the ex-Niner: “My job was pretty easy today,” Smith allowed, “just trying to get to the quarterback.”
When it was pointed out that Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth did a fairly thorough job of erasing him, Smith noted, in his defense, that Whitworth “has been playing preseason and … practicing. So he’s probably in really good form.”
Yes, Whitworth has been a full participant in Bengals' team activities. This is among the advantages of not being arrested during the preseason, and fired from your job. Smith, of course, was arrested last month and charged with DUI, hit-and-run with property damage and vandalism. Having seen that movie more than once—this was Smith’s fifth arrest since 2012—the 49ers finally cut him loose. Smith’s arraignment is scheduled for Oct. 6. At any moment—possibly Monday—the NFL could suspend him for multiple games.
So rare is his gift, however, (Smith’s 42 sacks in his first three seasons were the third-most in NFL history in that span, behind Reggie White and Derrick Thomas), that the Raiders couldn’t resist bringing him aboard, despite the elephantine baggage. In a statement best described as wishful, GM Reggie McKenzie expressed his confidence that “the Raiders provide an environment where Aldon can thrive through the support, structure and leadership within the building.”
By welcoming this talented but troubled head case, McKenzie is going against type. The players he’s brought in since taking the Raiders job in 2012 don’t win much: 11 times in 49 games, to be precise. But they don’t get arrested, either. The team once notorious for filling its roster with outcasts, outlaws and party animals is now one of the squarest in the NFL. Wrestling the title of Bay Area Bad Boys from them: the 49ers, with a league-leading 12 players arrested since 2012. One unscientific way to view Sunday’s Rout at Mt. Davis is to see it as karmic payback to the team that compromised its principles to get a little more pressure on the quarterback.
Tough to know, based on the limited evidence we have to work with, whether these Bengals are the reincarnation of the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins, or if the Raiders are actually that bad.
Actually, it’s not that tough. Despite a major injection of off-season optimism—after dropping 10 straight, the Raiders won three of their final six(!), and quarterback Derek Carr had a strong rookie season, and would now have prized rookie wideout Amari Cooper to target(!)—the team that took the field Sunday looked every bit as sorry as the sad-sack Silver and Black of last September and October. Oakland’s 246 net yards on offense included 63 rushing. Playing more than a half without Carr, who left the game with a right-hand injury late in the second quarter and did not return, the Raiders offense eked out 16 first downs—exactly one on the ground. They trailed 33-0 late in the third quarter; both Oakland touchdowns, a pair of short receptions by fullback Marcel Reece, were fourth-quarter window-dressing. Multiple Raiders described the effort as “embarrassing.”
Backup quarterback Matt McGloin, the ex-Penn State walk-on who supplanted Christian Ponder in August as Carr’s understudy, tried to make chicken salad out of … difficult circumstances. But his first pass, a strike to Seth Roberts, clanged off the hands of the backup wideout. McGloin was sacked on the next play. After forcing that three-and-out, the Bengals took over at their 39-yard-line with 63 seconds in the half. With Andy Dalton operating a flawless no-huddle, the Bengals were in the end zone six snaps later. The halftime score was 24-0. With Carr done for the day, the game was over. If Carr is out for any length of time, Raiders will need to gird their (McG)loins for an ugly stretch of road.
This Raiders team will struggle to run, and it will struggle to cover quality receivers. Cornerbacks T.J. Carrie and DJ Hayden looked helpless, at times, against AJ Green. The Raiders never did figure out whose job it was to cover tight end Tyler Eifert, who had a career day, with nine catches for 104 yards and a pair of touchdowns. It didn’t help that the Raiders—including vaunted second-year sackmeister Khalil Mack, who looked like a monster in preseason—not only failed to sack Dalton, but scarcely touched him, registering just a single “quarterback hit,” and that coming from Smith.
Things will get better. The Bengals attack is designed for Dalton to get the ball out in less than 2.5 seconds. Smith will get even more dangerous, with a few practices and meetings under his belt. Unless, you know, the NFL decides to suspend him, although one might understand why Roger Goodell might be feeling slightly gun shy about dispensing discipline these days.
Another measure of how desperately NFL clubs seek sacks: Smith had offers from other teams, he said, after the game. He chose Oakland “because I have a house here," though presumably not the house that was the venue for the keg party that went off the rails in November of 2012, resulting in the shooting and stabbing of several guests. “I have a son here, I feel like this is my home.”
Also pulling Smith to Oakland: Raiders 11th-year defensive end, Justin Tuck. The two share an agent, a trainer, says Tuck, who urged his old friend to come to Oakland. Says Tuck: “Aldon’s Aldon. Everyone knows how talented he is. As he gets more comfortable and integrated in our system, I think he’s going to be a huge asset for us.”
Left unsaid: Aldon’s Aldon. Everyone knows how troubled he is. Unless he’s done the emotional work to face down his addictions, he’ll become a distraction and a disappointment for his second straight Bay Area team.