Mike Freeman's 10-Point Stance: Look out Below, Here Come the Tanking Raiders

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterOctober 24, 2018

Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden watches as his team warms-up before an NFL football game against Seattle Seahawks at Wembley stadium in London, Sunday, Oct. 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
Matt Dunham/Associated Press

The Raiders are already playing for draft position, Eli Manning's trust issues, and a new star may be joining the NFL's class of elite tight ends. All that and more in this week's 10-Point Stance.

    

1. Wait till next year

When news broke that Oakland receiver Amari Cooper had been traded Monday to Dallas for a first-round pick, there was incredulity throughout the NFL over what numerous league officials feel is an undisguised effort by the Raiders to tank the season.

Teams tank all the time, of course, including in the NFL. It's just that you never see a football team do it so obviously as the Raiders now are.

"This is the most blatant example of a team tanking that I've ever seen," one NFC South front office executive said.

Many teams also believe the moves engineered thus far by head coach Jon Gruden will cause massive problems inside the Raiders locker room. While players understand football is a business, and tough decisions have to be made, the trades of Cooper and linebacker Khalil Mack—two respected and well-liked veterans in that locker room—sent a distinct message to the players.

This season is over.

That is a fact. Gruden and the front office have quit on this year.

In an unfortunate byproduct, the tacit acknowledgment that wins and losses don't really matter anymore will help fuel the ultimate goal: to lose games. When Gruden tells his squad to work hard and do its best, how will those orders not be met with massive eye-rolls? Players will think: We are doing our best to win now. You're not.

That is all true. But there's another side to this.

The same teams who say the Raiders are tanking also say Gruden had no choice but to make the Cooper trade. A first-round pick is a steal for the Raiders, those teams add.

Balancing the present and future is a difficult act, especially in the NFL, wherein careers are short and fragile.

Gruden is caught in that spot between building for the future and satisfying players' desires to win now. In the immediate term, however, it appears the future is winning out.

While a teardown is easy to accomplish, Gruden had best be careful how deep into the Raiders' muscle he cuts. It was general manager Reggie McKenzie who built the roster Gruden is so quickly dismantling, and after the Cooper deal, only three of McKenzie's 12 first- and second-round selections remain. I've written before how McKenzie has essentially lost all power within the Raiders, and that continues to be proved true.

But once Gruden finishes accumulating all these picks, will he know how to draft? Many executives are skeptical. In Tampa, Gruden's drafts were far from successful.

During his seven years running the Buccaneers he drafted 61 players, according to Josh Dubow of the Associated Press. Only three of those players went to the Pro Bowl: Aqib Talib, Davin Joseph and Jeremy Zuttah.

The Pro Bowl isn't necessarily the defining indicator of the success of a draft, but it isn't useless.

Now Gruden has a number of picks at his disposal in Oakland, including three first-rounders in 2019: the Raiders', the Bears' for Mack and the Cowboys' for Cooper. McKenzie has shown an ability to find talent with those sorts of assets at his disposal, but he probably won't get as much of a say, if any, this time.

Indeed, these Raiders are a reflection of their head coach, for good and for bad.

    

2. Who's next in Oakland?

Tim Ireland/Associated Press

It's unlikely but far from impossible Cooper is the last star sent packing by the Raiders. True, Gruden told ESPN's Chris Mortensen there will be no more trades, but I'm not sure I believe that. Gruden also denied the Raiders were looking to trade Cooper. They obviously were.

Derek Carr has been fairly awful this season, and his contract is far from prohibitive in terms of a potential trade. A team could do it and not destroy its salary cap.

Would Gruden consider it? The answer has to be yes. He traded Mack—a far better player than Carr—so why not Carr to some quarterback-desperate team?

Carr would fetch another high-round pick, maybe another first-rounder. And since picks appear to be the most valuable commodity in Oakland these days, Carr might want to keep a bag packed.

    

3. Drew Brees and an exclusive club of three

BALTIMORE, MD - OCTOBER 21: Quarterback Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints looks to pass against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on October 21, 2018 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Drew Brees has numerous records, but here's the most impressive of them all: He's now beaten all 32 NFL teams.

Only three players have ever accomplished the feat: Brees, Brett Favre and Peyton Manning.

I'm not sure if people understand how hard it is to do that. It doesn't just require skill but longevity, too. Brees has been in the NFL since 2001 and this past week threw his 500th touchdown.

The stats Brees is generating are impressive, sure, but it has been his ability to suit up almost every weekend year after year after year, and play at a high level, that may be his biggest accomplishment.

    

4. Eli Manning's circle of mistrust

John Amis/Associated Press

The reason Troy Aikman is such a good analyst isn't solely because of the institutional knowledge he brings to broadcasts. It's his honesty and fearlessness. He will take on any subject or player.

And that's why Aikman was a perfect person to ask about the struggles of Giants quarterback Eli Manning, whose team is 1-6 while critics seem to be multiplying by the day. Is Manning struggling simply because he's hit the point that all NFL players do? Where age catches up with them? Or is it something else?

