As it stands — right here, right now, after Week 5 — the Oakland Raiders are something special. Not necessarily good, per se, but special all the same. In a league with the Patriots and the Vikings checking all the boxes and sticking to plans and “executing” for utilitarian 24–17 wins or whatever, the Raiders are mixing clear and brown liquor while smoking unfiltered cigarettes and playing five finger fillet. They’ve got just enough substance to cover the expansive wastefulness of their Jackson Pollock–y style. And they have a faculty for producing heart-stopping moments that prompt you to shake out a bunch of words before realizing how little you’ve actually managed to explain. And how poorly.
Let’s start with this: It’s difficult to be good when the defense is hemorrhaging 423 yards and 31 points, like Oakland did at home against the Chargers on Sunday, bringing their season average of yards allowed to 452.6. That’s good for dead last in the league, and it’s nearly 30 more yards than the next-worst defense, the New Orleans Saints. The Saints’ place at second-to-bottom is hard to argue — they have a secondary that can barely see their hands in front of their faces (Jairus. Keelon. Byrd. My guy.) and an apparent allergy to open-field tackling. The Saints, on a foundational level, have a shit defense. The Raiders have a potentially good defense that’s playing like shit. Or “playing Santa Claus,” by handing out big plays like they were gifts, according to head coach Jack Del Rio.
Oakland general manager Reggie McKenzie has generally drafted well, adding safety Karl Joseph and defensive ends Jihad Ward and Shilique Calhoun in 2016, but that’s the thing — this is a young defense that could use the guidance of a seasoned veteran or two. And while it’s still early, Sean Smith and Reggie Nelson probably aren’t those seasoned veterans.
But the team’s inconsistencies are their own form of entertainment. In the same way that it’s difficult to fully appreciate sunshine without at least once having walked home in the rain, the high of a Karl Joseph interception might not be so high without a 59-yard catch-and-run from Chargers tight end Hunter Henry. Or a 50-yard catch from Tyrell Williams. Or a 29-yard touchdown also from Tyrell Williams. They can strip Antonio Gates one play and blow coverage on a receiver running in a straight line the next. It’s all peaks and valleys; there is no middle ground where they’re just doing what they’re supposed to. There’s virtually no telling what will happen play to play.
In that same vein: There are things that were true about the Raiders in the preseason that aren’t as true right now. Khalil Mack isn’t quite the defensive end he was supposed to be at this point, and Amari Cooper found the end zone for the first time this season on Sunday. But Michael Crabtree has apparently traversed the boundaries of space-time to become Texas Tech Michael Crabtree, and Derek Carr has become something of a human silver bullet, throwing touchdown pass after borderline-orgiastic touchdown pass.
Carr heaving Oakland out of reasonably certain defeat and into uneasy, but totally elating victory is not a new thing (elating for Oakland fans and, now that I’ve walked off their fourth-quarter sprite trickery from Week 1 and can appreciate it from a distance, impartial observers like myself). Since the start of the 2015 season, Carr has engineered six fourth-quarter comebacks — the most in the league. He’s amassed plenty of other close wins in his time under center, too. Sunday’s win was just the latest victory where the Raiders craned their necks across the line for a photo finish.
After doinking a pass off of Michael Crabtree’s helmet on a gimme third-and-goal with just under eight minutes left in the second quarter, Carr faded Crabtree up perfectly for a 21-yard touchdown pass late in the third quarter to regain the lead they’d lost in the first quarter. A lead they wouldn’t relinquish for the rest of the game. This was on a fourth-and-2:
What a play. Let’s overreact:
Fourth Quarter Derek Carr is like Superman flying into the exosphere to draw strength from the sun, or realizing that Darkseid could eat the full force of one of his signature city block–collapsing “There’s No Way Dude Is Not Dead” punches without buying it. Fourth Quarter Derek Carr is also like Batman kicking Superman’s blue-unitarded ass all over Crime Alley. Fourth Quarter Derek Carr is like hovering over the settings in Franchise Mode on Madden before resolving that you’ll be better for it and people will respect you more if you just play up to the difficulty. Fourth Quarter Derek Carr is like a Swiss Army knife. Fourth Quarter Derek Carr is as good as Fourth Quarter Derek Carr needs to be.
And Fourth Quarter Derek Carr could just be Derek Carr the rest of the time if Del Rio would only cut Carr loose for whole games instead of dinking and dunking until Oakland desperately needs him to Do the Thing. However, it is a gift to us all, the viewing public, that Del Rio has never given a fuck about “probabilities” in high-pressure, late-game situations. He will err on the side of going for it, and he’s winning games, so chill out and stop bothering him about it.
But each time it’s like banging a U-turn during rush hour on a main street with a suspended license. The Raiders aren’t so much good as they are blessed to sidestep complete and total destruction by an inch or two. A slight westerly gust or a bungled snap, and they could just as easily be the Chargers. But with the Denver Broncos looking unconvincing as defending Super Bowl champions and the Kansas City Chiefs splitting their first four games, the AFC West is wide open. With late-game heroics and other twists of fate, Oakland is sitting at 4–1, its best start since the Raiders’ Super Bowl run in the 2002 season. And nature abhors a vacuum, so they could find their way back to the postseason this year.
After all, like I said: The Raiders are something special.