Las Vegas Sun

September 16, 2019

Currently: 87° — Complete forecast

The Final Drive: These 5 questions loom as the Raiders enter their last pre-Las Vegas season

Raiders at NFL Football Training Camp

Eric Risberg / AP

Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden yells during training camp Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019, in Napa, Calif. The Raiders will face the Broncos in the season opener, Monday, Sept. 9, 2019, at the Oakland Coliseum.

The Raiders open their final season in Oakland with more issues than certainties, a preponderance of questions that need answering before the move to Las Vegas next year. It’s a study in how quickly a franchise’s fortunes can flip in the NFL.

Bonus question: How can I get my gear?

You can’t … yet. Las Vegas Raiders merchandise won’t be available until 2020, since the team will remain the Oakland Raiders until then.

When the organization announced its planned 2020 relocation two and a half years ago, it looked like the Raiders would be Super Bowl contenders by now. They were coming off their best season in 14 years—a 12-4 campaign in 2016-17 that culminated with a postseason berth and a parade of accolades.

General manager Reggie McKenzie won the Executive of the Year award. Defensive end Khalil Mack was named Defensive Player of the Year. Quarterback Derek Carr and coach Jack Del Rio finished fourth in the voting for MVP and Coach of the Year, respectively. Carr and Mack were supposed to pair with promising rookie receiver Amari Cooper to form a “big three” of superstars to lead the team for years to come.

Carr is the only one of that contingent—including McKenzie and Del Rio—still in silver and black. Owner Mark Davis fired Del Rio after a 6-10 season in 2017-18 to bring in Jon Gruden, who wrested control from McKenzie and eventually got him replaced with first-year general manager Mike Mayock.

Gruden’s early moves included controversially dealing Mack and Cooper last season for future assets, an indicator that the Raiders’ focus was on creating roster flexibility to potentially enter a championship window within a few years in Las Vegas. They’ve accomplished that on the surface, but the specifics are still murky. Here are five burning questions heading into this season that should provide some clarity.

1. Will Jon Gruden make it to Las Vegas?

This has been Raiders talk-show fodder since the tumultuous start to last season, which saw Gruden trade Mack to the Chicago Bears. It’s too bad tens of thousands of words have been wasted on the topic when one would suffice. Yes, Gruden will coach in Las Vegas.

Only something extraordinary could change that, like a winless season or an off-field incident. Oakland has far too much talent to become the third 0-16 team in NFL history, and it seems just as far-fetched that the 56-year-old Gruden will find himself in any trouble. He’s one of the more beloved figures in the NFL after an initial 18-year coaching career was followed by nine seasons as a color commentator on Monday Night Football.

Don’t think Gruden’s personality wasn’t a factor in Davis’ decision to lure him back into coaching with a 10-year, $100 million contract. The owner wanted a magnetic face of the franchise to lead the charge into Las Vegas. Gruden might not get the chance to fulfill his contract if his teams struggle after the relocation, but the first couple of seasons were always going to be about getting the pieces in place.

There’s no real pressure on Gruden until next season.

2. Is Derek Carr still the long-term quarterback?

Click to enlarge photo

Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr passes against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the second half of an NFL football game in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018.

The Raiders are hitting an inflection point with their sixth-year quarterback: It’s time to decide if Carr is still the long-term answer at the most important position.

Publicly, Gruden and Mayock have been highly supportive of the 2014 second-round pick out of Fresno State. But rumblings of discord have also persisted—fans dissect every interaction between Gruden and Carr on HBO training-camp documentary series Hard Knocks—and they become bigger given the circumstances.

The current regime isn’t the one that locked Carr into a five-year, $125 million extension that runs through 2022. And Carr hasn’t lived up to the expectations the deal placed on him; his metrics, including QBR and Football Outsiders’ DYAR, have declined in each of the two seasons since his 2016-17 apex.

The way Carr’s contract is structured, the Raiders could cut him with relatively minor repercussions—only $7.5 million of dead money against the salary cap—after this season. Complicating matters, however: The contract isn’t prohibitive and might actually be a value to the Raiders as time progresses. Carr is the ninth-highest-paid quarterback in the NFL, but he’ll continue to fall in those rankings as young passers are transitioned off their rookie deals.

Carr has been mediocre—but not disastrous—the past two seasons, and the ineffectiveness hasn’t all been his fault. The Raiders have fielded one of the NFL’s worst offensive lines, not to mention a dearth of high-level skill players.