"I don't know if there's an easy answer for that," said Aikman, who was made available to me by Tide. "They're struggling to protect him. I was a pocket passer, and I know how it is when your line has a hard time protecting you."

Aikman added that as a pocket quarterback, when you get hit a lot, "You lose confidence in your ability to throw from the pocket."

Manning's struggles are, in some ways, that simple. Aikman spoke to B/R before the Giants played the Falcons on Monday, when Manning got sacked four times in the first half and looked jittery all night. It's clear Aikman knows of what he speaks.

At the rate he's going, Manning will be sacked 55 times this season. His previous high was 39 in 2013.

And as Aikman said, when a quarterback gets hit that much, it destroys trust in his line, and that, in turn, destroys trust in himself, no matter his age.

    

5. A good omen for the Rams

Tony Avelar/Associated Press

The Rams have scored 235 points through their first seven games. That's the sixth-most of any team with a 7-0 start since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, per ESPN Stats & Info. That's a lot of points, but that's only a part of the story. The other part is what happened to those other five teams.

The 2007 Patriots scored 279 points through seven games and went to the Super Bowl (they lost to the Giants). The 2009 Saints scored 273 and won the Super Bowl. The 2015 Patriots scored 249 points and lost to the Broncos in the AFC title game.

The 1998 Vikings scored 241 points and lost the NFC title game to the Falcons. The 1998 Broncos tallied 240 points and won the Super Bowl.

All of this bodes well for the Rams. Of those five other teams, two won the Super Bowl, one went to the Super Bowl, and two made it to the conference championship.

There are worse places to be than Los Angeles in late January.

    

6. A brutal game requires brutal moments

There are moments in NFL games that don't come down to fancy schemes or trick plays or fast receivers. Sometimes, the key is simple, brute force.

One of those instances happened in Sunday's Washington-Dallas game when Zeke Elliott was thrown several yards downfield by Washington's Matt Ioannidis. It looked like Chewbacca tossing Ewoks and set a tone that led Washington to a three-point win.

As much as the NFL has attempted to lessen the violence of a violent game, games often are decided by who's tougher, and when you see that in practice, it's impossible to miss.

    

7. Even machines make mistakes

When the NFL moved extra points back in distance, it wanted to create a bit more uncertainty for a play that had become more or less automatic. The plan succeeded. On Sunday it even caught up to Ravens kicker Justin Tucker—the closest thing to automatic in the NFL—when he missed a PAT against the Saints.

Tucker had made 300 consecutive kicks from 33 yards and in before that miss, according to ESPN Stats & Info. And he hadn't missed a PAT in his NFL career.

Three. Hundred. Straight.

That level of consistency in today's kicking game is unheard of, yet Tucker did it.

And my guess is he'll restart that streak and hit another 300 straight.

    

8. The Bears might be on to something

Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

Bears tight end Trey Burton always had the potential to be one of the NFL's great tight ends. We're now starting to see it.

Burton had 126 yards and one touchdown against the Patriots on Sunday. After a quiet start to the season Burton has been on fire, registering a touchdown catch in four of his last five games.

One reason why is coach Matt Nagy has learned how to take full advantage of Burton's skills. He is fast, is an excellent route-runner and can catch almost anything.

He's not on the same level as Rob Gronkowski, Travis Kelce or Zach Ertz.

But he's getting there.

    

9. Is this the end for Beast Mode?

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

Marshawn Lynch was put on injured reserve this week with a groin injury, and despite being one of the toughest backs to ever play, he's still human.

He's also 32 and in his 11th season. And while the 10,000 yards he has gathered on the ground will likely send him to Canton one day, all those rushing attempts have forced him to take a massive amount of physical abuse.

Lynch has done his bit for queen and country.

No one would be surprised if Lynch retired (again). This time for good.

    

10. Please never shut up

HOUSTON, TX - FEBRUARY 04:  DJ Dat Dude Marcellus Wiley attends the Thuzio Executive Club and Rosenhaus Sports Representation Party at Clutch Bar during Super Bowl Weekend, on February 4, 2017 in Houston, TX.  (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for Thuzio)
Cindy Ord/Getty Images

Retired defensive end Marcellus Wiley has long been one of my favorite players, and analysts, simply because he's always been an intelligent and honest examiner of the sport.

His new book, Never Shut Up, is a perfect extension of Wiley's personality. It's a fun ride through his life journey from South Central Los Angeles to Columbia University to the NFL.

One of my favorite passages was this one, in which a young Wiley, then with the Bills, interacts with Bruce Smith, one of the best defensive linemen of all time.

"Hey Bruce," I said, smiling my brightest, most charming smile. "Got a question for ya."

He looked at me.

"Yeah."

That was encouraging.

"Dude, you get off the ball faster than all of us. What's your secret?"

Bruce thought for a second.

"What are you looking at before the snap?" he said.

"The ball."

"Where on the ball?"

"The tip."

"Which tip?"

"The top tip," I said.

"That's your problem," he said. "I'm looking at the guy's pinky finger and the bottom tip."

Oh s--t. It was like a lightbulb went off in my head.

Bruce Smith, the best D-end of all time, had just given me the first CliffsNote I needed to reach the next level."

         

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.

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