The date? November 27th, 2016. The place? The Oakland-Alameda Coliseum. The score? 32-24, Carolina Panthers. After jumping out to a 24-7 lead, it looked like Khalil Mack‘s Oakland Raiders would stomp out Cam Newton, and the defending NFC Champion Carolina Panthers. But after a botched snap and a finger injury sidelined Derek Carr, the reigning MVP helped his team march back, scoring 25 unanswered points in the second half.
But then, Carr came back in. After a three and out, Carr marched his team down the field, hitting Clive Walford in the endzone for a touchdown. After a successful two point conversion attempt, the Raiders defense got a stop. After two huge completions to Michael Crabtree, Sebastian Janikowski kicked a 23 yard field goal to give Oakland the lead. On the next drive, Khalil Mack sacked Newton, forcing a fumble which he recovered, securing the win. This would give Oakland their ninth win, locking up their first winning record since 2002.
Fast forward two short years, and the Raiders are 1-5. Khalil Mack is a Chicago Bear, Michael Crabtree is a Baltimore Raven, Seabastian Jankowski is a Seattle Seahawk, and Derek Carr leads the NFL in interceptions. The promising young team that took the NFL by storm is once again, a laughing stock. What went wrong?
What Went Wrong: The Story of the 2016 Oakland Raiders
The Crack Heard Round The Nation
Ask any Raiders fan what happened to their team, and inevitably, one moment comes up. On Christmas Eve, 2016, Trent Cole blasted past left tackle Donald Penn, sacking Carr, breaking his fibula. His MVP caliber season was over, and the Raiders were dead in the water. A week later, they lost an ugly game to the Denver Broncos, and then in the wild card round, Connor Cook just couldn’t hang.
But there was still reason to be optimistic. The Raiders had such a great young nucleus, they could only get better. Derek Carr was a MVP candidate, Amari Cooper was coming off consecutive 1,000 yard seasons, and Khalil Mack was the NFL’s defensive player of the year.
Well, the next year, it just didn’t seem like Carr was the same. After two great starts, things collapsed on Monday Night Football against the Washington Redskins. Carr threw two picks, only accumulated 118 passing yards, and never looked comfortable. Some people, who would never let a little thing like the truth get in the way of good gossip, insinuated that the offensive line intentionally sacrificed Carr to punish him for not kneeling during the anthem.
After averaging 262 yards per game in 2016, he only averaged 233 yards in 2017. He clearly wasn’t the same. He wasn’t the same quarterback that dove over a defender for a first down against the Saints in 2016. This Derek Carr wouldn’t even take off with his legs. This Carr seemed skiddish and uncomfortable in the pocket. The Raiders won a ton of close games in 2016, and almost all of them were thanks to Carr. If he wasn’t playing at the same high level, those comeback clutch wins just weren’t going to happen.
Carr has started 23 games since that injury. Here are his numbers in those games. In those 23 starts, Carr has thrown for 5,694 yards, 32 touchdowns, and 21 interceptions. That’s 248 yards, one touchdown, and one interception a game.
In the 23 games before the Raiders played the Colts on Christmas Eve? He threw for 5,899 yards, 42 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions. Calculated up, that’s 257 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception a game. There’s a difference of 205 yards, 10 touchdowns, and five interceptions, and none are improvement.
Sure, the injury probably affected Carr mentally, but that wasn’t the only thing that changed for the Raiders. One coaching change, that was celebrated at the time, ultimately ended up being bigger than anyone could’ve predicted.
When Jack Del Rio and Reggie McKenzie decided not to extend the contract of offensive coordinator, Bill Musgrave, many in the Raider Nation celebrated. There were points during the 2016 season when Musgrave was too conservative, and let other teams come back instead of going for the kill. Fans complained that he was too conservative, too predictable, and not the man who could lead the Raiders to the promised land.
Down Down Downing
That’s when Todd Downing, Carr’s quarterback coach, was promoted. Any Raiders fan can tell you just how terrible Downing was. He refused to use power formations, rendering hot off-season acquisition, Marshawn Lynch mostly useless, and never seemed to go vertical. The Raiders used fewer play action passes than any other team in football, and while Carr completed 63% of his passes, they were only for 5.3 yards an attempt.
Ken No No Norton
Downing wasn’t the only problem of course, as Ken Norton Jr., the team’s long beleaguered defensive coordinator, didn’t have the slightest clue what he was doing. This was a team in 2016 that couldn’t stop the other squad from scoring, couldn’t get off the field on third down, and couldn’t get sacks unless the player was wearing 52 on his jersey.
