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!
RAIDERS AT A GLANCE
2016 RECORD: 12-4, lost to Houston in wild-card round playoff game.
COACH: Jack Del Rio (second season).
NEW FACES: RB Marshawn Lynch, TE Jared Cook, OL Marshall Newhouse, WR Cordarrelle Patterson, QB EJ Manuel, defensive assistant John Pagano, rookies CB Gareon Conley, S Obi Melifonwu, DT Eddie Vanderdoes, LB Marquel Lee, DT Treyvon Hester.
KEY LOSSES: RB Latavius Murray, LB Malcolm Smith, LB Perry Riley, DT Dan Williams, OL Austin Howard, OL Menelik Watson, RB Taiwan Jones, OC Bill Musgrave.
Strengths: Offense led team to 12 wins and playoffs last year. QB Derek Carr emerged as one of top passers in Year 3 and led seven fourth-quarter comebacks. Offensive line allowed league-low 18 sacks behind three Pro Bowlers (LT Donald Penn, RG Kelechi Osemele, C Rodney Hudson). Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree provide capable targets on outside. Cook should improve production at tight end. Lynch came out of retirement to play in hometown and has shown burst in preseason.
WEAKNESSES: Defense full of holes despite presence of Defensive Player of Year Khalil Mack and fellow edge rusher Bruce Irvin. Interior rush should be improved with healthy Mario Edwards Jr. and Vanderdoes. Still many questions at linebacker, secondary. Lee looked like fifth-round pick in preseason and might not be answer at MLB. Sean Smith struggled again at cornerback. Conley missed all of preseason with shin injury. Pagano expected to improve communication on back end, but no progress evident in preseason.
EXPECTATIONS: Raiders enter season with hopes of challenging New England for AFC dominance and giving Oakland championship before team leaves for Las Vegas in 2020. First must figure out way to get past Kansas City in division after getting swept past two years. Raiders ended 13-year playoff drought only to lose opener at Houston with Carr sidelined by broken leg. With Carr healthy, offense could be even more powerful this season. Beast Mode looked fresh in preseason for possible boost to power run game. Raiders could contend if defense improves. Oakland allowed NFL-worst 61 completions of at least 20 yards last season and ranked last with 25 sacks.
— Associated Press
Sunday at Tennessee 10 a.m. CBS
Sept. 17 New York Jets 1:05 p.m. CBS
Sept. 24 at Washington 5:30 p.m. NBC
Oct. 1 at Denver 1:25 p.m. CBS
Oct. 8 Baltimore 1:05 p.m. CBS
Oct. 15 LA Chargers 1:25 p.m. CBS
Oct. 19 Kansas City 5:25 p.m. CBS
Oct. 29 at Buffalo 10 a.m. CBS
Nov. 5 at Miami 5:30 p.m. NBC
Nov. 12 Bye week
Nov. 19 New England (in Mexico City) 1:25 p.m. CBS
Nov. 26 Denver 1:25 p.m. CBS
Dec. 3 New York Giants 1:25 p.m. Fox
Dec. 10 at Kansas City 10 a.m. CBS
Dec. 17 Dallas 5:30 p.m. NBC
Dec. 25 at Philadelphia 5:30 p.m. ESPN
Dec. 31 at LA Chargers 1:25 p.m. CBS