Just grin, baby.
Three weeks into the NFL season, and the Oakland Raiders are riding high.
After getting blown out in their opener against Cincinnati, they roared back with victories over Baltimore and Cleveland to collect consecutive wins for the first time since 2012.
By topping the Browns, they won for the first time on the road since 2013. And Sunday they play at Chicago, where they stand a good chance of knocking off the 0-3 Bears. It has been four years since the Raiders won three in a row.
The season is just getting started, of course, and it’s easy to get swept away in the giddy euphoria of a downtrodden franchise, led by new Coach Jack Del Rio, heading into October with a winning record.
For some perspective, The Times turned to four Raiders greats to weigh in on the 2015 team, with each speaking to his area of expertise.
That group is composed of three Hall of Famers — coach John Madden, receiver Tim Brown and defensive lineman Howie Long — and former Oakland quarterback Rich Gannon, the NFL’s most valuable player in 2002.
Madden focused on Del Rio, with Gannon on quarterback Derek Carr, Brown on wideouts Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, and Long on the defense.
Here they are, in their words:
The Raiders needed an adult in the room. Jack became that guy, and you could tell it immediately. There was so much deferred maintenance in that organization, and I think Jack was a perfect guy to bring in to get rid of the deferred maintenance.
The biggest part of it was the team and the players, their approach to things. The other part of it was the physical structure, the building, the weight room, the meeting rooms, the training camp, the fields. They hadn’t worked on that stuff for years. You defer maintenance, and pretty soon you don’t keep up and you don’t have what everyone else has. Then it becomes a competitive issue. You can’t compete with other people that have it. You can’t compete in the free-agency market, you can’t compete just in your preparation.
Jack brought in a different way. Other people accepted, “Well that’s kind of the Raiders way,” and Jack came in and said, “No, that’s not the way you do pro football.” All the things that he changed needed to be changed, and they needed to be changed for a long time. So I think that got them on the right road. I don’t think anyone for a long time looked at their program and said, “Hell, we have to spruce this thing up a little bit.”
He knew the difference between the reality of the Raiders and the myth. The reality of it was they weren’t playing tough. They weren’t doing all those things. Just by watching them you knew that at one point, historically, it was the truth that they were tough. But they had kind of lost that along the way.
They’re starting to get it back. I’m not saying they’re back. I don’t want to overreact to something like this and say that they’ve turned it around. I think they’re in the process of turning it around. They have a pretty good start on it.
I was really impressed with what Derek Carr did last year. So much of what happens with that quarterback position is based on who’s around him. I thought last year from a personnel standpoint they weren’t very good. The running back situation was bad, they had two older guys [Darren McFadden and Maurice Jones-Drew] who aren’t there anymore. The receiving position was not a position of strength. So here you throw a rookie quarterback out there, and you have a coaching change during the season.
I just like how Carr handled himself and showed great poise. I thought he played fast from the pocket. He showed toughness. The knock on him in college was he gets jittery in the pocket and can’t take a hit. That simply wasn’t true.
Then you look at what they did this off-season, especially at the wide receiver position, and the way Latavius Murray is running the ball, and I thought, “This could be really good for Carr.”
I’m not surprised to see him play well. I did the game against the Chargers last year in Oakland, and I remember he was going throw for throw, touchdown for touchdown against Philip Rivers. I thought to myself, “Look who Rivers has to work with. He’s got Antonio Gates, Keenan Allen, these great receivers … Derek Carr’s doing the same thing and he doesn’t have anybody.”
The Baltimore game was a big win not just for the team but for Derek, as far as teammates knowing that this guy really can deliver in a critical situation.
Go back and look at the first three quarterbacks taken in the 2014 draft — Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater. Then came Carr. If you were to ask any personnel scout, any coach, “Of those four quarterbacks, which one would you want to have right now?” I bet a majority of them would say Derek Carr. The Raiders have to feel really good about taking him in the second round. He may wind up being the steal of the draft.
