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Sliding Doors and Slamming Windows: Where Do the Raiders Go From Here?

Las Vegas entered this season with great expectations, yet seven games in all they’ve got are hard times. Derek Carr and Co. believe they can turn this ship around. But is it too little, too late?

Harrison Freeman

Derek Carr is in his ninth season with the Las Vegas Raiders, which means he has played under six different head coaches and recorded just two winning NFL campaigns. He is the only guy in the locker room who has persisted long enough to have clinched playoff berths (plural) with the franchise; his career spans both the Oakland iteration of the Raiders and its new Las Vegas residency. Since being drafted in 2014, Carr has established a remarkably stable institutional (and pocket!) presence against the backdrop of a franchise broadly defined, in the modern era anyway, by constant change and frequent chaos.

There was the team’s big, loud flight south, and the season of Hard Knocks, and the Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper trades. There was the back-to-back-to-back losing-record streak, and that grim chapter of the much larger Antonio Brown saga, and the resignation of next-door neighbor, Jon Gruden. There was the broken right fibula in late 2016 that prevented Carr from playing in the first AFC wild-card game he qualified for, those many years and that other state ago. Carr’s career has stretched a full four seasons longer than the tenures of any of his Raiders teammates, and few of them will ever let him forget it.

“It’s to the point,” Carr told The Ringer in early October, standing in front of his locker at the team practice facility in Henderson, Nevada, “where all the young guys, they call me ‘OG.’ You know, call me ‘Uncle Derek.’ It’s to that point I’m like, ‘Guys, I’m 31 years old.’”

The downside of being perceived as an old head, however prematurely, is that not all the memories you’re asked to engage with are necessarily fond ones. Take this past Sunday, for example. After Carr and the Raiders were shut out 24-0 by the Saints in New Orleans (against a former Oakland coach, no less!), and their record fell to a dismaying and almost certainly insurmountable 2-5, a reporter at the postgame presser mused that the last time the Raiders were blanked like that was during the quarterback’s debut season—a 52-0 drubbing against the then–St. Louis Rams. That loss led to sentences like, “Raiders coach Tony Sparano said he has no plans to bench the rookie for veteran Matt Schaub,” being written in contemporary coverage.

“It’s funny you said that,” Carr replied on Sunday, though his accompanying chuckle felt mirthless. “I thought of the same game when I was sitting on the sideline, and there was some similarities that I’m going to keep to myself that I saw in that, and things I can draw from.”

Carr continued to speak, but he didn’t elaborate much. After all, what could he even say? That, yes, this past weekend of football sure did remind him of a real Raiders low point of yore? That “things I can draw from” is one way to describe a game of hangman? That this season was, once again, supposed to be different—with an offensively intriguing new coach in Josh McDaniels, and one hell of a new wide receiver in Davante Adams, and the team coming off a postseason showing last winter—but has instead started to feel like all the bad old times again? That maybe Carr’s long life with the franchise will ultimately draw toward an end in much the same way it once got going?

“We gotta flush it as fast as we can,” was the apt metaphor Carr settled on, “and get ready to practice, because the only thing that is going to fix it is on that practice field.” That kind of avuncular message—well-meaning, technically correct, effectively pointless—is something Carr has perfected in his years with the Raiders. He has, after all, gotten a lot of practice pivoting to what’s next.

Carr’s press conference felt almost chipper coming on the heels of a postgame appearance by his latest head coach, McDaniels, the longtime Patriots offensive coordinator who was signed by Vegas earlier this year. McDaniels spoke to the press with the halting, haunted air of a man who had just endured his second post-loss closed-door meeting with team owner Mark Davis in the span of six weeks. (The first one happened when the team lost to the Titans and fell to 0-3.) “I apologize to Raider Nation for that performance,” McDaniels said on Sunday. “Obviously that wasn’t good enough in any way, shape, or form.”