Those same things were true in 2017, but the offense wasn’t there to bail them out. Norton was fired before the season even ended, and John Pagano took over, doing a pretty decent job considering the circumstances. It’s easy to point at the offense for dropping the ball on the 2017 season, but at least they experienced some kind of success the year before, unlike the defense.
Head of the Serpent
But ultimately, the coaching blame falls on Jack Del Rio. While Del Rio could motivate his players, and was great when the team was winning, he’s never been an X’s and O’s guy, and it showed. Any time the Raiders encountered a team with a smart coach, the Raiders were humiliated, simply because he couldn’t scheme with the likes of Andy Reid or Bill Belichick.
And while Del Rio was a great coach to have when the team was winning, he was apparently dreadful when they weren’t. He let the inmates run the asylum, with everyone not named Derek Carr and Khalil Mack essentially taking practices off and failing to take the team seriously.
The rumors about alleged racism on the offensive line are almost surely false, but there’s no question that there were serious issues in the locker room that destroyed the team from the inside. There were points during last season when Derek Carr and Michael Crabtree weren’t speaking. That’s a pretty big deal considering nobody has caught more passes from Derek than Crabtree.
Whether the issues were about frustration with their success, potential racial tension, or just a locker room full of young players with bad habits, Jack Del Rio lost his team, and then he lost his job. A lot has been said about Jon Gruden’s firesale, but when you look at how a lot of the players he released or traded behaved, the only player who didn’t deserve punishment earned two first round picks from Chicago.
Were They All That Good?
This isn’t really a question people like to ask, especially in the Raider Nation, but were the 2016 Raiders all that great? Sure, they scored a lot of points, and they did well come award season, but let’s take a closer look at those twelve wins.
1. 35-34 @ The New Orleans Saints
This was the game that would end up epitomizing everything great about this team. It was a shootout against Drew Brees, a hall of fame quarterback, in New Orleans. The Raiders hung with the Saints all game long, and with an opportunity to tie, head coach Jack Del Rio decided to go for the win instead, with Derek Carr finding Michael Crabtree for the game-winning two point conversion.
This was a defining win for the Raiders, as it proved they were really here to compete. It’s easy to overlook, given the competition, but the Raiders didn’t exactly dominate this game. In fact, the Saints actually outgained the Raiders, 507 to 486. You can call yourself great, but you’re not going to get very far giving up 500 yards a game.
Point Differential: One
2. 17-10 @ The Tennessee Titans
This game was hideous. For the second victory in a row, the Raiders were outgained in a game they won, this time it was only 393 to 368, but 400 yards given up isn’t that much better than 500 yards given up. Derek Carr didn’t really find his footing, the Raiders struggled on the ground, and if it weren’t for two costly Marcus Mariota interceptions, they might’ve lost this one.
Point Differential: Seven
3. 28-27 @ The Baltimore Ravens
Another day, another shootout. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, despite getting teh win, the Raiders were outgained as an offense. And this time? It wasn’t even close. The Raiders, led by Derek Carr’s 199 passing yards and four touchdowns, accumulated 261 total yards. The Ravens? Had 412. That’s right, they had 412 yards, and had it not been for a fumble by Joe Flacco? The Raiders probably don’t win this one. However, Michael Crabtree’s big day saved them yet again.
Point Differential: One
4. 34-31 vs. The San Diego Chargers
You’re going to think I’m making this up, but Philip Rivers and the then-San Diego Chargers had more yards than the Raiders in this game, despite losing. They managed to get 423 yards, while Oakland had only 389. Now, 389 yards is nothing to scoff at, but it’s definitely not 423. The Chargers turned the ball over four times, and they still only lost by three. At some point, you look at all these wins, and realize many, many, many of them have much more to do with luck than talent, and I’m not talking about Andrew, not yet.
Point Differential: Three
5. 33-16 @ The Jacksonville Jaguars
When we get to Blake Bortles and the hapless 2016 Jacksonville Jaguars, you think, “Okay, finally, the Raiders get a win where they outgained the other team” because this team was horrid. They went 3-13, and nobody could’ve predicted that they’d be contenders the following season. Well, you’re half-right. The Jaguars didn’t outgain the Raiders. However, they did have the exact same number of yards.
That’s right, both teams had 344 yards in this game. Derek Carr couldn’t get anything going, as Jalen Ramsey shut Amari Cooper down, and he had to force passes to Crabtree. Blake Bortles had multiple interceptions, which gave the Raiders their biggest win margin of the season, but this was an ugly, hard-fought game, where the Raiders barely got out with a win.
