Five weeks away from home and an embarrassing loss in the thin air of Mexico City left the Raiders gasping, limping, pointing fingers, making changes.
Gone was the early season swagger, the aggressiveness, the talk about a deep playoff run. Gone, too, was defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr., who was fired early last week because of continued lapses and consistently ugly numbers.
Baby steps, then. One step forward, two steps back.
NaVorro Bowman broke one streak when he intercepted Paxton Lynch, and the defense for the most part performed with the speed, cohesiveness and precision coach Jack Del Rio has been preaching in a 21-14 win Sunday over the Denver Broncos. Marshawn Lynch plowed ahead on 26 carries. Derek Carr showed his touch and struck for big plays. But en route to a win that keeps them in the thick of the AFC West race and has them on the heels of the division-leading Kansas City Chiefs, the Raiders complicated matters. They picked a fight they can’t possibly win.
About those two steps back: Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib yanked Michael Crabtree’s chain again in a reprise of an encounter between the two a year ago. Instead of maintaining his composure, the Raiders veteran receiver wrestled Talib toward the visitors sideline, where he was surrounded by Broncos and rescued by Raiders, though not before triggering a nasty brawl. Punches were thrown. Shoves were exchanged. An official was bumped by tackle Gabe Jackson, who like Crabtree, was ejected for his actions.
Broncos cornerback Chris Harris suggested Crabtree arrived with an agenda and sucker-punched him in the stomach moments earlier, on the second play of the game.
“I have never seen that in the NFL,” Harris said afterward. “He took a shot at me first. It was a run play, I was playing man, and I wasn’t even doing anything. He just came in there, as like ‘bam,’ hit me right me right in the middle of the stomach.”
Once the NFL reviews the film and talks to the appropriate parties, fines and suspensions are likely to follow. As it is, Crabtree’s ejection was problematic – and could have been extremely damaging – because Amari Cooper, the Raiders’ other starting receiver – absorbed a bruising hit and left the game with a concussion. His availability for next week against the New York Giants is questionable, at best.
“Bottom line is we can’t afford to lose one of our top receivers and then our starting guard (Jackson) because he went over there to help his buddy,” Raiders coach Jack Del Rio said. “I will address it the best I can, but I like to count on my guys to do the right thing and keep their poise, keep their composure, not get tossed out. It’s just too much.”
The nonsense tainted an encouraging effort and a soothing end to a trying week. After returning to Oakland following the Raiders’ 33-8 loss to the New England Patriots in Mexico City, Del Rio parted with Norton, whose squad failed to show significant improvement from a year ago.
Entering Sunday’s game against the Broncos, the Raiders defense ranked 26th in total yards, 27th in pass defense and last in interceptions (none), with opposing quarterbacks converting a league-high 72.3 percent of their passes.
The offense hasn’t been unscathed, either, with first-year offensive coordinator Todd Downing criticized for a sharp decline in production from last season under current Broncos and then-Raiders OC Bill Musgrave. Both Carr and Del Rio denied that Musgrave was released because of a personality conflict with either the head coach or the two-time All-Pro quarterback, but around the Raiders in Oakland these days, a healthy and inescapable dose of skepticism exists.
Still, winning appeases angry souls, even in the Black Hole. With the Raiders only a game behind the Chiefs, who have dropped five of six games, with a chance to control their own destiny with remaining games against both Kansas City and the Los Angeles Chargers, the challenge now is to freeze the formula – sans fisticuffs – for the duration of the season.
Carr looked like Carr again, mixing in swing passes with slants, go-routes, quick strikes to Lynch over the middle, along with beautiful deep throws of 53 yards to Johnny Holton and 72 yards to Cordarrelle Patterson. Lynch was a one-man power play. A team of receivers filled in for the ailing (Cooper) and the departed (Crabtree).
But the maligned defense was a different beast against the Broncos, who in the opening half amassed more yards on penalties (65) than offense (54), illustrating just how quickly the elite can be humbled and returned to the ranks of the masses. True, these are the Broncos in the grip of a two-year Super Bowl hangover.
Peyton Manning has retired and taken his talents to Hollywood, leaving Broncos GM John Elway to pick his poison among quarterbacks Brock Osweiler, Lynch or Trevor Siemian, who led two late scoring drives after replacing a shaken Lynch.
Nonetheless, statistically, those defensive numbers no longer look so bleak. The Raiders finished with five sacks, pressured the quarterbacks throughout, finally recorded that first interception, hard as it is to believe that it has taken more than half the season. While Del Rio attributes some of this to subtle philosophical changes, there was a different mood in the locker room, an edgier, more confident vibe.
“Guys just let it go,” linebacker Bruce Irvin said. “I think just be more aggressive. Fly around, guys run to the ball. Guys run to the ball, good things happen. Just look at the interception with NaVorro (Bowman). Guys ran to the ball, surrounded the ball and we came up with our first interception.”
So is this a new beginning or, at the least, a midseason reboot? That’s the plan, anyway, while awaiting the word from the league office.