Raiders 'had a dream,' reach playoffs by sticking with the plan

Raiders 'had a dream,' reach playoffs by sticking with the plan

SAN DIEGO – The Raiders didn’t win the Super Bowl on Sunday in San Diego. They didn’t even clinch an AFC West title.

A 19-16 victory over the Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium secured the Raiders’ first playoff berth since the 2002 season. That’s something special but, as head coach Jack Del Rio reminds us, “we have designs on more.”

The Raiders want to win a division, a conference title and a league championship. Del Rio has never been afraid to dream big. Those goals can’t be attained right now. They’ll need to stave off Kansas City in the regular season and then go on a playoff run to reach a desired peak.

While we’re here, let’s stop and ponder what was accomplished as Sunday afternoon pushed to evening. Sure, the Raiders are back in the playoffs after a 13-year drought. Let’s think in shorter terms.

They were 0-10 and eventually 3-13 just two seasons ago. They finished 2015 disappointed at 7-9 in Del Rio’s first year here. Now they’re one of the NFL’s best.

Derek Carr, Khalil Mack and the 2014 draft class longed for a quick about face. It seemed easier dreamt than done. Del Rio and staff pushed things along, and general manager Reggie McKenzie kept the talent flowing in. Those divisions worked in concert to reach the postseason.

Getting to this point isn’t an end goal, but it’s certainly an important milestone. That’s especially true for those who pushed through a disastrous 2014 season.

“We wanted to take this team to a place it hadn’t been in 14 years now. That was a part of it when (the 2014 draft class) came in,” Carr said. “We were going to make the playoffs. We were going to turn things around. We had a vision. We had a dream in our hearts.

“When you’re 0-9, 0-10, it seems so far away, but through tough times you find out what kind of person you are. We had to work and grind. Then we went 7-9 and fell short again. We continued work through another offseason, another year. Those days get long. When a group comes together and stays the course, then we can do things like this.”

Staying the course is a major reason why the Raiders are at this point and able to attain more. Del Rio mentioned it in his postgame remarks and thanked owner Mark Davis for trusting him and McKenzie to execute a plan. There were certainly times when McKenzie took serious heat rebuilding the franchise, but Davis stuck by his man. They eventually got the head coach right after a flailing swing at the first pitch, and found a leader in Del Rio who was a correct fit for the franchise.

“Mark Davis has really allowed Reggie and I to do the things that we need to do to make this franchise great again,” Del Rio said. “The whole idea of greatness starts with leadership at the top and him providing us with the resources and the opportunity to grow this football team the way we have over the last two years. I’m very appreciative of that.”

Even with eyes on bigger prizes, Del Rio told his team to enjoy the moment. They aren’t easy to come by. The Raiders hope to contend every year, and make playoff berths commonplace. They aren’t right now, and he knows that. Let the franchise as a whole, from ticket sellers to equipment managers to security personnel bask in a job well done awhile before honing on what’s next.

The players certainly enjoyed it, especially those who remember was 3-13 was like.

“This feels good,” left tackle Donald Penn said who signed with Oakland in 2014. “Especially considering where we came from my first year to now, it’s a big turnaround. I’m happy for Mr. Davis, Mr. McKenzie and all those guys in the front office because they stuck with the plan. They stuck with it. Mr. Davis gave them the trust, and it’s coming to fruition now.”

Quarterback drafted by Jon Gruden in 2008 signs with Raiders


Quarterback drafted by Jon Gruden in 2008 signs with Raiders

Raiders head coach Jon Gruden had a hand in drafting Josh Johnson a decade ago. The agile quarterback and Oakland native was a Tampa Bay’s fifth-round pick in 2008, Gruden’s last year as Buccaneers coach.

The pair will reunite in Johnson’s hometown. The well-traveled quarterback signed with the Raiders on Monday, the team announced.

Johnson will compete with Connor Cook to backup starter Derek Carr, and brings a veteran’s influence to the position group. It likely spells the end of EJ Manuel’s short tenure in silver and black. The strong-armed former first-round pick, who started one game last season, remains a free agent after a year with the Raiders.

This move should make Marshawn Lynch happy. He and Johnson are extremely close and together run the Family First Foundation, a charitable organization that does significant work for East Bay kids. Johnson and Lynch also played football together at Oakland Tech High.

Johnson has played 10 NFL teams prior to this Raiders stop, but hasn’t played in a regular-season game for some time.

Raiders well equipped to 'slam the ball with a beast'


Raiders well equipped to 'slam the ball with a beast'

Raiders head coach Jon Gruden needed specific tools to run his running game. He wanted blocking tight ends and a bruising fullback, relics of a bygone offensive era.

“If Marshawn Lynch is the feature back, I think it’d be nice if we serviced him with a fullback,” Gruden said at the combine. … You need a blocking tight end if you’re going to slam the ball with a beast. So, those are two things that I’m looking for.”

Gruden said he wanted to import some old-school elements to help run with brute force.

Enter free-agent fullback Kyle Smith and tight end Derek Carrier. Welcome back, Lee Smith.

Then, on Sunday, Raiders made another vital move in this old school effort. They cut Marshawn Lynch a $1 million check.

The Oakland native’s roster bonus came due and the Raiders had no problem paying it, the clearest sign Lynch will be the Raiders feature back in 2018.

He’ll have a great chance to thrive in that role. The Raiders have a hulking, expensive offensive line (that still needs a right tackle). They have new ancillary blocking elements, and the centerpiece remains in place.

That last part was expected in recent weeks. The coaching staff, offensive line coach Tom Cable especially, wanted Lynch back. NFL Network confirmed those facts, stating Lynch will be around in 2018.

That was the case, even with Doug Martin’s addition. The former Tampa Bay back is expected to be a backup bruiser, someone who might put DeAndre Washington or (less likely) Jalen Richard’s job in jeopardy.

The Raiders can cut Lynch without a cap hit. Lynch is scheduled to make $6 million in salary and bonuses, with another $2 million available in incentives. The Raiders should hope to pay those; it would mean Lynch is running well.

The Raiders have given him a great opportunity to do so. They have solid blocking and a coach in Cable who helped him succeed during dominant days in Seattle.

Lynch proved he’s still got it in 2017’s second half, with 70 percent of his 891 rushing yards in the final eight games. He struggled early on, and upset some fans by helping the opposition during a scuffle with Kansas City. That mitigated a PR bump the Raiders looked for when signing a popular Oakland native just months after committing to Las Vegas long-term.

Jack Del Rio and staff grew tired of what they perceived as leeway given to Lynch unavailable to others, and probably wouldn’t have kept him on if still gainfully employed.

Gruden seems committed to Lynch this season, though nothing is ever 100 percent with an enigmatic rusher who doesn’t make private thoughts public.

His elusive, rough-and-tumble rushing style fits well with what Gruden wants, though he demands commitment to the team and sport. Sports Illustrated relayed a story of Gruden saying he needed a “full-time Lynch.”

If he gets that, the Raiders run game should thrive.