LAS VEGAS — Sometimes, the NFL is not a Rembrandt or a Monet. Sometimes, it’s a 5-year-old’s etching that hangs on the refrigerator door with a magnet instead of in a museum.
Sunday night, the country got to watch the 5-year-old’s handiwork as the Raiders and New York Jets put on a football display that would’ve had Hall of Fame coaches John Madden and Weeb Ewbank throwing their hands up in disgust had they been alive to witness it.
Or, to quote another Hall of Fame coach in Vince Lombardi, “What the hell is going on here?”
But as they say, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. And despite struggling to establish any kind of consistent attack on offense, the Raiders managed to do just enough things right in the end and get past the Jets, 16-12, at Allegiant Stadium.
And no, “Heidi” didn’t appear on anyone’s television screen this time around as was the case when these two teams met in Oakland back in 1968 though the NBC producers must’ve been tempted to instead of airing what was a field-goal kicking contest between the Raiders’ Daniel Carlson and the Jets’ Greg Zuerlein. The pair combined for seven field goals which obviously doesn’t make for scintillating viewing.
An interception by linebacker Robert Spillane with 1:14 to go and a pass breakup in the end zone on the game’s final play put the Raiders back in a somewhat familiar situation — .500 — for the third time this year. They were 1-1 early on, then 3-3, now 5-5 as the Antonio Pierce Era is 2-0. Which means there’s hope.
Of course, there’s danger lying ahead with games at Miami next week followed by Kansas City at home Thanksgiving weekend. If Las Vegas can stay at .500 after that, the holidays might seem a little brighter for Raider Nation.
“It’s football,” Pierce said. “It’s not always going to go your way. So you have to find a way. That’s what our guys did. They kept fighting and we got the job done in the end.”
Which meant victory cigars in the home team locker room. And it meant rookie quarterback Aidan O’Connell grew up a little more.
“I learned a lot,” said O’Connell, who was 16 of 27 for 153 yards, including a 7-yard touchdown pass to fellow rookie tight end Michael Mayer in the back corner of the end zone in the opening minute of the fourth quarter. He also was intercepted and was sacked three times. “There were ups and downs each drive. I didn’t help myself or the team on those sacks. I was holding the ball too long. Definitely not a super-clean performance. But the guys stepped up.”
He’s not kidding. Watching this game was like riding the roller coaster at New York-New York. One second, Josh Jacobs, who wound up rushing for 116 yards on 27 carries, is running for 40 yards. Then he’s fumbling to kill a drive. The Raiders failed on a 4th-and-short, then later on, made one on a great call by offensive coordinator Bo Hardegree who called DeAndre Carter’s number instead of Jacobs’ on 4th-and-1 that was a jet sweep around the left side that picked up 15 yards.
It was a great pass play from O’Connell to Mayer for the TD but on 3rd-and-5, O’Connell’s pass to Austin Hooper which would have essentially ended the game, was tipped by Jermaine Johnson, giving much-maligned QB Zach Wilson and the Jets one last shot with 53 seconds remaining.
The Jets’ woes on offense are well documented. They haven’t found the end zone in nearly four games as Wilson continues his struggles in operating the offense. Yet it took some big plays by the Las Vegas defense to send them back to New Jersey 4-5.
“Whatever this team needs to do to win, they’ll do it,” Pierce said.
Sometimes when a game is so ugly like this one, players can find themselves lulled to sleep and then when the big play comes and bites them in the butt, it’s too late. To the Raiders’ credit, they managed to maintain their focus. And even when their depth was tested from the opening play with left tackle Kolton Miller out before kickoff and then losing cornerback Amik Robertson to an apparent concussion in the second quarter, Las Vegas made the necessary adjustments and spurred on by the majority of the crowd of 62,383 rooting for them, the Raiders finished the job.
Perhaps those Raiders season ticket-holders are starting to believe and are not so quick to sell their seats to the visiting team’s fans. That’s what winning does. That’s what a change of culture can do. Not only do the players believe, the fans sense it as well and they want to come along for the ride.
The quarterback is learning how to play in the NFL. The coach is learning how to run a sideline. The team is responding to the challenge of not allowing negativity to seep into the room.
“You go inside, you see all those smiling faces, that’s what it’s about,”Pierce said.
I’m not sure how he can see through all that cigar smoke. But he’s finding a way. Just like his players found a way to win a not-so-pretty football game Sunday night.