The Oakland Raiders head into Sunday’s 2017 opener shouldering the greatest expectations the franchise has faced in more than a decade.
Coming off a season in which a first-round bouncing from the playoffs was an upset, the Raiders, who haven’t won a playoff game since 2002, are among the odd makers’ favorites to win their first Super Bowl since 1983.
But, before Oakland begins its parade planning, before Oakland’s passionate fan base begins making plans for an early-February trip to Minnesota, before head coach Jack Del Rio and his staff begin game planning for what it will hope to be the team’s first postseason victory in 15 years, the black and silver faces real questions.
First down: How does Carr’s surgically repaired leg hold up
Franchise quarterback Derek Carr‘s gruesome injury in Week 16 last year not only stunted the Raiders’ very realistic AFC Championship aspirations, it created a dark cloud of doubt heading into what was a much longer offseason than expected.
In a 33-25 win over the Indianapolis Colts last Christmas Eve, Carr suffered a broken right fibula essentially ending Oakland’s season as backup Connor Cook lost both of his starts, including a Wild Card round game at the Houston Texans.
Carr has made all the claims one would expect from a confident young star throughout the preseason, and physically he looks as strong as ever. But, how does he respond to live game action — of which he saw very little in two preseason games. How does he hold up physically? Mentally?
Well, physically, Carr has evidence that a superior athlete can return to that level following his injury. In 2013, Green Bay Packers wide receiver Randall Cobb suffered a similar injury, also requiring surgery to repair a broken fibula. When Cobb returned to the field in 2014, he was right back to work, earning a Pro Bowl nod for his 91 receptions, 1,287 yards and 12 touchdowns. Since, Cobb has missed just three games — each coming following an ankle injury last season.
Carr and his fans — teammates and coaches — can draw on that, understanding that an elite-level slot receiver made a full recovery from the same surgery just four years ago, lending credence to the thought that a quarterback can do the same.
Mentally, Carr is a heavily faith-driven man. One that, at least outwardly, is never flustered by questions from within.
Plus, Carr is still standing behind one of the game’s best lines, and with Pro Bowler Donald Penn — who surrendered just two sack last season — back on his blind side, resolving a contract holdout, confidence will start high and grow.
Second down: Can Mack, Irvin and the defense get to the quarterback
The Oakland O-line did a better job than any other group in the game keeping their quarterback upright a season ago. The defensive front was the opposite, getting to the opposing signal caller a league-low 25 times.
Bruce Irvin and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack, who combined for 18 of those sacks last year, need to do better. Mack got home 15 times in 2015, he needs at least that many in 2017. But, the edge-rush duo needs some help. Denico Autry, Jihad Ward and Justin Ellis need to create more push up the middle.
The primary source of the 2016 defense’s weakness came in the passing game. It is up to the front seven to put pressure on the quarterback — preferably with sending no more than five.
GM Reggie Mckenzie made no major adds in the pass rush this offseason, but with names like Mack and Irvin and Mario Edwards Jr. already in the fold that shouldn’t be necessary. Expect the Oakland team sack total to be closer to the 38 of 2015 than the 25 of 2016.
Third down: Amerson, Smith, Carrie, Conley
Whether or not the front can get to the quarterback is the key query for the Raiders defense, and was the key weakness for the group last season. But cornerbacks David Amerson and Sean Smith didn’t do much to help the cause. They need to do more this time around.
The Oakland secondary surrendered 27 touchdowns, fewer than only three fellow playoff qualifiers. Among them were the Packers and Atlanta Falcons, two of the NFL’s top four offenses. The secondary was as great a weakness as the pass rush, if not more so.
McKenzie and the front office dedicate their No. 1 draft pick to solidifying the group. But because of off-the-field issues, as well as a shin injury, Gareon Conley got little to no work in with an NFL defense, meaning expectations should be very tempered regarding his contributions. Fact is, until Week 6 or so, he will be almost non-existent. T.J. Carrie will remain the nickel corner for the foreseeable future.
Each of the three main corners have been exposed in their careers, and the first-round selection will be playing at NFL speed for the first time. This is not a good equation, and the results will prove so.
Fourth down: Beast Mode
Adding Oakland native and All-Pro running back Marshawn Lynch was a genius marketing move from a front office on the cusp of moving the Raiders, once again, out of the East Bay. But, on the field, what they have done is replaced a guy who finished among the top 20 ball carriers in nearly every category — including touchdowns (12, No 5) — with one who hasn’t touched the ball 10-plus times in an NFL game since Nov. 1, 2015 — nearly two years ago.
One could easily expect a runner as physical as Lynch to be recharged by an 18-month hiatus, but to think he can step in and tote the rock 20 to 25 times per game every week would be foolish. And with backup Jalen Richard coming off a rookie season in which he got a mere five carries per, the game plan is obviously to put a resounding amount of the onus of offensive success on Carr, coming off leg surgery.
The defensive questions will be answered immediately, in a Week 1 matchup with a Tennessee Titans team whose young quarterback, Marcus Mariota, has shown an affinity for torching weaker secondaries, but being beaten by better ones.
Tennessee also did an exceptional job protecting that quarterback, allowing 28 sacks (T-7 fewest), and boast a productive power rushing game.
As far as Carr is concerned, though, the Titans defense, like the Raiders’, is dependent upon getting to the quarterback — something it did exceptionally better than Oakland in 2016 — but will be nullified by one of the game’s best lines. Carr will have open lanes with which to build confidence, both in the offense and his own leg.
For all intents and purposes, the Titans offer the Raiders a perfect first test. Their strengths and weaknesses perfectly align. And, as a bonus, Oakland can look to revisit and rebuild on past triumph, playing the same team against whom it enjoyed its most recent playoff victory.