For the first time in a long time, there is cause for genuine optimism among the loyal fan base of the Las Vegas Raiders.
The changes to the football operations side have been positive as new general manager Dave Ziegler and head coach Josh McDaniels have moved quickly to change the culture of the highly unsuccessful Jon Gruden-Mike Mayock regime. The team has cut ties with those not willing or able to buy in and be good citizens. Owner Mark Davis also tried to stabilize the chaos by hiring Sandra Douglass Morgan, an African American/Korean American woman with deep ties to Las Vegas and the state of Nevada, as the team’s president.
The Raiders made the playoffs for the first time since 2002, and now they look to go back-to-back in the postseason for the first time since 2000-’01 and try to take the next step in returning to the Super Bowl, their last appearance coming in ’02. Honestly, this century has not been kind to the Silver and Black.
The team opened its season Sunday at SoFi Stadium against the Los Angeles Chargers, whom many believe are ready right now to take that Super Bowl step. It is the first of four games in the first six weeks against opponents in the AFC West, a division that is arguably the toughest in the entire NFL. We’ll have a pretty good sense of where the Raiders are after that early stretch of games.
You can expect the Raiders to move the ball, given the balance McDaniels appears to have with the offense. Quarterback Derek Carr did not play a snap the entire preseason, and that’s fine, as he was taking the majority of the first-team snaps in training camp. The veteran got an early Christmas present when he was reunited with Davante Adams, his teammate from their college days at Fresno State. That bolsters an already strong group of pass catchers with Hunter Renfrow and Darren Waller. McDaniels also has what appears to be a nice running back corps with Josh Jacobs, rookie Zamir White of Georgia — who made the opening-day roster as a fourth-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft — and veteran Ameer Abdullah, who has played with the Lions, Vikings and Panthers.
Whether they take the next step will likely depend on how well the offensive line performs. Can it protect Carr long enough for him to throw the ball? Can it open up holes big enough for the backs to run through. Can the Raiders keep the holding and illegal-procedure penalties — those infamous drive-killers — to a minimum?
Defensively, Las Vegas appears to be good enough to not get drubbed. Maxx Crosby and the D-line firm of Ferrell (Clelin, DT) and Farrell (rookie Neil, DT from LSU) should be able to get to the opposing quarterback and create enough havoc at the line of scrimmage. Defensive coordinator Patrick Graham will not have his guys sitting back and reading and reacting. They’re going to be aggressive and looking to make plays.
The Raiders went 4-0 in the preseason, which is normally a meaningless stat. But it did help create a culture of winning and gave McDaniels and his staff ample opportunity to assess their roster and shed themselves of players who didn’t fit. Look no further than OT Alex Leatherwood, a former first-round draft pick from 2021 who struggled during the preseason and was let go, ultimately being picked up by the Chicago Bears.
“We gave everybody an opportunity to go out there and play and really perform,” McDaniels said when asked about the construction of the Raiders’ roster. “There’s a lot of tough decisions that you make across the roster.
“You hope you get them all right. We’re not perfect at that. So, hopefully, we did the best we could for our team, and we tried to make the decisions we thought would help us going forward.”
The oddsmakers seem to think the Raiders got it right. Las Vegas opened at 30-1 to win this year’s Super Bowl. When the preseason began, the odds had dropped to 15-1. With Sunday’s opener looming, the Raiders are now 12-1 to win the Super Bowl.
As for the team’s season-win total, another bookmakers’ barometer, the Raiders opened at 9, went to 8.5 in early July before training camp, and are now back to 9.
The NFL season is long — one filled with twists and turns. It becomes a battle of attrition come December as injuries infiltrate each of the 32 teams’ rosters. The Raiders appear to have garnered enough depth to open the season strong — their third in Vegas at Allegiant Stadium — and the talent level throughout is significantly higher than it was last season. We’ll see on Sunday in Los Angeles just how high.
But if you’re a Raiders fan, you should feel good about your team. How often have you been able to say that this century?