Our perception of how an NFL team should go through its internal checklist after a bad season is at once probably far too optimistic and not optimistic enough. There are some owners who steep their organizations in complacency. Some who are more comfortable with the familiar. Some who blow it all up because some middling former quarterback on ESPN told them to. Perpetually good teams don’t normally have that problem because they are good at self-analysis. Of course, some teams get good for a little while and lose the ability to do that as well.
So that’s why we’re here. With each team that drops from playoff contention, we will answer a 10-part questionnaire on where they are, where they’re headed and how to fix the holes along the way. Some projects will be bigger than others.
Which brings us to the Raiders, who have yet to be playoff-relevant heading into the final week of the regular season in the new Jon Gruden era.
1. What went right this year?
As we pointed out earlier in the season, I think we all saw the offensive guru who was hiding out all these years, maniacally planning his assault on the NFL once he returned to the league. The problem is that these spurts of brilliance weren’t steady, weekly occurrences and the Raiders don’t have a great deal of excuses compared to other teams. In fact, given Gruden’s repeat offenses of COVID-19 protocols, which cost his team a draft pick, it would seem Las Vegas gave itself more headaches than received them from extraneous circumstances.
Also, their offensive line, while aging in key places, is very good (and very expensive).
2. What went wrong this year?
Everything about this team was just … middling. Derek Carr had a very good season, as did Josh Jacobs. Less can be said about the opportunities schemed up for first-round pick Henry Ruggs, or the performance of fellow first-round rookie Damon Arnette (though the sample size is limited there). I think this team could have won a lesser division, but Mark Davis flouted NFL protocol and sold his soul to bring in Jon Gruden in order to challenge the Chiefs. It is difficult to reconcile the team that beat Kansas City once this year with the version we see on so many other off weeks.
3. The Big Question this offseason
There is no meat remaining on Derek Carr’s contract. I think, and have heard, that he would be a fairly hot commodity elsewhere if he were allowed to hit the market. Gruden has a history of cycling through veteran quarterbacks without really addressing key philosophical problems with his scheme and roster, so that is always a possibility. This was the same guy who took a long sniff on Kyler Murray and was, at least moderately, in the Tom Brady sweepstakes at one point. Pro Football Focus made the argument that Carr was a top-10 QB this year and has been on several occasions. He would be a fascinating, wildly-affordable trade chip for Las Vegas to wield if Gruden was interested in pivoting his rebuild.
4. Coach/GM outlook
Gruden isn’t going anywhere, despite failing to post a winning record over his first three seasons. Firing defensive coordinator Paul Gunther was about as far-reaching as the scapegoating process will go and we’ll roll into Year 4 as scheduled. There is a lot of young talent on this roster, which, maybe you can credit Gruden with, or maybe he made a sound hire in Mike Mayock (which seems more likely). Still, the outlook is that, when an owner is infatuated with a head coach and signed him to a 10-year deal, there isn’t really much to discuss.
5. Key free agents
• Nelson Agholor, wide receiver
• Nicholas Morrow, linebacker
• Erik Harris, safety
• Denzelle Good, offensive lineman
• Johnathan Hankins, defensive lineman
• Takk McKinley, defensive end
• Vic Beasley, defensive end
• Jason Witten, tight end
• Nevin Lawson, cornerback
6. Top priority
Las Vegas needs to secure a top-flight defensive coordinator. And while Rod Marinelli is a fine stand-in, Gruden will be up against a handful of other coaching staffs making similar maneuvers under better circumstances. Not many people are going to willingly risk their standing with that roster knowing that they’ll have to face Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs twice a year. One of the advantages, supposedly, of having Gruden head the operation is that you have the kind of cachet to make a big hire. Can he actually pull it off?
7. Positions of need
Interior offensive line, wide receiver, cornerback, linebacker, pass rusher, interior defensive line.
8. Sensible plan to fix them
Because no one believes this is an actual, sustainable rebuild and is more about people proving people right, it wouldn’t be stunning to see the Raiders gut some of their big-ticket veterans with no guaranteed money in 2021 (Richie Incognito, Marcus Mariota, etc.) and use that money to play in the free agent market. This will be the offseason of the receiver, with Juju Smith-Schuster, Corey Davis, Sammy Watkins, T.Y. Hilton, Will Fuller, John Ross, A.J. Green and Allen Robinson all hitting the market. That is an awful lot of former first-round picks and veteran talent for Gruden to salivate over.
9. Outside-the-box idea to fix them
Trade Derek Carr, gut the veteran portion of the roster and soft-tank for a year with Marcus Mariota at quarterback. I loved watching Mariota under center again in his limited action, and while my hope for his inevitable second chance is to be paired with a better play-caller, perhaps Gruden will take a look at the division around him, opt to shift the offense momentarily and write the season off as an exploration in strategy. You can do these kinds of things when there is no risk of being fired, after all. And if it fails, Las Vegas will be sitting at the top of the draft in 2022 when another handful of promising QBs will rise.
10. Next time we'll realistically see them in the playoffs
2022? Maybe this team will get hot and stumble into a secondary wild-card spot at some point, but are you picking against the Chiefs any time soon and assuming that the Chargers and Justin Herbert are going to be down for a long time?