Point Differential: 17
6. 30-24 @ The Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Finally, FINALLY, the Raiders outgained the other team, and this time, it wasn’t even close. Derek Carr set the franchise record for passing yards in a game (513), and on his 59th pass attempt, he found Seth Roberts for the game-winning touchdown in overtime. But it took overtime. This was a bad Tampa Bay team, and after two Sebastian Janikowski misses, it took an uncharacteristically great effort from the defense to shut down Mike Evans to give the Raiders a chance.
Point Differential: Six
7. 30-20 vs. The Denver Broncos
This was my favorite game of this season. It was primetime in the Black Hole, and the Raiders played some of the most beautiful smash-mouth football I’ve ever seen. Latavius Murray had 20 carries for 114 yards and three touchdowns as they just beat up the defending Super Bowl champion Broncos on their way to a big win. Donald Penn infamously said after the game that they probably ran the same play ten times in a row but Denver just couldn’t stop it. Throw in two Khalil Mack sacks, and there’s nothing bad to say about this win at all.
Point Differential: 10
8. 27-20 vs. The Houston Texans
This game was technically a home game for the Raiders, but it was held in Mexico City. It was in this game that the fans infamously used lazer pointers to benefit the Raiders, as they stole a win in primetime. Unfortunately, this game also marked the return of the unfortunate trend of the other team outgaining the Raiders, though it was only 354-325.
The Texans dominated time of possession, and if it weren’t for a couple of costly turnovers and a huge play by Jamize Olawale, the Raiders might not have won this one either. And this is where it gets to be annoying, but I’ll explain why in a second.
Point Differential: Seven
9. 35-32 vs. The Carolina Panthers
In all fairness, this game probably should’ve been a blowout. If Carr doesn’t fumble and hurt his hand, the Raiders might’ve run up the score on Cam Newton’s Panthers. This game was a great example of a clutch win, where the team first proved they were better, and then were still forced to overcome adversity. My second favorite Khalil Mack game and my thatsmyquarterback.gif memory for Carr.
Point Differential: Three
10. 38-24 vs. The Buffalo Bills
This was a bad Bills team, and they made the Raiders earn this victory by dominating time of possession and exploiting Oakland’s inability to stop the run. LeSean McCoy had nearly 200 all-purpose yards, and it took a furious comeback, some Carr heroics, and bad Buffalo offense to come away with this one.
Point Differential: 14
11. 19-16 @ The San Diego Chargers
What an ugly game this was. The Raiders were marching up and down the field, but they just couldn’t finish drives. They had to settle for four Seabass field goals, and even Khalil Mack couldn’t help this one. This was just a classic division game where the Raiders made more plays than the Chargers. Ugly wins are wins too.
Point Differential: Three
12. 33-25 vs. The Indianapolis Colts
In this, the win that ultimately became the squad’s biggest loss, the Raiders were running wild early. At one point in this game, the Raiders were up 33-7. On one hand, you can’t help but think about how different the NFL would be today if they had taken Carr out and put Matt McGloin in. On the other, the team had a 19 point lead with 11 minutes left when Carr got hurt, and they almost lost. That’s how hopeless this team was. They lost their quarterback and almost blew a three touchdown lead in just over 11 minutes.
Point Differential: Eight
The point is the 12 Raider victories were by an average of exactly one touchdown. And that’s with a couple of blowouts against bad teams. This wasn’t a squad that was consistently beating teams in all three phases. The 2016 Raiders were frequently outgained on offense, relying on turnovers and miraculous comeback drives to beat teams that weren’t really that good.
Everyone looked at this team and thought they were destined for great things, but maybe the reality is they were just good enough, they believed they could win games, and they got lucky. They were just good enough to compete at every position, and then they got lucky. And then in 2017, they weren’t as lucky, so Mark Davis pulled the plug and brought in his nostalgic crush to blow the whole thing up and start over.
I can’t tell you that Jon Gruden is going to save the Oakland/San Diego/Las Vegas Raiders. I believe he has a plan, and that plan revolves around nailing the next two drafts and picking up pieces in free agency. If it works, then he’s Jimmy Johnson in 1992, and we’ll all applaud him for being a genius. If it doesn’t, well, then this project, combined with Super Bowl XXXVII, will make Gruden just about the worst thing that ever happened to this recently snakebitten franchise.
We won’t know until the Raiders move to Vegas, so all we can really do is speculate and hope. But it’s time to let go of the 2016 Raiders. It was a magical season with a tragic ending, and no matter how hard we wish (or in the Nation’s case, tweet), it’s not coming back.
We’ll always have that win over the Panthers on that awesome November afternoon.