By Cullen Jekel
The world in which we live is an ever changing one, but some things, thankfully, remain the same. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west, taxes must paid, babies are born, and couples get married.
And the Oakland Raiders screw things up.
This time, they’re screwing it up with arguably their best player, Khalil Mack.
For a minute there, back in 2016, it looked like the Raiders had steadied the ship despite still being owned by a Davis. For the first time since reaching Super Bowl XXXVII in 2002, the Raiders posted a winning record, going 12-4, and clinched a playoff berth.
Their rising QB, Derek Carr, led a potent offensive attack including wide receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree that had just finished 6th in yards and 7th in points. The defense still struggled (26th in yards allowed and 20th in points allowed), but it boasted a burgeoning superstar off the edge in Mack, veteran linebacker Malcolm Smith, and young corner back in David Amerson.
Led by Jack Del Rio, this team’s trajectory was pointed up. Then things took a dive.
First, owner Mark Davis got his wish when the league voted to allow his moving of the franchise to Las Vegas starting in the 2020 season. After that, when actual football was played, injuries mounted, players underachieved, and the Raiders, preseason darlings, finished well outside the playoff picture, staggering to a 6-10 finish.
Davis then canned Jack the River. Understandable really, as Del Rio didn’t inspire a whole lot of confidence with which to begin. However, Davis then made the head-scratching decision to replace him with Jon Gruden–he of ESPN who hadn’t coached an NFL team since bombing out with the Buccaneers in 2008.
Sure, Gruden has a Super Bowl ring (against the Raiders–awkward), and he built the Raiders into a consistent winner–well, for two seasons under him and the year after he left under Bill Callahan.
But that was over fifteen years ago.
Now that he’s back on the sidelines, Gruden has forgotten how to handle players. He’s forgotten that he needs to connect with his employees because now, unlike at ESPN, how he fares depends solely upon how well his employees perform.
Look, the offense tanked last year. The Raiders dropped 16 spots in points scored. The offensive look doesn’t look great, Carr has regressed, the wide receiving group is a giant question mark, and the team’s leading running back is 32.
The defense didn’t improve at all from 2016, but it didn’t regress either. Mack, undoubtedly this team’s MVP, tore it up again, adding another 10.5 sacks to his career total.
For his career, Mack has 40.5 sacks in four seasons plus another 231 tackles. He isn’t just this defense’s best player, he is the team’s defense. It starts and stops with him. As he goes, the Raiders go, which is why it’s so baffling the Raiders are taking a stance against paying him. He’s holding out for a new long-term deal, and the Raiders’ brass won’t budge. He has completely outplayed his contract since being drafted 5th overall in 2014 out of Buffalo. Now that he’s asking for his, the Raiders–well, Davis and Gruden–won’t give in.
This team is going to have a hard enough time as it is with Mack in 2018. The AFC West could still be won as the Kansas City Chiefs turn things over to QB Pat Mahomes II, who’s essentially a rookie; the Los Angeles Chargers are one big hit on Philip Rivers away from depending on ex-Jet Geno Smith; and have you seen the Denver Broncos quarterbacks play?
But the Raiders have a stench about them. Mark Davis can’t have nice things. He has this team that just went 12-4 and he runs it into the ground as quickly as possible. In a year in which his team could compete, it feels like they’ll buckle yet again. Especially without Mack.
Without Mack, 3-13, 4-12 both seem like distinct possibilities. The Raiders will crater if they trade him to, say, the Green Bay Packers, Cleveland Browns, or even the Buffalo Bills.
Without Mack though, AFC West fanbases should all chip in and send a “Thank You” card to Gruden.
Welcome back, Chucky.