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!
49ERS AT A GLANCE
2016 RECORD: 2-14
COACH: Kyle Shanahan (first season)
NEW FACES: QB Brian Hoyer, WR Pierre Garcon, WR Marquise Goodwin, WR Aldrick Robinson, DE Elvis Dumervil, DT Earl Mitchell, RB Kyle Juszczyk, OL Laken Tomlinson, K Robbie Gould, rookies DL Solomon Thomas, LB Reuben Foster, QB C.J. Beathard, TE George Kittle.
KEY LOSSES: QB Colin Kaepernick, QB Blaine Gabbert, WR Torrey Smith, WR Jeremy Kerley, WR Quinton Patton, S Antoine Bethea, LB Ahmad Brooks, CB Tramaine Brock, TE Vance McDonald, DL Quinton Dial, LB Gerald Hodges.
STRENGTHS: Three consecutive first-round picks on defensive linemen make the foundation of team. Arik Armstead adjusting well to new role as outside rusher in third NFL season. Second-year pro DeForest Buckner shown signs of being dominant from interior. Team has high expectations for No. 3 overall pick Thomas. Also used first-round pick this season on Foster, who shined in preseason. Teams with NaVorro Bowman, who looks to regain All-Pro form after Achilles tendon injury cut last season short.
WEAKNESSES: Team coming off two-win season has plenty, but key could be running back. Carlos Hyde has failed to develop into back Niners hoped for when they drafted him in second round in 2014. Hyde missed nearly one-third of his games and rushed for just 1,791 yards in three seasons. Behind Hyde are undrafted rookie Matt Breida and journeyman Raheem Mostert.
EXPECTATIONS: Niners at start of what could be long rebuild after precipitous fall in recent years from team that made three consecutive trips to NFC title games from 2011-13 under coach Jim Harbaugh to one that won just two games in 2016. Shanahan is the team’s fourth coach in as many years, following one-year tenures by Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly. Shanahan given six-year deal along with new GM John Lynch in sign organization might finally show patience. That could lead to growing pains this season as San Francisco tries to lay foundation for future success. Hoyer will be QB but is likely little more than bridge to longer-term solution that could come next offseason, or from promising rookie Beathard. Few proven playmakers on offense with almost all of recent high draft picks having been used on defensive players or offensive line. Main goal this season will be improving on last year’s win total and identify some building blocks for better days ahead.
— Associated Press
Sunday Carolina 1:25 p.m. Fox
Sept. 17 at Seattle 1:25 p.m. Fox
Sept. 21 Los Angeles Rams 5:25 p.m. NFL Net
Oct. 1 at Arizona 1:05 p.m. Fox
Oct. 8 at Indianapolis 10 a.m. Fox
Oct. 15 at Washington 10 a.m. Fox
Oct. 22 Dallas 1:05 p.m. Fox
Oct. 29 at Philadelphia 10 a.m. Fox
Nov. 5 Arizona 1:05 p.m. Fox
Nov. 12 New York Giants 1:25 p.m. Fox
Nov. 19 Bye week
Nov. 26 Seattle 1:05 p.m. Fox
Dec. 3 at Chicago 10 a.m. CBS
Dec. 10 at Houston 10 a.m. Fox
Dec. 17 Tennessee 1:25 p.m. CBS
Dec. 24 Jacksonville 1:05 p.m. CBS
Dec. 31 at Los Angeles Rams 1:25 p.m. Fox