ALAMEDA — We have a winner in the Most-Disappointing-NFL-Team-of-the-year category. It’s the (soon-to-be) Las Vegas Raiders in a landslide.
At the end of the year, everyone’s favorite preseason Super Bowl pick plummeted down the standings like a runaway toboggan. The speed with which they went from “division champion contender” to “in the hunt for a wild card” to “long shot for playoffs” to “out of contention” to “sub-.500 season” was breathtaking.
With six games left, the team was right in it, helped by a Kansas City collapse. They were looking over their shoulders at the resurgent LA Chargers, but the playoffs were a real possibility.
It was at that point that head coach Jack Del Rio called on his troops to play with “urgency.” It seemed like a shoutout for a band-of-brothers moment — a time when a group that rallied for seven comeback wins in 2016 would unite and make a run.
And 3 minutes into the next game, wide receiver Michael Crabtree went all Hunter Strickland and started a fistfight with a Denver defender over a jewelry beef. Drilling Bryce Harper because he hit a home run off you two years earlier, or punching a DB because your feelings are hurt, both send the same message: It’s all about me.
It’s been a weird year. After averaging 26 points a game in 2016 and ranking sixth in the league in total offense, the Raider brain trust fired offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave and installed Derek Carr’s buddy, Todd Downing. Today they are averaging a touchdown less per game, are tied for 19th in offense and have totaled 1,124 fewer yards.
Nobody’s happy. But, of course, those in the building are doing their own career calculus. Although Del Rio’s name has been floated among lists of “coaches in trouble,” I’ll bet he’s back. He seemed at ease in last week’s press briefing, and besides, owner Mark Davis impulsively signed him to a four-year extension in February on the strength of that 2016 run.
Del Rio strives to keep it light, avoiding those Cranky Jack moments that strained relations when he was head coach in Jacksonville. But he didn’t exactly throw a lifeline to Downing.
Del Rio called Downing “super bright” and predicted he is “going to be a really good coach in this league,” but there were also some bus-throwing moments.
“The reality is,” Del Rio said, “we’ve underperformed offensively this year. So naturally there’s going to be those kinds of questions. I think we all understand that. I understand it. He understands it.”
Best guess: Don’t send out the laundry, Todd.
But c’mon, he’s not the first rookie offensive coordinator to crash the starship after he was handed the controls. It isn’t easy. He does seem bright. He has every chance to bounce back — just with another team.
And you can’t blame it all on the offense.
Why fire Musgrave — who was with Del Rio in Jacksonville — and keep defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr.? Even a casual fan can tell you the Raiders’ winning formula from last year — pile up points on offense; hold on for dear life on defense.
Things did not improve this year. In one amazing stretch the defense went 10 consecutive games without an interception — an NFL record.
Norton was finally fired at the end of November, just before Game 12 with Denver.
“Nobody,” Del Rio warned, “should feel comfortable.”
But then, that was also the “play with urgency” game. So …
To be fair, the Raiders won the two after Capt. Jack’s exhortations — against the equally woeful Broncos and Giants.
But everything pointed to the clash with division leader Kansas City, a team the Raiders beat back in October, 31-30, in a thrilling, last-second comeback that had the Black Hole-sters roaring. It was a setup for a milestone win that saves a season.
And with the whole world watching on a Thursday night, the Raiders — Carr in particular — went to KC and laid a massive egg.
The score was 26-15, but it never seemed that close. And this wasn’t Downing’s fault. In his first 15 passes, Carr threw a pick, was sacked and picked up 32 yards.
“There’s no easy way to put this,” he said afterward. “We sucked.”
I still think Carr is hurt and has been for much of the season, perhaps since his back injury in the fourth game of the year. Looking stiff, he seems to make a lot of arm-only throws.
It also may be telling that Carr’s teammates voted him the Ed Block “courage” award. Because he courageously played hurt?
Carr will hold to the “never complain, never explain” NFL code if he’s not healthy, but he did make some intriguing comments about the offseason.
He said he “definitely have to let my body rest for certain things.” And said he would do “whatever my trainers allow me to do” to get ready for next season.”
Honestly, I don’t know how you get ready for next season.
The promise of 12-4 seems gone. The franchise quarterback looks lost and may be broken. It is likely the team will have fired both the offensive and defensive coordinators in one season.
It’s hard to say what the Raiders need.
But for starters, I’d like to see a little more urgency.
Contact C.W. Nevius at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @cwnevius.