Before a folded piece of paper gave their opponent a crucial first down and before one of the NFL's worst rules cost them a chance to at least take the Dallas Cowboys to overtime, the Oakland Raiders had an opportunity to take control of a must-win game Sunday night.
Instead, they literally dropped the ball.
Those controversial plays were "so 2017 Raiders," but the misstep which truly encapsulated their season came midway through the fourth quarter.
An oft-criticized offense had scored on each of its last three possessions and was gearing up for what could have been a decisive drive in a game that was tied, 17-17. Marshawn Lynch was dancing on the sideline, and an impatient crowd appeared to be grooving to the momentum the offense was finally establishing.
That's when quarterback Derek Carr hit tight end Jared Cook with a pass that traveled 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage on 3rd-and-4, but the ball bounced off of Cook's hands, taking the air out of Oakland-Alameda Coliseum and forcing the Raiders to punt.
Lynch immediately stopped dancing, the Cowboys kicked a field goal on the ensuing drive and Oakland didn't score again.
Seven minutes and two tough breaks later, the Raiders' season was essentially over. A 20-17 loss leaves them with a 6-8 record, needing a miracle to sneak into the playoffs.
They don't look like a playoff team anyway, and they haven't since Week 3. That's when they were crushed by a Washington Redskins team that didn't turn out to be very good this season, the first of four consecutive losses to beatable opponents.
The Raiders are 4-8 ever since hammering the New York Jets in their home opener. Lynch danced for the crowd that day, too, and it felt as though something special was brewing in Oakland. But it soon became obvious there's something wrong with this Raiders team, and changes need to be made.
It's been obvious for weeks now that the Raiders lack support for Carr, their $125 million franchise quarterback. Not only do his top weapons continue to drop the ball the way Cook did Sunday night, but a bad defense hasn't done enough to put the ball in his hands. And not only does it appear as though injuries have caused him to lose confidence in the pocket, but a lack of offensive balance has forced him to work far too often against dishonest defenses.
The Raiders didn't have an excuse Sunday night. Sure, they lost left tackle Donald Penn early, but the Cowboys were without top offensive weapon Ezekiel Elliott as well as left tackle Tyron Smith. At home, with Lynch firing up the Oakland crowd, against a depleted and flawed opponent, this had to be a W.
Instead, it was a dud. And now we can begin to write the obituary for the 2017 Raiders, one of the most disappointing teams in franchise history.
|Raiders: 2016 vs. 2017|
|Points per game||26.0||20.1|
|Pro Football Reference/NFL.com|
At the very least, this ought to be a wake-up call. This isn't working, and the status quo likely won't allow this team to recapture the magic that got it back to the playoffs in 2016 for the first time in over a decade.
For the second straight week, the Raiders were shut out in the first half. And for the second straight week, Carr averaged fewer than 5.5 yards per attempt. He completed just two of six pass attempts that traveled 15-plus yards, and one—a fourth-quarter 28-yarder to receiver Seth Roberts, which was his longest completion of the night—was a fluke that came on a pass that was deflected coming out of his hand.
That despite the fact Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio called for Carr to "let it rip" against Dallas, per ESPN.com's Paul Gutierrez.
One week ago against the Kansas City Chiefs, Carr completed just one of 10 15-yard throws, and he's completed just one 30-yard pass in his last three games.
And that's a big reason why the Raiders haven't looked like a contender. In their last three games against opponents currently with winning records, they've scored a total of 40 points and Carr has averaged 4.8 yards per attempt. The Raiders, of course, lost all three of those games and have beaten just one team with a winning record since Week 3.
Carr is rarely pressured, but when he is, he consistently panics and misfires. That's something offensive coordinator and former quarterbacks coach Todd Downing has to work on with him. It wasn't as noticeable last season because his pass protection was so damn good and because Oakland won an AFC-high seven games via fourth-quarter comeback. Winning, especially in dramatic fashion, has a way of masking those types of flaws.
Carr isn't winning this year, and he's been exposed as a result.
Now, his health is certainly a factor. Carr spent most of the 2017 offseason recovering from a broken leg, and he broke a bone in his back in October. That might explain why he has struggled so much on deep pass attempts, even without a lot of pressure. But his lack of composure in the pocket while waiting for plays to develop is a mental component which has to be addressed.
More tangibly, though, Carr needs roster help. He needs a receiving corps with more depth and receivers who are more reliable than the drop-happy Cook and his equally drop-happy cohorts, Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree. And he needs more from a running game that features Lynch (too old), Jalen Richard (too unreliable) and DeAndre Washington (too unproductive).
Oh, and while that defense did chip in with two interceptions Sunday, that doubled its total for the entire season. Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin make up one of the best edge-rushing duos in the league, but the unit lacks bite beyond that. They entered Sunday with a league-low 10 takeaways, which might explain why only four teams ranked below them in time of possession, and nobody except Mack and Irvin has more than four sacks.
No wonder Carr admitted in an interview with NBC's Michele Tafoya earlier Sunday—per Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio—that he's been trying to "do too much."
Carr's new contract hits the books in 2018, and his cap hit next season will be $25 million. The Raiders won't have a lot of money to spend elsewhere, but they can't afford to sit on their hands. Penn, Crabtree and Lynch are running out of time, and Irvin and Reggie Nelson are also on the wrong side of 30. They don't want to waste Carr's prime, which essentially started last year, but the window isn't as wide open as last season's success might have led many of us to believe.
The 2016 Raiders took the NFL by surprise, but the way they were winning wasn't sustainable. Improvements were necessary in 2017, but the Raiders generally stood pat and have been exposed by a league that is better prepared for Carr and Co.
Now it's time to become more proactive and address both Carr and Co. He needs to be better in 2018, and the tools his bosses provide him with need to be sharper.
Deep passing numbers based on NFL.com boxscore calculations.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.