The game had been so complete of a letdown that McDaniels didn’t even try to resort to his usual I liked what I saw in practice patter. “It doesn’t matter what I say now about our week of practice, or anything like that,” he said, looking like he either might cry or had already. The next day, when Raiders beat writer Vincent Bonsignore passed along a statement from Davis that read, “Josh McDaniels Is Our Head Coach And Will Be For Years To Come,” it almost felt menacing—less a pledge than a threat.

“A litany of things,” McDaniel said when asked what had gone wrong. There was the ineffective passing performance: Carr averaged less than 4 yards per throw; Adams caught one ball for 3 yards. Josh Jacobs’s running game, which had buoyed the Raiders in recent weeks, was given little passage by the Saints; after three straight 100-plus-yard games, Jacobs was held to 43. The defense unraveled, allowing Alvin Kamara alone to rush for one touchdown and catch two others. And the offensive line was porous, yet also defensive about it. Following the game, tackle Thayer Munford Jr. told The Athletic that he felt his unit “was doing our part.”

The more the Raiders fell behind, the more they needed a big air game to have a chance: nothing doing. Darren Waller, the 30-year-old Pro Bowl tight end who revitalized his career when the Raiders took a chance on him in 2018, was not in the lineup, missing a second straight game to a hamstring injury. Adams came close to hauling in a ball in the second quarter that could have altered the trajectory of the game, but his dragged toes were ruled to be out of bounds. In the locker room afterward, Adams was quiet. “Stay the course,” he told reporters. “That’s all we can do.”

He had said the same thing, “stay the course,” during Week 3, when he admitted to being “frustrated and angry” that his new team was then winless. After spending the first eight years of his career catching throws from Aaron Rodgers, Adams—sensing that Rodgers’s run might be near its conclusion—had reportedly accepted less money from Vegas than Green Bay had offered to make a change. Adams was familiar with Carr, having played with him in college at Fresno State. (They overlapped there with Aaron Judge.) And joining an offense that also featured options like Waller and Hunter Renfrow seemed like a dynamic fit, especially when combined with the supposed dark arts of a McDaniels playbook and the wealth-spreading implications of Jacobs’s run game. But from the very start, that hasn’t been how things have worked out.

Instead, the Raiders’ season has been one defined by close calls and wide-open opportunities, of sliding doors and windows slamming shut. Each of their early losses were by less than a touchdown, and one of them came in overtime. But try arguing that in the face of the cold, hard reality that The Ringer’s Ben Solak refers to as “0-and-2mbstone.” Going into this season, the AFC West was considered, at least by oddsmakers, to be the league’s toughest division; so far, that hasn’t really borne out. And yet the Raiders have struggled to capitalize on their opponents’ moments of weakness, sitting in last place in the underperforming division with three crucial divisional rematches remaining. “There’s still a lot of football left to play,” McDaniels insisted on Sunday. But the problem is that his team has struggled to play the football that’s been right there in front of it, ready for the taking.

The atmosphere at the Raiders’ training center back in early October was markedly upbeat for a team then sitting at 1-3. Physically, the facility, which is about a 20-minute drive south of the Las Vegas Strip and the team’s home stadium, looks a lot like a spaceship that has touched down in such a way as to minimize civilian encounters. It is black and white, smooth, eye-catching, and guarded by an eternal flame called the Al Davis Memorial Torch and a quote from the man himself: “The fire that burns brightest in the Raiders’ organization is the will to win.”

Several days earlier, the Raiders had picked up their first victory of the year with a satisfying if strange 32-23 game against the suddenly vulnerable Denver Broncos. The win had definitely sparked some light and warmth in the locker room. In interviews, McDaniels and Carr and offensive coordinator Mick Lombardi all talked about the importance of forgetting a win the same way you should forget a loss. But still, the relief ending the 0-3 streak was palpable. And with a Week 5 trip to Kansas City for Monday Night Football coming up, the shared optimism was, too. Just win this one, cruise into the bye week, and it’s a whole new season, baby!

