Time to buy into the Raiders as Playoff Contenders

by Jordy McElroy

There was no need for an “I told you so” as Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden proudly stood in front of the media on Thursday night after an impressive 26-24 win over the Los Angeles Chargers. A year of being treated as the punchline team in the NFL, and the Raiders are suddenly sitting second in the AFC West with a legitimate shot at snagging a wild card spot in the playoffs.

Who’s laughing now?

That’s the new question posed to the legions of doubters proclaiming the Raiders to be a dead in the water franchise with no hope of competing. The team traded away two of their most talented players, Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper, to pile up future draft compensation.

Those moves were initially seen as a waving of the white flag for the team’s previous vision. With Gruden serving as the head coach and de facto general manager (sorry Mike Mayock), the team was essentially undergoing a demolition job and rebuilding from scratch.

Then they surprisingly traded for disgruntled Pittsburgh Steelers veteran receiver Antonio Brown, which was more of a win-now sort of move. It created even more backlash for Gruden and his decision to part ways with a pair of elite talents. That backlash quickly turned to frustration as a minor helmet issue blew up into a public spat between Brown and the Raiders organization, forcing Gruden to move on and cut his losses—a third and fifth-round draft pick—in the failed trade.

So the Raiders entered the season with a makeshift roster led by a quarterback that wasn’t even sure he was wanted. Make no mistake, Derek Carr heard the rumors of a new team, city and possibly even a new quarterback for the Raiders. But he never complained about his situation. Like Gruden and everyone else that had been scrutinized under the judgmental microscope of countless outsiders, he put on his game face and quietly went to work.

And the results have been staggering.

Carr is playing with a career-high completion percentage (70.8) and quarterback rating (104.4). He looks as good, if not better, than he did when he was vying for league MVP back in 2016. One of the first-round draft picks acquired in the trade for Mack turned into Josh Jacobs, who is now making a strong case for Offensive Rookie of the Year.

The other pick might actually turn into a top-10 draft pick in 2020, thanks to a shockingly disastrous season from the Chicago Bears. A year of being presumed a jester and Gruden is suddenly being hailed as a savior in Oakland.

So much can change when winning is involved.

There’s no need to be skeptical of the Raiders’ recent run of success, either. The only losses on their record have come from the Kansas City Chiefs, Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay Packers and Houston Texans—four teams expected to still be playing football in January. Next up on the schedule is a pair of winnable games against the Cincinnati Bengals and New York Jets, which should bring the Raiders record to 7-4.

You could press rewind a million times, and I would have never considered this Raiders team to have a winning record, much less a shot at making the playoffs. Yet, through all of the doubt and criticism, Gruden believed in his team. That belief latched onto the players, which in turn caught fire with the fans, to create a blazing inferno that was too hot for even a talented team like the Chargers to withstand.

Gruden’s arrival has signaled an end to the days of the Raiders being treated as a perennial doormat team. Win or lose, it’s a team determined to go out in a blaze of glory this season, relentlessly incinerating the premature opinions of every skeptic and naysayer along the way.