If you’ve never heard of Schrödinger’s cat, this attempt to explain the concept will probably be inadequate, but essentially: there’s a cat in a box with a sealed vial of poison that will randomly break. Until you open the box, the cat is both alive and dead.
That’s the 2018 Oakland Raiders, who have as much outcome variance for the 2018 season as any team in the NFL. And we won’t find out whether they’re alive or dead until Sept. 10.
The Lane Kiffin Reality (aka Worst Case Scenario)
Khalil Mack is not just the best player on the roster; he is arguably the best defensive player in the league. It would be madness not to pay the holdout whatever he wants. If the alternative is trading him, it would be virtually impossible to get equal value.
Complicating this are whispers that owner Mark Davis literally cannot afford the signing bonus Mack is seeking. If ownership doesn’t have the cash to afford the cost of doing business with stars, what hope does the franchise have?
Mack’s absence would trigger a domino effect. Without him, it’s harder to imagine big years from youngsters like PJ Hall, Arden Key and Mo Hurst, or vets like Bruce Irvin; the lack of a pass rush would put that much more pressure on an already questionable secondary.
Even with Mack, the Raiders will be counting on three rookies to contribute, and there are concerns with each: Hall was productive in college, but at Division I-AA, and was considered a reach at pick 57; Hurst had medical concerns that caused him to fall to the fifth round; Key was dogged by questions of drive and a leave of absence from LSU that reportedly involved a marijuana problem.
The secondary is littered with highly-drafted youngsters who have yet to distinguish themselves — Karl Joseph (14th pick, 2016), Gareon Conley (24th pick, 2017) and Obi Melifonwu (56th pick, 2017) all have something to prove. If the Raiders don’t get significant development from one or more of those players, their pass defense will likely be bad again.
The goals for this unit are modest — average would be a nice upgrade — but not easy to achieve. Of course, there are major offensive question marks as well. The following is not my expectation, but imagine:
Jon Gruden looks out of touch and overmatched on a weekly basis; Derek Carr repeats last season’s mediocrity; Amari Cooper’s case of the dropsies persists; Jordy Nelson is washed; Martavis Bryant is unavailable; running backs are either too old (Marshawn Lynch, Doug Martin) or too small (Jalen Richard, DeAndre Washington) to carry the load; rookie Kolton Miller busts at LT while Donald Penn struggles to adapt to the right side.
It wouldn’t take all of that to torpedo the Raiders, but those question marks are all in play. Another year of Jarlsberg defense would put that much more pressure on the offensive group. Of course, the alternative is a lot more fun…
The John Madden Reality (aka Best Case Scenario)
Derek Carr earned his massive money with his age 24 and 25 seasons — starting 31 games and going 19-12, completing 62.4 percent of his passes for just under 8,000 yards, and throwing 60 touchdowns with just 19 interceptions. If that’s a sign of things to come, 2017 will go down as a blip on a potential Hall of Fame resume.
Gruden built a career on his reputation as an offensive guru, so it’s easy to imagine that he’ll have a positive effect on Carr, especially when you consider just how brutal the offensive coaching was last season. If Jared Goff can make the leap he did in his first year out of the Jeff Fisher tar pit, imagine what Carr can do with Todd Downing gone.
Amari Cooper, season full of drops behind him, retains the potential to be a superstar. Jordy Nelson’s usage was way down last year thanks to a series of nicks and bruises, but he’s one year removed from a 1,200-yard, 14-touchdown campaign.
Martavis Bryant typifies the Raiders’ outcome variance — he’s already missed a full season due to a marijuana-related suspension (and rumors are swirling he could face another ban); he’s considered injury-prone and has already missed practice with migraine headaches. Gruden acknowledged the core issue: “He has to stay out here. He has to master the offense and become more versatile. That’s the key to making this team better.”
At the same time, Bryant has the ability to be an absolute game breaker, and the head coach knows that too: “Martavis is not a good talent; he’s a great talent and we’re going to continue to work him into our offense … We have big plans for him.” Whether those plans are successful will go a long way towards determining the Raiders’ offensive success.
The offensive line was a top-10 unit last season (per Pro Football Focus) despite a carousel of mediocrity at right tackle. Rodney Hudson is elite. Kelechi Osemele and Gabe Jackson both can be as well. If Miller succeeds in Year One and Penn (now healthy) adjusts well to right tackle, Carr could have all day to pick apart opposing defenses.
There are lots of reasons for hope in the offensive backfield, too. Lynch is aging, but was highly productive in his chances last season. Richard and Washington have both flashed major upside, and youngster Chris Warren III has shown enough to threaten their spots on the roster.
The defense has a chance to be much better, they’ll just need some investments to pay off. Early returns on Conley, Joseph and Melifonwu — the trio of highly-drafted young defensive backs — have been discouraging, but none is older than 24. Rashaan Melvin and Marcus Gilchrist will hopefully provide upgrades over Reggie Nelson and Leon Hall, and perhaps Nick Nelson emerges as a nice surprise.
If they get Mack signed they know what they’ll get, and the big man takes so much focus from an opposing offense that it should create phenomenal opportunity for the host of young talent in the front seven.
The plan is clear: Score points. It’s Gruden’s purported specialty, and the roster is built to do it. If the defense can hold the line just a little, the offense can take care of the rest.
The gap between those two outcomes is vast. In all likelihood, the actual results for Oakland will fall somewhere in the middle. That being said, it feels rare and particularly exciting to cover a team with a Super Bowl ceiling and a 4-12 floor. Schrödinger’s Raiders, if you will.
Matt Kolsky is a sports media professional (or something like that) and lives with an aging Shih Tzu/Schnauser mix in Berkeley. You can hear him on the Bay Area sports radio station 95.7 the Game, usually on weekends. You can listen to his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever else fine podcasts are free. You can find him on Twitter @thekolsky to share your personal feelings about this article or any other topic, he will respond to most tweets that do not contain racial slurs.