“When I first got to the Raiders,” Waller told me, “they were trying to find their identity.” Now, coming off a playoff appearance, he felt the team had “bigger goals and aspirations.” Like, “We deserve to win any game that we play with someone,” he said. Across the room, running back Brandon Bolden—one of several players and coaches who worked with McDaniels in New England—laughed about the conversations he’d had with his grandfather Frank Pitts, whose pro career included a stop with the Oakland Raiders in 1974 and who remains very skeptical about the idea of a football team in Las Vegas. “He was like, ‘So, you leave practice, you’re sitting at a slot machine?’” Bolden said. “I told him you look at the mountains every day during practice. It’s like the best five-minute break you ever asked for. So I love it here.”

Defensive end Maxx Crosby, one of the guys calling father of four Carr “Uncle Derek,” fielded questions about how his extremely expectant wife was doing as they waited for their first baby. Earlier in the day, McDaniels had advised, via a press conference, that she bounce around on a yoga ball so that the baby would arrive a few days before Monday Night Football. “I come in here,” Carr told The Ringer, “and some of these dudes are as old as my nephew, you know? And I was there when he was born!” (Carr completists can view said nephew in this vintage 2001 talk show footage of him, his older brother and fellow NFL quarterback David, and a good baby.)

The special teams trio of placeholder Trent Sieg, kicker Daniel Carlson, and punter AJ Cole sat enveloped in black easy chairs, playing the video game Super Smash Bros. and heckling whomever. Lineman Jermaine Eluemunor commandeered the PA system to play classical music as a sort of London-born bit. (You had to be there.) An essential discussion broke out: Would You Rather have to fight a bear one time, or have to fight a chicken every time you get in your car forever? A media dude accidentally wandered across a corner of an enormous Raiders logo on the carpet in the center of the room, some players noticed, and he was told to read the sign: Step on the logo and do 25 push-ups. The dude did, players around him counting in chorus. (Everyone implicitly agreed to ignore a written footnote, apparently added by Adams, that upped the ante to 50 push-ups for media.)

Reflecting on the start of his fifth season with the franchise, Carlson was both upbeat and a stalwart Raiders employee, going with the tried-and-true tradition of quoting something Davis once said (in 1984, after the Raiders won a Super Bowl). “The greatness of the Raiders is in their future,” Carlson said. “It does feel like, kind of, hey, we’re headed into a great direction.”

For like 90 percent of that Raiders-Chiefs MNF contest on October 10, it felt that way, too—that the Las Vegas Raiders were a force to be respected, that things were different now, that the chips were falling the right way after a run of hard luck. Seeking some local razzle-dazzle while the team was away, I watched the game at a place called the Illuminarium, a 16,500-square-foot audiovisual immersion room billed as “VR without the goggles” that typically hosts shows about safaris and space travel. Maybe it was the life-size NFL players broadcast all around me. Maybe it was all the giddy, goofy, glittering, actual real-life Raiders fans in the room who just seemed genuinely delighted and a little bit surprised that their team was going pound-for-pound with the Chiefs. Whatever the reason, it really did feel for a few hours like the greatest of the Raiders was in its future. (It also sometimes felt like I, personally, was out on the field.)

The game started off as a vision of how things might be if they’d ever just go right. Carr and Adams connected on a 58-yard first-quarter touchdown pass; Jacobs capped off a 10-play drive with another score early in the second; and Carlson nailed 53- and 50-yard field goals. The Raiders’ balanced offense was also supported by its proud defense, which couldn’t necessarily stop Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce, but did the next best thing and sometimes contained them.

Still, when Kansas City took its first lead midway through the fourth quarter, it seemed like the night might finally be over. A pair of women in Chiefs jerseys sitting nearby began growing louder, bantering back and forth with a once-cocky Raiders fan sporting a Mohawk and long, dangly earrings. When Adams caught another touchdown pass with just over four minutes to play, it brought Vegas an extra point away from tying the game.

