O.CO COLISEUM — If the Raiders third-down defense hadn’t already hit rock bottom, it did Sunday.
The Arizona Cardinals converted nine of 15 third downs as they rolled past the Oakland Raiders 24-13 with relative ease.
Arizona was backed into a corner on third downs numerous times, but former Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer found a way out more times than not. This comes after a full week’s worth of Raiders practices devoted to improving their league-worst third-down defense.
It’s something that has plagued the 0-6 Oakland Raiders this season, perhaps one of the biggest reasons they remain the only winless team in the NFL.
Photos by Scot Tucker/SFBay
The Raiders had their moments, including big plays by linebacker Sio Moore and pressure from rookie Khalil Mack. But when the two young linebackers weren’t making plays, defensive back Tarell Brown was getting burnt or linebacker Miles Burris was getting trucked.
The offense didn’t have much of a response, with Oakland’s sole touchdown coming on a short run from Darren McFadden, who gained 48 yards on 14 carries and another seven yards on four receptions.
The team’s most exciting play came on a punt return from rookie T.J. Carrie, who took the ball nearly 80 yards, just one defender shy of scoring.
But, in typical Raiders fashion, the play was flagged with a suspect illegal block penalty on Brice Butler.
Interim head coach Tony Sparano started his postgame press conference with a long sigh. Perhaps it was all he needed to do at the podium, summing up the team’s performance in critical situations. He did add to it, though:
“We have got to learn that in the critical situations, and there’s critical situations that come up, and there’s only a few of them in every game. You have 120 and some odd, 140 and some odd plays that I’ll go through tonight. But in those 140-something, you might have eight or nine of them that are critical. Really critical situations. And those are the situations that we have got to be able to win. We have to win more than we lose in those situations.”
Sparano is right, the Raiders have failed to capitalize in moments where the most critical moments present themselves. Sometimes that means stopping the run on third down. Sometimes that means stopping the run on third down with little time left in the game.
The latter being something the Raiders didn’t do, and potentially something that could have turned the tide of the worst start they’ve had in 52 years, when they lost 19 straight. They’ve currently dropped their last 12 games dating back to last season.
Despite optimism during practice, it’s become clear that some of the players have become indifferent in what is quickly becoming — if it hasn’t already become — a lost season.
Cornerback Carlos Rogers alluded to this when he said:
“Losers are going to put their heads down. Losers are going to tuck their tails and pretty much say ‘I’m done with this season.’ But winner are going to keep fighting and that’s all you can do. I can only speak for myself. I know personally, I’m not lying down, I’m not giving up.”
Speaking only for oneself is one signal of a continued dysfunction in a locker room. There are fewer “we” statements and more “I” statements. Even in close games, the Raiders sound more like a team that is giving up on an individual basis.
Raiders quarterback Derek Carr didn’t throw a touchdown, finishing with 16 completions in 28 attempts for 173 yards. Oakland accumulated only 220 yards in total offense Sunday in another game that they probably could have won.
Carr, who refuses to speak for the team despite being a team leader, believes change is coming. His reasoning? It lies in his spiritual belief. The rookie said:
“For me, I just keep my head down and I keep working. You’re going to be praised a lot in this game, and you’re going to be criticized a lot. So keep your head down and keep working.”
That works to a point, especially if you land on a good team, or at least one with a good winning percentage. An 0-6 team, though? Not so much.
Carr’s development has been incredible. Early indications, which almost never give the full scope, point to Carr leading a truly great career in the NFL. He’s got a cannon arm with terrific accuracy.
But what sets apart quarterbacks like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Steve Young apart from others is their ability to place a hand in something they have no control over. To take over a defensive unit, with a few words, your presence, to instill a belief in them that you will get it done as long as they do.
That doesn’t seem to be the case with the Raiders and Carr. Not yet.
It will fall on Carr, since the team’s winless record is quickly pointing towards an impossible playoff berth despite being two weeks away from midseason. It should be improbable at worst.
It’s clear that Sparano has done things that are working. The Raiders have started 0-2 under his guidance, but the losses have been close. And against teams entering with a 4-1 records.
They’ve shown some grit, and there’s a prolonged sense of confidence in minor ways. This is a team that know’s it can win — sort of.
The players who can do simple math know the season is essentially over. What started as a quest for a playoff berth has become a quest to finish the season with a few wins.
But those wins might not come, unless the team can work, speak, and operate as a team. And it will be signed with ‘we’ statements. Not the other kind.