sports 4 days ago

Tom Krasovic: The Raiders aren't a mess this year — with 11 games to go

The San Diego Union-Tribune — By Tom Krasovic The San Diego Union-Tribune

Oct. 09-- In a change, the Oakland Raiders have resembled a watchable NFL team, for more than a minute.

Cue the hallelujahs.

Jon Gruden's team heads into its open date this weekend with a 3-2 record, in the wake of back-to-back victories against the Colts (3-2) and Bears (3-2).

If for no other reason, you should watch the Raiders because of Josh Jacobs, a special rookie who's rushed for four touchdowns.

The Raiders haven't done much right since their Super Bowl flop in San Diego. That was nearly 18 years ago. Their talent margins are still thin-as skinny as former Raiders quarterback Marc Wilson-but a tip of the headset goes to Gruden, whose coaching may be offsetting, if not fully overcoming, a few of his personnel moves that came a cropper (see, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant).

For a Raiders Hall of Famer and San Diegan who visited training camp this summer in Napa, the encouraging start to this season jibes with the thin-slice judgment he formed in grape country.

"I was blown away by the athleticism and the speed of the guys there-I really was, and I was surprised," said Mike Haynes, a cornerback for the 1983 Los Angeles team that stands as Southern California's only Super Bowl champion. "I know a dimension that all sports teams need to have is that, and I felt like that was missing before."

Haynes skews toward upbeat, but he's also upfront. For instance: He said he was wrong a few years ago about a Raiders team that turned out to be fool's gold. Yet his visit this summer left a second strong impression.

"Something I noticed, was the youth," he said. "The vibrancy and the energy was there. They were so excited."

My hope in March for the Raiders was that incoming General Manager Mike Mayock would keep the excitable Gruden from overly pursuing shiny objects. Though team owner Mark Davis had given Gruden powers that are Belichickian, he's no Bill Belichick when it comes to team building.

Within weeks of Mayock's arrival came a highly questionable move: Two Raiders draft picks were shipped to the Steelers for Brown, an All-Pro receiver whose toxicity had led Pittsburgh GM Kevin Colbert to eat $21 million in salary-cap space.

You know how that worked out. Brown misbehaved himself off the team. The damage went beyond flushing two draft chips. Gruden had built his offense around Brown, whose exit came days before the season opener. The team since has traded for two receivers, spending more draft picks.

The big picture here is that the team's talent level and play are improved from last year.

Jacobs is getting 4.9 yards per carry. He arrived via the first of two top-round picks Gruden got in the Khalil Mack trade with Chicago. He's only 21 and carried a modest load at Alabama.

Darren Waller is a tight end who runs like a receiver, and Raiders coaches know how to use him. With 37 catches he stands fifth in the NFL. More importantly, the 27-year-old Waller, who was signed off Baltimore's practice squad in November, seems to have his life on track in the wake of substance-abuse problems.

Gruden's strong belief in the importance of sturdy blocking-a theme he hammered in a Chargers critique during a 2015-season talk at a San Diego sporting good store and during and after a Bolts defeat-is reaping much-needed gains.

Newcomer Trent Brown, the right tackle, is living up to a big salary. At 30, Rodney Hudson remains one of the NFL's better centers. Left tackle Kolton Miller is improved from an uninspiring rookie season marred by a knee injury. Of some help is undrafted rookie Alex Ingold, a fullback who converted from linebacker four years ago at Wisconsin. The jury's out on newcomer Richie Incognito, the guard had two personal fouls in the first half Sunday.

Rookie Foster Moreau is a contributor who has a chance to become a credible two-way tight end.

While the defense lacks a dominant pass rusher, there's a good amount of speed on the line.

For Mayock and Gruden, the biggest challenge is this one: figuring out whether quarterback Derek Carr is The Answer.

On the one hand, when Carr has his feet under him and takes aim, he's someone the team can count on, as far as that goes. The 73.3-percent completion rate he's fashioned in 161 passes leads the NFL and is 10 points above his career mark.

Carr coped with Brown's exit. His strong arm meshed with newcomer Tyrell Williams, a newcomer who had a touchdown catch in each of the four games before a foot injury sidelined him.

On the other hand, Carr could stand to improve at anticipation throws, especially downfield, and at reading out the defense if the blocking allows.

For example, when the Bears sent only three rushers at him on third-and-7 and blocking provided him extraordinary time and space, it wasn't advanced quarterbacking by Carr, 28, when he threw a short pass instead of reading out of the play.

The Bears easily stopped the receiver short of the first down.

Patience and poise would've allowed Carr to hit an intermediate receiver who was coming open.

A critique followed, from someone who often praises Carr.

"Disappointing, really disappointing," former NFL tackle and San Diego Morse High alum Lincoln Kennedy, a Raiders analyst, said during the radio broadcast.

Improving Carr's odds from last year, when he was under siege and lacked much playmaking help, Gruden and Mayock have a better chance of evaluating him this season. It'll be the Packers, in Oakland, for the Raiders in Week 7, and it's refreshing that football folly costumed in silver and black isn't the expectation.

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