There are seven undefeated teams in the NFL. None is more surprising than the Las Vegas Raiders. Yes, they have been 2-0 before. In fact, this is the third time in five seasons they have come out of the gate fast. But this feels different.
We’re not focusing on Jon Gruden’s cartoonish histrionics. We’re not making fun of owner Mark Davis’ bizarre appearance. We’re not chortling at the large Roomba out in the desert that they call home: Allegiant Stadium. No, we’re talking about the Raiders possibly being a playoff team – something that has happened only twice this century.
The Raiders’ victories have come against teams that made the postseason last year and might again this year: the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers. When the schedule first came out, 0-2 looked far more likely. But maybe the Silver and Black is back. If they beat the Miami Dolphins at home this Sunday, they will be off their best start since their Super Bowl season of 2002.
Las Vegas’s odds of staying perfect look good. Quarterback Derek Carr (ankle), listed as questionable earlier in the week, is expected to start. Meanwhile, the Dolphins will be without Tua Tagovailoa (rib fracture) and must lean on backup Jacoby Brissett.
It’s a great time to be a Raider.
“We haven’t done what we’ve wanted to do the last couple of seasons,” Carr said, via Raiders.com. “We haven’t been to the playoffs since 2016. I don’t blame that thought process, but at the same time, as a competitor you’re just like, ‘I don’t care about any of that, just put the ball down and let’s see if we can turn these into wins.’ We’ve started 2-0 before, but we have to keep going and we can’t let this thing go downhill.”
As much as people mock the Dallas Cowboys, the Raiders have been dining out on their championship past even longer. They haven’t won the Super Bowl since 1983. Generations have gone by, seeing the Raiders as nothing but a nomadic franchise that moved from Oakland to Los Angeles, back to Oakland, and finally to Las Vegas in 2020.
In their new home, they have a chance to be big winners again. They have an MVP candidate: the surprisingly spectacular Carr. They have weapons: freakishly athletic tight end Darren Waller and freakishly fast Henry Ruggs III. They have stars on defense: pass rusher Maxx Crosby and cornerback Casey Hayward Jr.
How much you believe in Las Vegas might be tied to how much you believe in Carr. His productivity is as shocking as the Raiders’ start. He leads the league in passing yards (817) – 128 more than the next guy (Kyler Murray of the Arizona Cardinals). He’s just the fourth player in NFL history to throw for at least 380 yards and multiple touchdowns in each of the first two games of the season.
Carr, 30, has been around for a while. He’s been good (a three-time Pro Bowler). But you always wondered if he was good enough. Perhaps unfairly. He has been blamed for Las Vegas’ lack of a winning record since Gruden returned to the Raiders in 2018.
It looked like it might be more of the same in the season opener. However, ever since the second half of the overtime victory over the Ravens, his numbers have been stratospheric: 50-of-68 for 690 yards. That’s more yards in six quarters than Murray or Patrick Mahomes.
The Raiders get their game-winning TD after all! pic.twitter.com/FycW5WFcMp
— The Comeback (@thecomeback) September 14, 2021
What’s been the biggest difference? One is obvious: he’s throwing downfield more. He’s sixth in the NFL in air yards per attempt (8.6) – tied with Mahomes, better than Aaron Rodgers (8.5) and Josh Allen (8.2).
He’s taking advantage of mismatches created by Waller and Ruggs. In a league of gifted tight ends like Travis Kelce and George Kittle, Waller is as good as any. When Gruden called Waller: “the best player I’ve ever coached;” that doesn’t seem like hyperbole.
But the guy who might wind up being the most important player could be Ruggs. After a disappointing rookie season, Ruggs is showing signs he can be a reliable deep threat. Against Pittsburgh, he cruised past the secondary to haul in a 61-yard touchdown on 3rd-and-10. It was a game-breaking play with Las Vegas clinging to a 16-14 lead in the fourth quarter. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the touchdown was thrown 46 air yards downfield, tied for the longest pass TD via air yards of Carr’s career.
5 jugadas | 75 yardas | 1:40
— Mayra Gomez (@mayralgomez) September 19, 2021
The offense is better, but so is the defense under first-year coordinator Gus Bradley.
Bradley made a name for himself helping to build the Seattle Seahawks’ Legion of Boom defense. He doesn’t have the same talent, but the Raiders are 10th in points allowed per game (22.0) after being third-worst (29.9) last year.
Crosby, the Week 1 AFC Defensive Player of the Week, has been nearly unstoppable. He leads the NFL in pressures (16) and quarterback hits (10). Hayward was smothering against the Steelers. According to Pro Football Focus, he was targeted three times and didn’t allow a reception.
The 3️⃣ highest coverage grades among CBs this season 🏝 pic.twitter.com/xuUcbFWgWU
— PFF (@PFF) September 21, 2021
Will this all lead to the Raiders ending their playoff drought? Davis lured Gruden back to the team in 2018 with a staggering 10-year, $100 million contract. In his second stint with the franchise, he’s 21-29 with no postseason trips. Gruden hasn’t even posted a winning season.
It’s hard to accurately assess the Raiders until they play AFC West games. The first will be Oct. 4, in a Monday Night Football affair at the Los Angeles Chargers. The Raiders don’t even face the Kansas City Chiefs until mid-November.
We’ll see how this plays out, but the Raiders have been entertaining so far.