The Raiders may have one foot out of Oakland and the other in Southern California, but if they are to make that familiar move again, they at least seem intent to leave some positive memories behind.
For the first time in a long time, the Raiders will open a regular season with legitimate reason for optimism. In low-key rookie Amari Cooper and emotion-charged Khalil Mack, they have a budding franchise player on each side of the ball. In Derek Carr, they believe they have their quarterback of the present and future. The so-called skill guys have more talent around them. And they have an old-school coach who has experience with a mid-market team and the challenges that come with it.
Even the NFL has cooperated. It’s imperative for the Raiders not to bury themselves early, and back-to-back home games at O.co Coliseum to open the season provide the best chance to achieve the goal.
“We’re really excited to open at home,” said coach Jack Del Rio, whose team will host the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday. “It’s a great opportunity for us as a football team to get a great start.”
Then again, if the Raiders can’t help but get better, it’s because few if any teams have been worse in recent years. They haven’t finished above .500 since the 2002 season, which also marked their last Super Bowl appearance.
The ineptness has been apparent all over the field. In the last 12 years, the Raiders ranked in the bottom half of the league in yards gained 10 times. And 10 times they ranked in the bottom half in yards allowed. Last year may have been worst of all — 31st in points scored and 32nd in points allowed in the 32-team league.
But ever so slowly, general manager Reggie McKenzie has built a base of talent that may allow for the next step finally.
The release of linebacker Sio Moore was indicative of the situation. Moore started 22 games the last two seasons and was among the few playmakers on defense. The move spoke to the greater number of options available for Del Rio and his staff.
“We had depth there that we’re really happy about,” Del Rio said. “We brought in two free agent linebackers that are both playing really well. We brought in two draft picks that are both playing pretty well. We developed a guy at the position that’s returning in Ray-Ray [Armstrong], and we added a guy that we think is a real core difference maker on special teams. We’ve got a full group. It was an opportunity to acquire a pick for a guy that somebody else may want to have.”
Any discussion about a new era begins with Carr, 24, who comes off one of the better rookie seasons at the position in recent years. While it’s difficult to ignore his toughness and arm strength, not every talent evaluator is sold on his instincts at this early stage. The Fresno State product was erratic in the preseason, partly because of the new personnel around him, but he remained confident that would change before long.
“There were some good things, but there definitely some things we have to correct,” Carr said. “There are still some things that we’re that close [to success] with the whole offense.”
One camp believes the Raiders can double their three-game victory total of a year ago, perhaps even make a run at the .500 mark. Yet another believes the improvement will be more gradual in a league where quantum leaps are uncommon from season to season. Either way, if this to be the the Raiders’ farewell season in the Bay Area, the hosts plan to be the life of the party.
“We have a special group of guys,” Mack said. “We have a solid group of guys. Once we get together, once we put it all on display, it’s going to be a special. You will see.”