The young Oakland Raiders aren’t the renegade Raiders of old who won championships and carved an indelible memory on America’s sports landscape with their self-proclaimed “commitment to excellence,” but they are taking steps toward respectability.
The Raiders’ 3-4 won-loss record going into Sunday’s home game with the Detroit Lions has them giant steps ahead of last year’s 1-6 record – which ultimately sank to 1-9 in a 4-12 finish – under head coach Jon Gruden in his return to the sideline from the TV booth.
Gruden was part of the Raiders’ winning tradition. As head coach from 1998-2001 he had a 38-26 record, with seasons of 12-4 and 10-6 his last two years. He departed in 2002 to become head coach of the Bucs, who beat the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII.
The Raiders fell on hard times after that. A 12-4 record in 2016 is their only winning season in the last 16 years.
They’ve made a commitment to youth under Gruden and first-year general manager Mike Mayock, and it’s showing promise.
The Raiders have 13 rookies on the 53-player roster. Five are starting: Running back Josh Jacobs, fullback Alec Ingold, defensive end Clelin Ferrell, middle linebacker Justin Phillips and cornerback Trayvon Mullen.
“We really feel like we’re making a lot of strides,” Gruden said in a conference-call interview. “We’ve had a lot of draft picks. A lot of rookies are playing. It’s been good. We have a lot of guys contributing and keeping us in games.
“I think our guys are getting some confidence. We’d love to find a way to get off this losing streak and be 4-4 at the break.”
The play of quarterback Derek Carr has been a key to the Raiders’ improvement.
Carr’s 72.1-percent completion rate ranks slightly higher than the Vikings’ Kirk Cousins as the NFL’s best for quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts. Carr has a 103.6 passer rating and 11 TD passes against four interceptions.
“He’s getting rid of the ball on time,” Gruden said. “He’s not taking crazy sacks. He’s taking care of the ball and moving the team. We’ve got a lot of different plays and formations and things we ask him to do, and he’s doing it quite well.
“As we get better on offense and better around him, everything is going to be fun and exciting.”
Offense, building blocks: The Raiders used the draft and a practice-squad signing to add their leading rusher and receiver this year.
Jacobs was drafted 24th overall in the first round in April. He was the only running back taken in the first round.
Jacobs ranks sixth in the league in rushing with 620 yards, with four TDs and an average of 5.0 yards per carry. Jacobs had a 99-yard rushing game against the Chiefs in Game 2, and back-to-back games of 123 and 124 yards against the Bears and Packers in Games 5 and 6.
Tight end Darren Waller is one of the surprise players of the season. He was signed off the Ravens’ practice squad last November and had six catches in six games. Waller is averaging more than six catches a game so far this season.
Meet this week's opponents, the Oakland Raiders.
An original 2015 sixth-round pick out of Georgia Tech by the Ravens, Waller had 18 career receptions before this season. He has 46 catches – second most of any tight end in the league – with three TDs and an average of 10.8 yards per catch.
There is a big drop off in receptions after Waller. Tyrell Williams is next with 20 catches – and a team-high five TDs – followed by Hunter Renfrow with 18.
Waller was suspended twice by the NFL while with the Ravens for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.
Defense, sack time: The Raiders’ pass rush still isn’t close to being average, but 13 sacks in the first seven games matches their total for all 16 games in 2018.
Benson Mauowa, a seven-year vet who played for the Raiders in 2014-15, leads the team with 5.5 sacks in a rotational role. He has played less than 30 percent of the defensive snaps.
The Raiders have only five takeaways, third fewest in the league, which no doubt is partially due to their lack of a pass rush.