ALAMEDA — It’s a scene re-enacted annually, but it felt a little different on Sunday. A day after the Raiders’ season had ended on the field of NRG Stadium in Houston with a 27-14 loss to the Texans in an AFC wild card game, players cleared out their lockers and sat in on exit meetings.
There was a hint of promise in the air, but also sadness after a season that ended too abruptly, and too soon.
“Less than 24 hours out right now, so it’s still a little raw,” Oakland coach Jack Del Rio said in his final press conference of the season. “We’ll definitely be able to look back and be proud of what we accomplished this year and then let that sting that you feel from having it end the way it did be a reminder of how hard you need to push, how much work is in front of us.”
Before that reflection, these guys can be forgiven for asking: What if? What if Derek Carr hadn’t broken his fibula in Week 16 and the Raiders hadn’t been forced to start their last two games with second- and third-string quarterbacks?
“Yeah, absolutely,” Carr said Sunday after scooting into the press room on a “knee walker” that supported his right leg. “I said ‘what if,’ I said ‘why’ a lot in the last two weeks.”
A first-round playoff exit was a tough way to end a season that included seven fourth-quarter comebacks, a six-game winning streak in the middle of the schedule and a level of offensive production that made Carr a frontrunner for the NFL most valuable player award until his injury. The Raiders went 12-4 and made the playoffs for the first time in 14 years.
“I told everyone, the season goes a lot quicker when you’re winning games,” said long snapper Jon Condo, who finally tasted the postseason in his 10th year in Oakland. “Everything’s better. The food tastes better when you’re winning games.”
Condo said that when the Raiders returned to team headquarters after the flight home from Houston, about 15 fans stood in the rain to greet them here. It was past midnight.
As exhilarating as the 2016 season was for this team, its shortcomings were exposed in the final two games. The biggest factor, of course, was Carr’s injury; few teams can overcome the loss of a franchise quarterback. But in consecutive losses to Denver and Houston, the Raiders’ defense struggled, the running game failed to mount a consistent attack and the offensive line that had protected Carr brilliantly all year started to show some leaks.
The evaluation will begin immediately. The Raiders currently have 13 free agents, including No. 1 running back Latavius Murray, right tackle Menelik Watson and defensive starters like inside linebackers Malcolm Smith and Perry Riley Jr., and defensive tackle Stacy McGee.
One of the expiring contracts belongs to wide receiver and special-teams ace Andre Holmes, and he made a pitch to continue the work he and his teammates have begun.
“I love the Raiders,” Holmes said. “That’s where my heart is. Ever since I’ve been here, I’ve always wanted to be on the team that got the Raiders back on the map. And now I want to be on the team that gets them to the Super Bowl.”
Some wonder whether the coaching staff will remain intact as it did the previous year. Defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. took some heat throughout the season as his well-compensated unit failed to jell as well as planned. Sunday, Del Rio declined to discuss the likelihood of any changes.
And then there is Carr, 25, who passed for 3,937 yards and 28 touchdowns (with just six interceptions) in his third season. He refused to offer a timetable on his recovery, or to divulge whether surgeons inserted any pins or screws into his fibula, but he insisted he will be ready for the first mandatory minicamps in May — provided his coaches and trainers allow it.
In fact, Carr claimed that had the Raiders found a way to advance to the Super Bowl in February, he would have played.
“Absolutely. Yeah,” he said. “Like everyone was telling me ‘no chance’ … ‘unlikely’ … ‘not gonna happen.’ All these things. That didn’t mean anything to me, and I’d say ‘OK, thanks.’ I’d have been out there.”
As it was, Carr was reduced to watching Oakland’s regular-season finale and wild card game from the comfort of his living room. He said former teammate Rod Streater, who just spent a season with the 49ers, came over to view the Texans game.
Carr found himself yelling at the screen as his replacement, rookie Connor Cook, tried to move the offense in his first NFL start.
“I was telling him all the routes that were coming,” Carr said. “I could kind of figure it out. I had my game plan there with me. Coach Mus (offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave) handed it to me. I could tell him what was coming and things like that. I’m trying to do the reads. I wish they did a quarterback view of the defense.”
Carr, ever upbeat, sees a silver lining in the way things ended in 2016.
“The thing that hurts is what’s gonna motivate us for the future,” he said. “And the thing that sits in our heart and makes us sick to our stomach, that competitiveness, that drive, is what’s gonna continue to help us get better.”
The hope in Oakland is that general manager Reggie McKenzie has put together a roster that is built to last. With a young nucleus like Carr, defensive end Khalil Mack and wide receiver Amari Cooper, that would seem to be the case.
“Nobody wants to take one swing and hope that you have a magical year one time,” Del Rio said. “I think you want to build your roster strong, build your team strong and build the culture strong so that what you’re able to put in and put together is a roster that can go out and compete at a championship level year after year. That’s what the goal is.”
And as soon as the pain goes away, that’s what the Raiders will embrace.
You can reach staff writer Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.