The Las Vegas Raiders opened Allegiant Stadium with an impressive win over the Saints, but ultimately finished two-six in their new digs on the way to a disappointing eight-eight season. Head coach Jon Gruden has still not taken a team to the postseason since 2007, and his 57-55 (.509) record in the regular season with the Raiders is the same mediocre record he had as the coach of Tampa Bay (2002-08). Do you see it for your future NFL odds?
Since 2003, the Raiders have only one winning season (2016), but at least Gruden’s offense was effective with quarterback Derek Carr last season. Can a new defensive coordinator turn things around to get the Raiders back on track? The top sportsbooks have Las Vegas with an over/under of 7.0 wins, which would place them last in an AFC West the team finished second in last year.
On the Last Season of RAIDERS: When You Make Kansas City the Super Bowl
It would be easy to criticize the second Gruden tenure with the Raiders, but there is no denying that he delivered a signature win in the 2020 season. When the 11-point underdog Raiders won 40-32 in Kansas City in Week 5, it was the biggest upset in the first 12 weeks of the season. The Raiders made Patrick Mahomes run for his life in a preview of what Tampa Bay would do in the Super Bowl, and Derek Carr had the game of his life in throwing deep touchdowns and converting on multiple third-and-longs to pull off the upset.
When it came time for the rematch in Week 11, the Raiders had to feel good at 6-3 and the only team to defeat the defending champions. Carr again played well, but ultimately the defense failed the team as Mahomes led a game-winning drive with ease in the 35-31 final. That gut punch seemed to linger with the Raiders as if it were the Super Bowl, and Las Vegas played horrifically in a 43-6 loss in Atlanta the following week. Take that in count next time you see your NFL picks.
Since 1990, teams that start 6-3 make the playoffs 73.3% of the time. However, the 2020 Raiders became Gruden’s third team to start 6-3 and miss the playoffs as Vegas finished 2-5 in the last seven games. One of those wins was an absolute gift from the Jets, who played an absurd Hail Mary defense at the end of the game, allowing Carr to find Henry Ruggs for a 46-yard touchdown in the final seconds. That was how close Gruden came to losing to an 0-11 team weeks after nearly sweeping the Chiefs.
The Raiders finished in the top 10 in many offensive categories, but unfortunately the defense was among the worst in the league for a third year in a row under Gruden. The Raiders had a league-low two games with multiple takeaways. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther was fired last December, and he will be replaced by Gus Bradley, who was a disaster as Jacksonville’s head coach but has done admirable work as a coordinator with the Chargers.
The Notable Changes for 2021
No matter which coordinator the Raiders chose this year, general manager Mike Mayock had to replenish the talent pool on defense. After the criticized pick of offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood in the first round, Mayock spent his next five picks on defense with an emphasis in the secondary. Trevon Moehrig could be a Week 1 starter at safety.
But overall, the Raiders had one of the poorest received draft classes from draft experts. It is up to Mayock and Gruden to prove them wrong, but recent results on this side of the ball have not been inspiring. At the very least, Bradley will be happy to see cornerback Casey Hayward following him to Vegas after spending five seasons with the Chargers. However, 2020 was a rough year as Hayward allowed five touchdowns and 8.2 yards per target in coverage according to Pro Football Reference.
The Raiders need a pass rush. The team had 21 sacks last year and Maxx Crosby (7.0) was the only player with more than three sacks. That made it extra surprising to see the Raiders pass up defensive linemen for Leatherwood in the first round, especially since Kolton Miller has that left tackle job locked down.
Instead of rookies, the Raiders will rely on some veteran reclamation projects to help the pass rush. Yannick Ngakoue, another former Bradley player, has credibility with 45.5 career sacks in 78 games, but this will be his fourth team since 2019. He needs to settle down with one team and find some consistency for his career. Solomon Thomas was a disappointing first-round pick by the 49ers in 2017 and is coming off a torn ACL.
Not a lot of work was needed for the offense. Kenyan Drake (Cardinals) should be a good secondary back to Josh Jacobs, and wide receiver John Brown brings his speed from Buffalo to replace Nelson Agholor, who had a breakout season in his lone year with the Raiders. But a lot of this unit’s success is banking on the continued development of Ruggs, the 12th overall pick in 2020. He does not have to be a stud in 2021 with the way the offense relies on tight end Darren Waller, but Ruggs cannot have five games with fewer than 10 yards like he did as a rookie.
For a top-tier tight end, Waller also needs to be more of a consistent threat than he was last season. He averaged 49.3 yards per game and 8.5 yards per catch in the first 11 games of the season before exploding for 130.8 yards per game and 15.2 yards per catch over the last five games.
Regression Alert: Home/Road Wins
The 2020 Raiders were the only team in at least 20 years to finish 2-6 at home and 6-2 on the road. Historically, teams in new stadiums do not find much of a home-field advantage in that first year. So, it is a safe bet that the Raiders will do better than 2-6 at home this year in front of a rabid fanbase ready to celebrate the new stadium properly.
Also, likely due to the pandemic, the 2020 season was an odd one in that home teams finished with a losing record (127-128-1). Carr also led five game-winning drives in those six road wins. He had seven game-winning drives on the road in his first six seasons combined, including just one in 2017-19, so this sounds like a good case for regression in 2021.
However, to his credit, Carr has the most fourth-quarter comeback wins (21) in a player’s first seven seasons in NFL history. This is an area of the game where he actually excels, but too often in his career he plays too poorly to keep the Raiders close enough late, or the defense has such a bad game that it is out of reach in the fourth. Even last year, Carr could have easily had two more game-winning drives against the Chiefs and Dolphins in prime time had the defense made one final stop. The Raiders also coughed up an overtime lead to the Chargers in the game where Marcus Mariota nearly led a win for an injured Carr.
Carr has led the Raiders to at least seven wins in four of his last six seasons, but unfortunately, he has still not started a playoff game in the NFL. The good news is that under Gruden, Carr has seen his yards per attempt increase from 6.5 to 7.7. His 71.0 QBR was the highest of his career last season even factoring in the eight fumbles he lost, a number that often goes unnoticed as fans focus too much on interceptions. Carr was a bit unlucky in that regard as he lost eight of his 11 fumbles. In fact, the Raiders lost a league-high 16 fumbles while only recovering five fumbles on defense.
Their fumble luck should improve in 2021. The Raiders scored at least 20 points 14 times last year, something the team had not done since 2000, which was Gruden’s third season with Oakland during his first tenure. Now if only the defense could take a stride towards at least mediocrity.
Seven wins feels like a bargain, if only because the Raiders get that ninth home game (as all AFC teams do this year) and have drawn the NFC East. While the East will be better than the rock bottom it hit in 2020, it still looks like the worst NFC division. On paper, the schedule could result in a slow start before the Raiders pick up some wins later in the season.
They are competitive enough in the division (4-2 last year) where those games alone could produce three wins. Then it is just a matter of winning home games against unproven teams that will likely range from terrible to wild card this year, including the Dolphins, Bears, Eagles, Bengals, and Washington. The Raiders also could steal a road game in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Indianapolis, or shred the Dallas defense on Thanksgiving.
While I would not bet on the Raiders to make the playoffs with this defense, a season where they finish 8-9 or 9-8 and contend for the wild card on the final Sunday looks very reasonable. If things fall short of that, then we need to say goodbye to the Gruden-Carr era after this season.
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