Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023 | 2 a.m.
Heading into this season, it’s evident that expectations for the Raiders have hit their nadir since the team to moved to Las Vegas.
It is a near-consensus choice to wind up last in the AFC West and sits at 20-to-1 odds to win the division, despite having finished second or third in each of its three local seasons so far. A highly disappointing 6-11 record in the first year under coach Josh McDaniels, followed by an offseason in which the Raiders shed former franchise cornerstones like Derek Carr and Darren Waller, has made for pessimism around the league.
But such negativity seems to have even permeated the fan base, considering the crowd at the Raiders’ first and only preseason game at Allegiant Stadium. Silver and black looked outnumbered—or at least evenly matched—by the San Francisco 49ers’ scarlet and gold.
It all just doesn’t feel right. Summer training camp, for those who ascribe to NFL romanticism, is supposed to be when hope springs eternal and each team’s faithful thinks it has a shot at the Super Bowl.
And this year’s Raiders have certainly given some reasons to believe in them since they arrived at the team’s Henderson headquarters last month. Here are five of them.
1. They crushed the 49ers
The thousands of 49ers fans who paid a premium to see their team open the preseason at Allegiant Stadium didn’t have much to cheer about. The Raiders walloped their old rivals 34-7 on August 13.
And while it’s easy to write off a preseason result, given that the vast majority of starters weren’t playing and the stakes were nonexistent, the game wasn’t the only time the Raiders thrived against the 49ers. The home team arguably outplayed the visitors to a larger extent in a joint practice Friday before the game. There, the starters for both teams took the bulk of the snaps.
The day before that, the teams practiced together for the first time, and it was pretty close, with both the Raiders and 49ers having their moments. But even that was encouraging, considering that San Francisco is the favorite to reach the Super Bowl out of the NFC and has reached the conference championship game in three out of the past four seasons.
“It was a decent way to start,” McDaniels said after the preseason game. “I thought we had good effort and competitiveness all the way through. … There’s some mistakes we have to fix and correct but certainly guys stepped up and made some plays.”
2. A new defensive identity
The Raiders believe they have a cure to their long-running defensive woes, and it lies in throwing more all-out effort at creating turnovers. Las Vegas was last in the league a year ago with only 13 takeaways, but it had almost that many in three days worth of showdowns with San Francisco.
The Raiders unofficially had eight interceptions in the two days of practices, and then an interception and a fumble recovery in the preseason game. Defensive coordinator Patrick Graham is stressing punching at balls being carried in the open field and selling out to get hands on passes in the air.
Cornerback Marcus Peters, safety Marcus Epps and linebacker Robert Spillane—three free agent arrivals slotted with starting roles—are doing the most to implement the philosophy and all have multiple takeaways in practice. In the game against the 49ers, linebacker Curtis Bolton forced the fumble while cornerback Sam Webb nabbed an interception.
Linebacker Amari Burney and cornerback Duke Shelley also dropped two other easy interceptions.
“We got our hands on more footballs than we ended up coming up with,” McDaniels said. “Until you start getting close, it’s hard to create them. I thought the defense was really connected.”
3. Madder Maxx
Maxx Crosby has been such a menace the past two seasons, with a combined 20.5 sacks and a league-leading 182 pressures, that it’s easy to forget the superstar edge rusher hasn’t hit his traditional prime yet. In other words, the 25-year-old could get even better.
And in training camp, it looks like he has gotten even better. Crosby is constantly in the face of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo during full-team drills, and though he’s not allowed to hit him, the pressure has contributed to the torrent of turnovers by the defense.
Crosby is a perennial contender for the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award, and only a few other teams can claim to have a luxury like that on their roster.
“Every single day that I come in here, I think about winning,” Crosby said. “I don’t want to do this year-round and not make the playoffs. I’m sick of that sh*t.”
4. Young and hungry
McDaniels and general manager Dave Ziegler played up their latest draft class as foundational for the future of the franchise. And the early returns have been promising, despite the top two picks—first-round edge rusher Tyree Wilson and second-round tight end Michael Mayer—nursing injuries and not currently practicing.
Surprisingly, fourth-round cornerback Jakorian Bennett is getting the most first-team reps next to Peters at his position. Bennett might be the fastest player on the team. It’s at least a close competition with third-round receiver Tre Tucker, who blows past too many defensive backs not to carve out some role in the offense immediately.
A pair of defensive tackles—third-rounder Byron Young and seventh-rounder Nesta Jade Silvera—have both flashed in practice and drawn high praise from Crosby. Burney, a sixth-round pick, seems sure to make the 53-man roster as an asset both in coverage and against the run.
The Raiders’ only healthy draft pick who’s yet to make an impact is fifth-round safety Christopher Smith, who’s found himself at the bottom of a logjam at his position.
5. They weren’t that bad last year in the first place
Yes, the Raiders were five games below .500 but their point differential was only -23. They went 4-9 in games decided by a touchdown or less, a notoriously fickle measure that can fluctuate wildly from year to year.
Raider fans should know. Las Vegas set an NFL record with five walk-off wins in the 2021-22 season when it reached the playoffs, but saw the close-game fortune flip the other way last season.
The Raiders set another NFL record in the 2022-23 season by blowing four double-digit halftime leads. Poor game management by McDaniels was a factor, but luck tends to play a larger role in tight games than most realize or want to admit.
Flip a few of those results and the Raiders can be right back in the thick of the playoff race this year. The hype might not be there, but the Raiders have a shot at putting together a strong season.
This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.