The Raiders sent a powerful statement on kickoff weekend a year ago, winning at New Orleans 35-34 when head coach Jack Del Rio dialed up a dramatic 2-point conversion with 47 seconds left. It signaled the rebirth of Raiders football. The silver and black wound up making the playoffs for the first time in 14 years, and might have made some postseason noise, too, if quarterback Derek Carr hadn’t fractured his tibia in Week 16.
This year, the expectations are even higher. But a few clouds are gathering at the periphery of Raider Nation. Can Del Rio’s team take another step forward, or are we destined to witness a return to earth?
Here’s my internal debate on the Raiders, who open at Tennessee Sunday.
PRO: I feel like this is almost too easy. Oakland went 12-4 last season. The franchise quarterback is 26. So is defensive end Khalil Mack, the best defender on the team — in fact, the best defender in the NFL. The top receiver, Amari Cooper, is 23. This group is headed to the AFC championship game. The only question is whether they can secure home-field advantage.
CON: You’re building on a house of cards, though. That 12-4 record easily could have been 9-7.
PRO: You can say that about any team, any year. They won close games in 2016 because of the discipline and confidence Del Rio and his staff established.
CON: And because of a few big defensive plays that were pretty uncharacteristic of the way these guys played for 59 out of every 60 minutes, and because of a plus-16 turnover differential. It’s a stat that tends to regress to the mean. And remember, the AFC West is loaded. The Raiders could be better than they were last year and still finish 10-6.
Or they could be worse than last year. Have you caught a glimpse of this defense?
PRO: Granted, this is not the second coming of Howie Long and Mike Haynes. But there is every reason to believe the defense can get better. Defensive end Mario Edwards is healthy, young guys like Karl Joseph and Justin Ellis should be ready to take a step forward, and everyone gets another year in the system of defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr.
CON: Like that’s a good thing?
Norton’s D ranked 26th in total yardage allowed last year, 24th in passing and 23rd in rushing. He had Mack, who gets out of bed each morning and stretches by tackling a quarterback, and still oversaw a unit that ranked last in the NFL in sacks. During the preseason, the first-team defense appeared to pick up right where it left off. Or maybe you’re convinced the Rams’ Jared Goff is the next Aaron Rodgers.
PRO: You know that basing predictions on preseason football is like basing college admissions on how early a kid takes her first step, right?
CON: It’s not the preseason that worries me. It’s the offseason. Reggie McKenzie is as much to blame for this as Ken Norton.
PRO: Hey! Reggie McKenzie is the reigning NFL executive of the year. He found Carr in the second round and bruising guard Gabe Jackson in the third. Plucked dynamic running back Jalen Richard as an undrafted free agent. Leave Reggie out of this!