- The Raiders made the playoffs last year and were viewed as a Super Bowl contender before this season started. What went wrong for Oakland in a season of inconsistency?
One year ago at this time, the Oakland Raiders seemed to be in the middle of a renaissance. They already had a playoff spot locked up—their first since 2002— and were in the hunt for an AFC West title. Of course, they had their sights set much higher. Sitting at 11-3 with two games remaining in the regular season, the Raiders looked like legitimate Super Bowl contenders. When Derek Carr broke his leg in Week 16, it was a heartbreaking denouement to an otherwise excellent season, but the Raiders had every reason to believe they could be right back in the same spot in 2017.
Fast forward one year. This time, the Raiders find themselves not heading to the playoffs as Super Bowl contenders. Rather, it’s dealing with late-season heartbreak.
The Raiders fell to 6-8, all but ending their playoff hopes, with a 20-17 loss to the Cowboys on Sunday night. After a 55-yard pass interference penalty on a fourth-down heave from Carr to Michael Crabtree moved the ball to the Cowboys 15-yard line, the Raiders became the latest team to fall victim to one of this season’s most debated rules. On third-and-3 from the Dallas 8-yard line, Carr scrambled to his right. He already had the first down, but with Cowboys safety Jeff Heath closing in, Carr dove for the end zone. Heath jarred the ball loose, and it rolled through the end zone, resulting in a touchback and ending the game.
Heartbreak might seem a little strong for a team that hasn’t looked like a playoff team for the balance of the season after losing four straight games across September and October, but it feels appropriate for the 2017 Raiders. Even after their 2017 season was stolen from them when Carr broke his leg, the Raiders appeared set up to be a contender in the AFC for the foreseeable future. They seemingly had the league’s most important commodity in a franchise quarterback, and Carr was heading into his fourth season. They had a potentially elite receiver duo in Crabtree and Amari Cooper, they coaxed Marshawn Lynch out of retirement and they boasted one of the best offensive lines in the league. On the other side of the ball, Khalil Mack had turned into a top-flight edge rusher. Oakland’s short- and long-term futures were both assuredly bright.
That conventional wisdom only seemed smarter after they started 2-0 with wins over the Titans and Jets. After that, the Raiders lost four straight games, including two at home to the Ravens and Chargers. They seemed to right the ship with a 31-30 win over the Chiefs in Week 6, but they fell right back down the following week, losing to the Bills by 20. That lack of consistency exposed the Raiders for what they really are: an average, flawed team.
Cooper failed to take off in year three. Lynch was effective, but was not his previous workhorse self. The defense didn’t coalesce around Mack. Most alarmingly, Carr did not turn the corner. His completion percentage last year? A respectable 63.8%. His completion percentage this year? A respectable 63.8%. His yards per attempt last year? A solid, though not spectacular, 7.0. His YPA this year? Yep, that same solid, though not spectacular, 7.0.
Last season, he threw 28 touchdowns against six interceptions. This year, he’s at 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. None of these stats are an objectively bad number, but they aren’t franchise quarterback numbers, either. That’s one of the surest ways for a preseason Super Bowl contender to turn into the thoroughly mediocre team the Raiders have become this season.
The Raiders are still mathematically alive, but would need a string of unlikely events to unfold, including the Bills, Ravens and Titans all losing out. More likely, their heartbreak will motivate a roster recalibration and some potentially major changes in the offseason.