Oakland Raiders Finally Finding Relevance Despite Growing Pains of Young Roster

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystOctober 31, 2016

Oct 30, 2016; Tampa, FL, USA;  Oakland Raiders wide receiver Amari Cooper (89) and quarterback Derek Carr (4) congratulate each other after they scored a touchdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second half at Raymond James Stadium. Oakland Raiders defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 30-24 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It’s hard to process a few new NFL realities after the Oakland Raiders’ win Sunday over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. We need to go slowly here and absorb everything.

Taking on too much, too fast while thinking about that game could be hazardous to your health. The root of any mental strain may actually depend on your age.

There’s a young generation of NFL fans that have never known a successful Raiders team, or at best, those visions are a faint memory. Oh sure, they’ve heard the folktales from their football-watching elders around the campfire. But to see it with their own eyes is something else entirely.

To briefly summarize the stench of recent Raiders history: They last made the playoffs in 2002 and in the years since haven’t had a winning record once. During that stretch, they finished with four or fewer wins seven times, and going 8-8 twice (2010 and 2011) felt like an accomplishment.

Now a team infused with youth at core positions is surging. The Raiders are making winning a habit and doing it often with late-game comebacks. Another one came Sunday to send the game they eventually won over the Bucs to overtime. That’s when wide receiver Seth Roberts won the game with his 41-yard touchdown reception in the fifth quarter.

How much, exactly, are the Raiders winning? Let’s just say that to find their last 6-2 start you have to flip back to a time when making Seinfeld references was only a little dated and still showed some grasp of pop culture.

Yes, for the first time in 15 long years, the Raiders are more than just relevant. They’re more than just a little above afterthought territory too. And they’re more than just some feel-good story fighting to get your attention.

They lead their division and are second in the AFC. Oakland is also 5-0 on the road for the first time since 1977. It gets better, too, as the Raiders are tied for the fourth-best record in the league prior to the Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings playing in their prime-time games to conclude Week 8.

Resist the urge to run for higher ground and assume the Armageddon is near. We’re not witnessing a cruel joke played by cosmic football powers high above. The Raiders’ 6-2 record is neither a fluke nor a product of sorcery. Instead it’s a steady rise powered by young pieces that are maturing together.

Pieces like quarterback Derek Carr, who set a single-game Raiders record Sunday when he hit the 430 passing yards mark. He zoomed on by that plateau and joined an exclusive club with only 19 other members in league history, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter:

Amari Cooper was on the other end for many of those yards. He caught 12 passes for 173 yards and a touchdown and has now posted four 120-plus yard games already in 2016.

Cooper, 22, became the only receiver in league history to record 500-plus receiving yards over the first six games in each of his first two seasons, according to Raiders media relations coordinator Evert Geerlings. The Carr-Cooper connection is the backbone for everything the Raiders offense is doing now, and will do over hopefully many, many years.

The Raiders’ passing offense then becomes a multi-faceted unit when we toss in the steady veteran presence of Michael Crabtree. He's the ideal complementary option at wide receiver, and as Geerlings also noted, the combination of Carr, Cooper and Crabtree produced an NFL first for 2016 Sunday:

But despite all those booming numbers and an astronomical 626 yards of total offense, the Raiders still needed overtime to win. Which brings us to the second new league reality that now has to sink in slowly: A team can hand over 200 free yards and still win.

On Monday, tiny goblins and ghouls will be prancing around your neighborhood. The scariest Halloween fright of the season in Oakland, though, would be anyone who dresses up as a yellow handkerchief.

The Raiders had 23 penalties assessed and accepted. That’s a new NFL record.

Throughout the game, comparisons were made to Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hit streak, with this new penalty record also untouchable. Which might only be a slight exaggeration, as the previous single-game penalty high of 22 has been reached by only three other teams, and only once since 1944.

It is as if, from a talent standpoint, the Raiders are getting ready to finally let go of a past that’s filled with numbing disappointment. But mentally, there’s just one last gasp of air left from those old bumbling teams, and when the Raiders exhaled Sunday, penalty flags flew everywhere.

“They’re killing themselves with undisciplined play,” former Raiders coach Tom Flores said on the Raiders radio broadcast, via Paul Gutierrez of ESPN.com.

“It’s national flag day.”

All penalties are bad penalties. But some are a little more tolerable than others. An offensive lineman who gets beaten is often going to clutch or grab instinctively. Ditto for a cornerback as a receiver streaks past him.

Those are errors tied to technique and skill, and sometimes they’re not as easily avoided. But the true statement on both the Raiders’ lack of preparation and discipline, and, more importantly, how far the NFL’s quality of play has fallen came through numerous brain malfunctions. The most remarkable example of those mental face plants was when the Raiders lined up with 12 men on the field twice to help the Buccaneers during their final scoring drive.

Raiders kicker Sebastian Janikowski will surely become the poster boy for the Great Kicking Apocalypse of 2016 after he missed two late field-goal attempts, one in the dying seconds of regulation and another that could have been a game-winner in overtime. But both came from 50-plus yards, and the overtime attempt could have and should have been more solidly in makable range.

Instead Janikowski had to kick from 52 yards after Cooper showed no discipline whatsoever in a critical moment by taking an unnecessary roughness penalty. Then for good measure, left tackle Donald Penn tacked on five more yards with a false start.

That’s why the Raiders’ greatest opponent Sunday wasn’t standing on the opposite sideline. It was themselves, and thankfully Roberts prevailed over that internal enemy while also avoiding true NFL end times.

At this rate, the Raiders might just outrun their own demons en route to a deep playoff push. 

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