Barber: The Raiders are pretty good. No, really.
Before hitting SEND on this column, I ?double-checked, then triple-checked my facts. I consulted with experts in the field (of comforting me). I went for a long, contemplative walk. I had to take a hard look at my premise, because it sounded preposterous. But here goes.
The Raiders are pretty good, and they have a reasonable chance of making the playoffs.
Do you remember the Raiders? They played in the Oakland Coliseum a long time ago, before the A’s were eliminated there by the Tampa Bay Rays, and reportedly will play there again Sunday. For local context, the Raiders are the team that does NOT have a 7-0 record that glows in the dark. They are NOT the team with the ?zombie-army pass rush led by the Defensive Rookie of the Year / Time magazine Person of the Year.
But they do exist. And they are pretty good, and they have a reasonable chance of making the playoffs.
How can this be? The Raiders have a losing record and have been outscored by 41 points in 2019. A couple of their losses have looked wretched. In NFL power rankings compiled this week by ESPN, NFL.com, the Athletic and SI.com, they are ranked between No. 18 and No. 20. Those facts need a squirt of Febreze just to attain the whiff of mediocrity.
But dig into the schedule. It’s the same point I made about the 49ers last week, but in reverse. The Niners have emerged from the soft portion of their schedule to play with the big boys; they took a huge first step last weekend by brutalizing the Panthers. The Raiders, meanwhile, have emerged from the dystopian wreckage of Weeks 1-8 to find the sun breaking from the clouds.
Oakland’s schedule has come under heavy scrutiny, but only because of the six-week span that included four away games, a “home game” in a country where football is a sport played by Neymar, a bye week, flights across a total of 32 time zones and not a single football contest at home. It was a bizarre sequence, and Raiders coach Jon Gruden has had just about enough of it.
“I hope they do it to everybody in our division next year,” Gruden said Wednesday, barely containing his disdain. “I think everybody should have an opportunity to go on the road for six weeks. Somebody had a great idea for us to do it, I think everybody ought to do it next year.”
But, as wide receiver Zay Jones noted, no one is weeping for the Raiders.
“From the outside looking in, people probably won’t care about our schedule,” Jones said Wednesday. “But we know internally that, first of all, it’s hard to win in this league, period. Then going on a four- and five-game road trip, literally traveling halfway across the world. … Now to be home, everybody can get some extra treatments, extra rest, kind of clear our mind. Understand now the playing field is coming back more our way.”
The thing is, locale hasn’t been the Raiders’ biggest problem. With the exception of donating one home game to the cause of NFL trade expansion, they will be rewarded with enough home contests to make up the difference, starting with the next three.
No, the real issue has been the opposition. It has been pretty rugged.
Of the seven teams the Raiders have played thus far, five would be in the playoffs if they were to start tomorrow (which would be weird, because it’s a weekday).
And that remains true even if you remove their results against the Raiders. Another foe, the Bears, would be 3-3 if you subtracted their loss against Gruden’s team.
So the Raiders have had just one gimme in 2019, at home against the Broncos. At the end of all those long airplane rides were mean people lying in ambush.
From that perspective, going 2-3 during The Odyssey was something of an achievement.
“I think it was really just positive momentum, that’s what we really built,” left guard Richie Incognito said. “We didn’t get all those wins on the road, but I think for this team to go and play well against some really good teams, I really think it proved a lot to us that we can kind of hang with anybody.”
And the road ahead is more cleanly paved. Of the nine teams remaining on the Raiders’ schedule, exactly one has a winning record; that’s the Chiefs, and they expect to have quarterback Patrick Mahomes back by then. Three of the upcoming foes are currently at .500, and all of them must travel to Oakland. Meanwhile, five upcoming Raiders opponents have losing records, and at least two of them - the Bengals and Jets - are truly woeful.
Remember that the Raiders have already beaten one team, Indianapolis, that is better than almost anyone they will face before the new year, and that they haven’t lost to anyone who is sub-.500.