That changes this year. Oakland focused its offseason efforts on getting Carr everything he has lacked. The biggest of those moves: signing former 49ers and Patriots offensive tackle Trent Brown to the largest offensive line contract in NFL history (four years, $66 million) and trading with the Steelers for future Hall of Fame receiver Antonio Brown. It feels like a not-so-subtle challenge to Carr—to prove his capability once and for all.

3. Can Antonio Brown rise above his reputation?

Click to enlarge photo

In this Aug. 15, 2019, file photo, Oakland Raiders wide receiver Antonio Brown (84) puts on his helmet prior to the team's NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals in Glendale, Ariz.

Well, he’s not off to the best start. The biggest story out of Raiders training camp was Brown’s helmet saga.

The NFL deemed the model of headwear Brown has worn since his 2010 rookie season unsafe and no longer approved for competition. Brown railed against the decision, filing two grievances against the NFL that were ultimately struck down by independent arbitrators.

The Raiders initially supported Brown, but patience wore thin as he continued holding out of practice. Mayock eventually told reporters that Brown needs to be “all in or all out.”

Brown’s now back, but fairly or unfairly, the whole episode strengthened a lot of people’s perception of him as a problematic teammate. Brown’s character started to get called into question late last season, when his relationship with Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger deteriorated. Brown skipped practices leading into Pittsburgh’s final game, got benched by coach Mike Tomlin and then demanded a trade.

To Brown’s credit, there are no signs of disharmony with either Gruden or Carr, and all concerns should quell if he produces on the field. Brown has always produced on the field; since 2010, he leads all NFL players in total receptions (837), receiving yards (11,207) and receiving touchdowns (74).

4. How do the Raiders fix their struggling defense?

Click to enlarge photo

Oakland Raiders outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict (55) during NFL football training camp Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019, in Napa, Calif. Both the Oakland Raiders and the Los Angeles Rams held a joint practice before their upcoming preseason game on Saturday. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Offensive shortcomings usually become the focal point whenever a team struggles, but they’re not the primary symptom that has afflicted the Raiders the past couple of years. Oakland’s defense has been significantly worse than its offense, and bottomed out completely last season.

The Raiders were last in the NFL in points allowed (467) and yards allowed per play (6.3), and they managed only 13 sacks, fewest among any NFL team over the past 10 years.

Sweeping changes were necessary, so sweeping changes were made. Oakland is expected to break in eight new starters Week 1 against the Broncos, and the second unit also features many new faces.

To repair their defense, the Raiders took a two-pronged approach, seeking out short- and long-term solutions. Their linebacking corps might have been the worst unit of all last season, and they addressed it by signing veteran former Pro Bowler Vontaze Burfict to anchor the defense.

The team also used five of its first six picks in the most recent NFL Draft on defense. First-round selections Clelin Ferrell and Johnathan Abram are practically guaranteed to be roster staples for years to come, but the Raiders are hopeful they uncovered other gems later, such as fourth-round edge rusher Maxx Crosby.

The Raiders haven’t fielded a top 10 defense by Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings since 2006. Only three of their past 13 defenses have graded out as above league average. That must show signs of improving if they hope to be competitive in Las Vegas.

5. Will priorities change over the season's second half?

Davis has remained steadfast in saying he wants to depart Oakland off a winning season, and there’s no reason to doubt his sincerity. There’s such turnover each year in the NFL that almost every team enters the season with some realistic Super Bowl aspirations.

If everything breaks right—Carr clicks with his new weapons, the defense hunkers down, etc.—the Raiders could be a playoff team this season. The probability is slim, though, especially in the AFC West, where the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers—two of the best teams in football—also dwell.

More than likely, the Raiders will have a losing record as the season winds down. And then they might have a tough decision to make. To keep going all out could be counterintuitive, as victories would only weaken their draft positioning while exposing important players to potential injury. The Raiders might be better served resting veteran stars to get a closer look at young players, without worrying about dropping a game or two they otherwise might not.

That’s especially true if they decide to move on from Carr. The 2020 NFL Draft looks rich in quarterback prospects, with Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, Oregon’s Justin Herbert and Georgia’s Jake Fromm all looming as potential first-rounders.

Some fans can’t fathom a professional sports team not trying to win at all costs, but they’re fooling themselves if they can’t see the Raiders at least considering such a strategy. It would be beneficial for the team’s future in Las Vegas, and for the past couple of years, that has been the driving force behind almost all of the Raiders’ decisions.

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.