For what seems like the hundredth time in the last 15 years, the Oakland Raiders find themselves at a crossroads. Each of the previous 99 times ended with the Raiders laying face down in the mud with their pants around their ankles. This time, it appears they’ve not only stayed upright, but they’ve managed to hit a full sprint down the path to success.
Last time we checked in on the Silver and Black, they were on the cusp of being contenders. They were an upstart team that wasn’t good enough to make the playoffs but too good to care. Despite missing the playoffs and finishing without a winning record for the 13th consecutive season, observers knew this team was on to something.
Watching Derek Carr sling the ball to Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree and seeing Khalil Mack turn opposing tackles into turnstiles and quarterbacks into tackling dummies was enough to give the hint that greatness was on the horizon for the much-maligned franchise.
Even before the offseason, the narrative around the Raiders was changing. Their 7-9 finish felt like a step in the right direction for the team that managed 11 wins and 37 losses over the previous three seasons.
Finally out from under Al Davis’s seemingly perpetual cloud of poor draft choices and salary cap abominations, Reggie McKenzie had a chance to make some splashes in free agency, and he didn’t miss.
The Raiders were in desperate need of a cornerback, so they went out and signed Sean Smith. Smith isn’t prime Darrelle Revis by any stretch, but he is a bona fide No. 1 corner. The addition of Smith alone will make the Raiders’ entire defense better.
They also needed another pass rusher opposite Mack while Aldon Smith sorts his life out. They went out and signed Bruce Irvin. Irvin is not only an outstanding pass rusher, but he can also play in coverage. That kind of versatility only benefits a defense. Put his speed and ability to get to the passer on the opposite side of Mack, and you begin to understand why Peyton Manning retired.
The Raiders needed to strengthen their offensive line. They went out and signed a dominant guard in Kelechi Osemele and re-signed Donald Penn. Osemele is a tank in the run game, and Penn was extremely stout on Carr’s blind side in 2015.
The Raiders look like a complete team. Now, they still have to play the games to see how these units all work together, but they’re on the right track.
Signing Smith and Irvin shored up the defensive secondary while simultaneously making the defensive backfield better by way of a relentless pass rush.
The offensive pieces were already there a season ago. Their offensive front only got stronger with the Osemele signing, which bodes well for the growth of their young guys like Carr, Cooper and Latavius Murray.
This feels strange. The Raiders are… good. And not good by the standards of a perennial 4-12 team, but good by actual standards.
Oakland went from 3-13 in 2014 to 7-9 last year — to suddenly looking like an actual threat in the AFC West. In fact, is anything stopping the Raiders from being the favorite?
The defending world champion Broncos surely have a say in the matter, but is Paxton Lynch and/or Mark Sanchez striking fear into the hearts of anyone at the moment? And will their defense be able to replicate the dominance they displayed a season ago? This is not to knock the Broncos, but they’re certainly trending in the direction opposite of Oakland.
The Chiefs seem to be in the purgatory of going as far as Alex Smith will take them. If history is any indication, Alex Smith will take them as far as a 4-yard check-down. While Kansas City did finish the regular season with an outstanding 10-game win streak, it's hard to imagine them replicating that success with Smith under center.
The Chargers are also a team in the AFC West that has players and uniforms and stuff — but not much else.
That leaves the Raiders, a team that was competitive last year and a couple of plays from really fighting for a playoff spot. They’re young, they filled all of their roster holes with above-average players, and they drafted sensibly and for depth. These aren’t Al Davis’ Raiders of yesteryear. This team is transitioning from "on the rise" to "legitimate contender."
Reggie McKenzie has revived this corpse of a franchise with a vision and a direction, and it has all gone according to plan. Now it’s time for him to unleash his plan on the league.
It seems that in 2016, the autumn wind will once again be a Raider.
Experiment 626. Coffee drinker and cat enthusiast. Pro-avocado. Anti-sac bunt. Habitual bat flipper. Alex Smith apologist. Yoenis Cespedes fanboy.