You know what I think hurt Derek in the draft? This sounds crazy, but his brother, David. No knock on David, but he went to a situation that probably wasn’t good for him. He got sacked a boatload of times in his first couple of years [as the No. 1 overall pick of the Houston Texans in 2002]. He wasn’t ready to play, and the team wasn’t ready for a young quarterback. It’s not just whether the quarterback’s ready to play. It’s, is the team ready for a young quarterback? That team clearly wasn’t. That was a really bad decision.
I think there were so many people saying Derek was like his brother. He’s not like his brother. He’s a much better player. I think he learned a lot from watching his brother. I think his brother has been a good influence on him in being able to share some of the cautionary tales. Derek oozes confidence. He’s got a really bright future.
Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, I like everything about those guys. With Crabtree you obviously have a veteran guy who’s cool under pressure. He may not be your super-explosive guy, but he has ability to make explosive plays, and you know he’s good from 15 yards and in. So it’s always good to have a guy like that on your team, that everybody knows you can depend on. He’s a good route runner so that helps them out tremendously when it’s third-and-five and they need to have a play.
Cooper is a phenom. He’s a kid that if he can stay healthy and his quarterback stays healthy, he has a chance to do some incredible things. I don’t know if they’re going to throw him the ball enough for him to put up some gaudy numbers. But at the same time, for him to be in a situation where he’s going to be the big-play receiver of this team, it’s a position I’m sure he’s going to relish for years to come.
The one thing I’ve been saying about the Raiders for years is the Raiders haven’t had two receivers since Jerry Rice and I left. Poor Carson Palmer, when he was here, I don’t think he had any stability at the position. From that standpoint, the consistency of having the same two guys line up going into Week 4 is probably something that hasn’t been done there in a long time. From that point alone, they’re going to be better.
Crabtree, coming off what he came off last year in San Francisco, I’m sure he had something to prove. He has enough of an ego that I’m sure he’s not going to let that happen again. You always need a guy with a little bit of ego.
And this kid Cooper is just going to get better and better. The thing he’s going to look out for is the length of the season. Because by the end of the year, all of a sudden you’re playing more games than you ever dreamt of playing in a season. They’re going to have to pay attention to that and make sure they keep him fresh.
After the loss to Cincinnati in the opener, I had to check myself, because I had been telling everybody, “Oh, the Raiders are going to be much better this year.” Then all of a sudden they come out and laid that egg, and I’m thinking, “Oooo, maybe I don’t know football anymore. Maybe the game is getting away from me.”
Because what I saw in training camp and in those preseason games was a team that I thought was extremely solid and had the ability to get it done. So for my own sanity, I’m very excited to see them play as well as they played the last couple of weeks.
I think this defense is promising. Obviously the head coach is a defensive-minded guy. In bringing in a new coordinator in Ken Norton Jr., you’re looking to kind of capture the kind of frenetic pace that Seattle plays with, in conjunction with the head coach’s philosophy as a defensive-minded coach.
The centerpiece is obviously Khalil Mack. He is a physical dynamo. He’s a hybrid guy — part defensive end, part linebacker, runs like a DB. He has great leverage, great strength at the point of attack, great explosion. And still to me, he’s what I call an elevator player, where his building is eight stories high and his elevator is between floors 2 and 3. So I think the best is yet to come for him. He’s evolving year to year, week to week, series to series. I think they’re trying to find creative ways to make him an impact player. To me that’s a smart move.
The guy that to me is one of my favorite players of this past generation is Charles Woodson. He is truly amazing. He’s a guy that is great to have on the football team on Sundays, but he’s also a great example for every young player on that team Monday through Saturday. The way he works, the way he prepares, the way he competes. He’s playing hurt right now.
I think the biggest thing with Charles, after he intercepted that ball against Cleveland on Sunday, was his teammates knocking him around. I’m actually looking at the TV saying, “Don’t hit the shoulder!”
The Aldon Smith acquisition is low risk, high reward from an investment standpoint. When Aldon was at his peak — and he’s a young player still — he was one of the dominant, disruptive pass rushers in football. He’s someone who has flashed what he can be. When he gets his legs under him — you’ve got to realize he’s been away for a bit, and you don’t just walk in off the street and get back up to 60 mph — but the potential for Mack and Smith to be lined up opposite each other, and together, is a potential headache for anyone who’s facing them.
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