ALAMEDA — Two weeks ago, Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio personally laid down the law. He fired defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr.
“I made the call,” Del Rio said.
And you notice that Norton wasn’t assigned to other duties. He was fired.
“Listen,” Del Rio said at the time, “Nobody should feel comfortable. Because what I’ve been watching is not good enough.”
It was exactly the right move by Captain Jack. Surely no one doubts this is a season on the brink for the Raiders.
For all the happy chat about how the team is within a game or so of making the playoffs, it should be noted they are a loss or two from missing them, too.
At one point Del Rio said the team needed a 10-6 record to be a safe bet for the postseason prom. But sitting at 5-6, that means running the table, which looks like uphill sledding.
Sunday's game with the Giants is an absolute must-win. Granted, the Raiders should beat the roller-coaster 2-9 Giants, with their quarterback melodrama. We can assume a Raiders win, but with the caveat that a loss would be near catastrophic.
From there, three of the next four are on the road. There’s next week at 6-5 Kansas City, which is leading the division; home against 6-6 Dallas, which has NFC playoff hopes; a trip to the hottest team in football, the 10-1 Eagles; and finishing up in Los Angeles against the resurgent 5-6 Chargers.
There’s not a cupcake on the horizon.
So no wonder Del Rio spoke up.
“The message has been delivered,” he said this week. “I think I laid out … how imperative it was that we find the urgency to give ourselves a chance.”
OK, delivered. But was it received?
The Raiders beat Denver last Sunday, but the narrative was overtaken by the Michael Crabtree sideshow. Barely three minutes into the game, the Raiders receiver initiated a fistfight with defensive back Aqib Talib over a disagreement about jewelry.
(Just writing those words has me shaking my head.)
The melee was so over the top that Talib and Crabtree were ejected and Crabtree was given a two-game suspension by the NFL. Fortunately for Raider nation, it was reduced to one game, or the Raiders would have been without their top receiver and touchdown catcher for next week’s critical Kansas City game.
But still, to do something that dumb at this critical juncture is mind-boggling.
As color commentator and former Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon said on air at the time, “This is just selfish. When your own self-interest is more important than the team, you put yourself and the team at risk. That’s terrible.”
Crabtree, who rarely can be bothered to speak to the media, has since said in an interview that the entire dust-up was spontaneous and that he was just “trying to get a catch and help my team win a game.”
This was on from the beginning. Denver DB Chris Harris Jr. said before taking on Talib, Crabtree sucker-punched him in the stomach. Harris, an All-Pro, hit the turf, stayed down and glared at the Raiders’ bench when he got up.
The wrestling match with Talib — who is both an All-Pro and world-class annoyer of receivers — was absurd. Crabtree shoved him over the sideline, bounced off a cameraman, ran into a bystander and took him to the ground. The tussle went on and on.
And then, when things seemed to be settling down, Crabtree and Talib began throwing roundhouse, schoolyard punches. They were out of the control.
It had nothing to do with their teams. These were two guys — and it certainly looks like Crabtree started it — settling a personal score.
Asked about the fight this week, offensive coordinator Todd Downing was diplomatic.
“Jack preaches working for your teammates and being a dedicated teammate and working to win,” he said. “We certainly want to do the things that help us not only get on the field but stay on the field.”
But privately, the Raiders’ brain trust must be fuming. It is a bad look for a team that is supposed to be laser-focused on winning.
You know, if this goes to hell in the next five games, the Raiders will face some tough questions. They made some odd moves for a 12-4 team that won last year with a sizzling offense that made up for a porous defense.
They fired offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, who had coached young QB Derek Carr to two Pro Bowls, but kept Norton, who somehow avoided the heat.
This year the offense has sputtered and the defense has struggled — 31st in third-down defense, for instance. It is no surprise Norton was removed, but what kept you?
This is is a team that, based on 2016, came into the season as the boy wonders of the NFL. They won the first two games handily and then — full of swagger — went to Washington and got absolutely manhandled. That began a run of four consecutive losses that put them where they are now.
It is entirely possible that they’ll make the playoffs this year. But if they don’t, we will look at moments when a player like Crabtree took himself out of a game for a silly feud as evidence this team needs a wake-up call.
In which case, no one should be comfortable.
Contact C.W. Nevius at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @cwnevius.