KANSAS CITY, Mo. — For every ascending NFL team, there’s a bully in the neighborhood who stands in the way, a team they have to conquer to reach their full potential.
That much was obvious Sunday, as Gruden’s promising Raiders absorbed a 40-9 beatdown in Kansas City that showed exactly how far his young team has to go to punch in the Chiefs’ weight class.
Just a few weeks ago, the Raiders were flying high with a 6-4 record, and there was talk of them snapping the Chiefs’ three-year reign in the AFC West.
I never fully bought into that, largely because the Chiefs were clearly the division’s best team, and because the Raiders’ record was a reflection of a weak schedule and Gruden’s competency, both of which conspired to cover up a roster with loads of young, talented pieces with some Grand Canyon-sized holes.
The latter, in particular, was evident after an embarrassing 34-3 loss to the New York Jets (who lost to the previously winless Bengals this week), not to mention Sunday’s disappointing loss to the Chiefs.
And against Kansas City, Oakland’s defense did a decent job in spots, limiting one of the league’s best offenses to a season-low 259 yards. Oakland still needs help on that side of the ball (particularly with their pass rush), but the Raiders were ultimately done in by penalties — they comically committed 12 to the Chiefs’ zero — turnovers (3-0) and enough game-changing gaffes Sunday (including a dropped pick-six) that the 2017 Cleveland Browns would have said “damn, chill.”
“Our inability to stay away from the penalties and put ourselves in horrible situations [was the most disappointing thing],” Gruden explained afterward. “We had turnovers in the kicking game. I think we had four defensive false starts. We had a pick-six. We just never found our rhythm at all.”
As Gruden said, the offense is plenty culpable too, and quarterback Derek Carr will rightfully absorb most of the blame, as his two interceptions directly contributed to the 21-0 hole the Raiders found themselves in late in the second quarter on a frigid Kansas City afternoon.
The first was a heady play by Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu, who broke off his responsibility and made a great play on the football to set up a score.
The second, a pick-six by rookie safety Juan Thornhill, was a great play as well, but nevertheless a brutal one that a six-year veteran like Carr should avoid.
“Can’t turn the ball over and over again, you’ve got to give credit to their defense,” Carr later explained. “I pride myself on taking care of the football but they made two extremely great plays. We can’t have that happen and that’s my fault.”
The fastest way for a team like Oakland — which hasn’t won an AFC West title since 2002 — to rise to elite status is to find an elite quarterback. Carr, 28, is a solid rhythm thrower with improved mobility, but at this point in his career he looks to be Alex Smith-like, planted squarely in the middle of the pack of his position.
Carr’s numbers this year (70.9 completion percentage, 15 touchdowns, six interceptions) are solid, but not spectacular. He teases you with flashes of good play, and you feel like he could win a Super Bowl, but he doesn’t consistently elevate his teammates like a Mahomes or a Russell Wilson or a Deshaun Watson. His team would probably need a strong ground game, receivers and defense to win with him in January (plus he’d have to get hot at the right time).
Assembling a stew like that is hard to count on in today’s NFL, especially when the quarterback isn’t on a rookie deal like Carr isn’t. But it’s possible as long as a franchise drafts well, and early indications are that general manager Mike Mayock — whose first rookie class in Oakland is killing it — may be adept enough to pull it off.
Plus, Carr’s teammates seem to like him. Multiple Raiders mentioned to Yahoo Sports on Sunday that their quarterback remained positive and enthusiastic late in the game, despite the cold and the four-score deficit.
“Just the type of person he is, he’s a fighter, he’s a strong believer in what he believes in, and it’s hard not to root for that,” guard Gabe Jackson said. “Just his positive attitude and his will to win and his want to win. It’s great and it’s contagious.”
But if Carr is going to be the Raiders’ quarterback for the foreseeable future, Mayock and Gruden have some work to do to get the offense where it needs to be around him. The Raiders are set at running back with the sensational Josh Jacobs, who became the first Raiders rookie to rush for 1,000 yards, and tight end, with Darren Waller and fourth-round rookie Foster Moreau.
Their receivers leave much to be desired. This is a team that lacks speed, dynamism and downfield playmaking out wide, and there have certainly been times this season (including Sunday) when Carr would have been buoyed by better wideout play.
This is no slight to Tyrell Williams, who is solid, or Hunter Renfrow, who missed Sunday’s game but has the look of an effective slot guy. The Raiders can win with them. But Gruden traded for Antonio Brown this offseason for a reason, and put up with his embarrassing antics for as long as he could for that reason. Gruden knew this team needed Brown’s game-breaking skills. Hell, Carr did, too. So when Brown Keyser Soze’d his way out of town, he took any hope of the Raiders reaching the playoffs with him.
Expect Gruden and Mayock to address the glaring WR need this offseason, as few teams will be happier than the Raiders to select from what looks to be the deepest receiver draft in a decade.
That’s not going to help them now. Barring a miracle, the Raiders will likely finish 8-8 or 9-7 and miss the playoffs, and Carr will keep shouldering most of the blame for a flawed passing game.
None of that should necessarily be a downer for Raiders fans, who should be thrilled with an 8-8 season. If you had told anyone — from Oakland to Las Vegas, their new home starting next year — that the Raiders would be playing the Chiefs in December for a share of the division lead, they would have taken that before you even finished that sentence.
Nevertheless, “stand up to your bully” games aren’t meant to be moral victories. The NFL is an all-or-nothing league, and for the Raiders to conquer the neighborhood alpha sooner rather than later, they’ll either have to find a Patrick Mahomes of their own or improve the supporting cast around the one they have.
If they go the latter route, as most expect, games like Sunday’s will go a long way toward crystallizing Mayock’s and Gruden’s vision for what the Raiders must be if they want to one day slug their bully right in the mouth.
“I know where we are,” Gruden said afterward, “and I know where they [the Chiefs] are as a football team. We have work to do, and we’re going to continue to try and catch the Chiefs.”
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