It is still relatively early in the NFL season, at just about the half-way point, so there are many more games left, and a lot of twists and turns to expect from the drama that is professional football.
One story line, however, even at this point in the season, is pretty hard to ignore. That is, The Oakland Raiders, after a 34-20 win against The New York Jets, have a winning record at 4-3 under head coach Jack Del Rio. This team, known in the past as talented, tough, possessing the coolest logo in the league, and having a crazy/loyal fan base, has been one of the worst teams in the NFL in recent memory. They have not had a winning season since 2002, when Rich Gannon was the league MVP, and the team made it all the way to the Super Bowl to lose to Tampa Bay.
With flawed moves, like drafting Jamarcus Russell first overall, who was one of the biggest draft busts ever, and a fan base that seems to be more concerned about putting on makeup and playing dress-up at the stadium than rooting for the football team, they have been in some turmoil.
There is plenty of time that the team could still screw this up, but after 7 games, Oakland stands with a winning record. They do not really have a bad loss all season, losing to the undefeated Broncos and Bengals, and a loss on the road to the Bears, who are a tough out at home.
Part of the reason they are winning games at this point of the season is due to a lot of young talent on the offensive side. They are averaging 25.4 points a game, ranking them at 8th in the NFL. David Carr, the 2nd year QB, has shown a lot of growth in his game so far, averaging 248.1 yards per game at a 65.5% completion rate. He has thrown 15 TDs to only 3 INTs, in a league where hanging on to the ball and not committing turnovers is key to winning.
However, Carr is not doing it all by himself. This year’s 4th overall pick, WR Amari Cooper is having a solid start to his NFL career, with 565 yards and 3 TDs racked up so far. The other starting WR, Michael Crabtree, who has proven himself a steady young veteran as a member of the 49ers, is also playing pretty well, totaling 483 yards and 3 TDs.
An area that has been ok, but definitely needs improvement for the team to continue to succeed, is running the ball. Latavius Murray, the starting back, is having a decent year, but the team is averaging just 99.7 rushing yards per game, ranking them at 20th in the league, with just 3 TD the entire season. In games against solid passing defenses, such as Denver this year, the passing game will not always be incredibly effective, so they will need to improve on running the football in order to pick up yards and move drives along.
The Raiders’ defense has allowed 24.7 ppg, putting them at T-18th in the NFL, which is just below average. What this means is that they are not shutting other teams down, but they are also not letting teams score so many points that the offense has no chance to stay afloat.
What the defense is, however, is opportunistic. Led by Charles Woodson, who has 5 INTs already at this point of the season, and seems to be winning against father time, the Raiders are forcing turnovers at key points. They have forced 5 fumbles this season, and have been able to recover 4 of them, which is a pretty great percentage. Their front 7 is also pretty stout, with players like Khalil Mack and Justin Tuck leading the team to 14 sacks and 19 tackles for losses.
Their special teams has also been effective to this point in the season. Sebastian Janikowski seemingly has no limit to the distance he can kick a football, as the starting kicker for what seems like forever. Punter Marquette King also is punting well, with 12 pins inside the opponent’s 20 yard line, and a long punt of 70 yards on the season.
There is hope early in the season that Oakland might be vying for a playoff spot for the first time in 14 seasons. New England, Denver, and Cincinnati all are undefeated, with Denver leading the AFC West, which Oakland plays in. These three teams seem untouchable so far, so it is unlikely that the Raiders will be able to catch up and win a division title, but a wildcard spot is very much in the cards at this point. Currently the Raiders sit at the first wildcard spot, with the same record as, but a head-to-head victory over, the Jets.
No guarantees exist in the NFL though. Pittsburgh lost it’s star RB Le’veon Bell for the remainder of the year, but they are used to winning and will not back out of the playoff race easily. Miami and Buffalo are also both talented, and will have something to say about the wildcard spots.
For now, we do not know whether the early success of the season will carry on, but we can appreciate that the Raiders are fun and exciting to watch, and clearly have a path that they can follow to success in the future.
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