But McDaniels had another idea, making the kind of decision upon which seasons teeter and legacies ride: He tried going for two points and the lead. The idea didn’t pan out—and neither did a last-ditch fourth-and-1 a few minutes later that fizzled when Adams and Renfrow collided while looking for a pass. The gals in the Chiefs jerseys looked more surprised than anyone.

As Adams left the field that night following the 30-29 loss, the frustrated receiver shoved a camera guy blocking his path. (The guy has since filed a police report against Adams.) McDaniels stood by his decision to go for two in his press conference after the game. Back in the Illuminarium, the broadcast was switched off, a new set of sounds and images filled the room, and suddenly lots of people in Raiders gear found themselves milling around on the surface of the moon, staring into space, thinking about how going into the bye week with a 1-4 record wasn’t part of the plan.

A few days earlier, I had asked Adams whether he found it harder to avoid dwelling on the satisfaction of a win or the bitterness of a loss. “I hate losing more than I like winning,” he said, an answer that now feels a little bit like a curse. The Raiders emerged from their bye week with a solid W over Houston, in which Jacobs ran for three touchdowns and six different players caught multiple passes from Carr. Then they followed up that momentum with Sunday’s humiliating L to the Saints. Now, heading to Jacksonville for Week 9, Adams finds himself signed for five years with a team that has won only two games and lost five, a grim calculus regardless of the magnitude of anyone’s emotional coefficients. Until he left Green Bay, Adams had been there for as long as Carr had been with the Raiders. Having finally moved on from the Packers in search of a team with a more predictable future ahead of it, he is now in a place where the way forward is also unclear.

For Vegas, the question has become: how to respond to a start that feels like it’s been fumbled? A toe in-bounds here, a few more yards there, and this could be a very different season—but the toe wasn’t, and the yards weren’t, and so the season is what it is. On Tuesday, offensive coordinator Lombardi explained that during games, “we want to try and avoid ‘get-back-on-track situations,’” in which penalties or poor fundamentals force the Raiders to scramble, rather than enabling them to operate from a position of strength. Unfortunately, when it comes to the broad scope of 2022, getting back on track would be more of a best-case scenario.

While the Raiders are theoretically still in the mix—they’re two games back in the loss column from the 4-3 L.A. Chargers, who currently occupy the no. 7 seed in the AFC, and stranger things have happened—it would take a whole lot of things suddenly going right, in a season when so much has gone wrong, to actually pull it off. Instead, the possible ramifications of the team’s 2-5 beginning could eventually involve the team’s OG himself. For years, the Raiders have dealt with setbacks by parting ways with their coaches, meaning that if Davis does once again grow eager for a shakeup, he may be inclined to try something different this time; something more tectonic—like considering an end to the Carr administration, that last vestige of a different era.

They could do so relatively cheaply: for the low cost of just $5.6 million in dead cap space. And though it would be a drastic decision, like uninviting an uncle from Thanksgiving dinner, sometimes you just no longer have the spoons to keep dealing.

For the time being, though, the Raiders seem cautious about blowing up a roster that had expectations of being quite competitive. Earlier this week, as the trade deadline came and went, the team sat quietly, preferring not to make any sudden moves based on one stinker. “You’re going to have some of those outlier games,” GM Dave Ziegler explained to reporters on Wednesday, “where it’s just—you come away with a lot of questions, and a lot of whys, but you also can’t overreact to that, because it is one game in a long season.”

And so the Raiders have no choice but to flush it, a phrase Carr repeated again on Wednesday, to stay the course, to get ready to practice, and to move on to the next one—all those ingrained phrases that become well-practiced through unfortunate experience. “There’s going to be bumps in the road,” Carr said. “But I know what we’re capable of.” Adams agreed, and went one step further. “The ultimate goal,” he said, “is me being here to make things better.” The best time to have achieved that was seven games ago, but the second-best time is right now.

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