With the very real likelihood that their season of joy had just been blown to smithereens, the Oakland Raiders filed into their locker room bearing a fully funereal silence. Suddenly their convincing 33-25 win over Indianapolis lost its meaning and almost all its value, and their realistic hopes of a late an potentially triumphant playoff run had been broadsided.
Broadsided, that is. Not necessarily torpedoed, only because stranger things have happened in the history of the sport. But for that not to be so, the Raiders now have to transform who they are, how they see themselves, and how they win games.
Quarterback Derek Carr broke his right fibula with enough sound and fury to allow him to diagnose it while still sitting on the ground in the spot where Colts linebacker Trent Cole had twisted him with 10:55 left to play. “I think it’s broken,” is how he immediately explained his predicament to head coach Jack Del Rio, and X-rays later specified his impromptu analysis.
It is an injury so devastatingly surgical (pun not intended) that Del Rio didn’t even try to play coy about the details, as many coaches choose to do. “It won’t be a situation where you’re trying to get me to say smething in a week (like) ‘Is he going to play? Is he going to play?’ I think he’s going to be done a little while.”
Or, to put it in more linear fashion, Carr’s season is almost certainly over (safety Charles Woodson played 12 days after breaking his fibula in 2002, but was clearly a shell of himself, thus undoing the Willis Reed story angle), and hiding it provides no competitive advantage for Del Rio because people saw what happened, they could read Carr’s lips, and they just saw a similar injury earlier in the day to Tennessee’ quarterback Marcus Mariota.
Plus, pointless secrecy does not alter the fact that the Raiders have gone from co-favorites in the AFC with New England to a team that has to cheat some fairly massive odds just to play the Patriots. It was easily the worst-case scenario come shrieking to center stage.
Carr was the ignition of one of the league’s best offenses. His ability to throw fearlessly and accurately not only made theirs one of the best passing attacks in the sport but freed up their three-headed running game to flourish, as it did Saturday (210 yards on 37 carries, including two DeAndre Washington touchdowns)
In addition, Carr’s injury all but eliminates one of the team’s favorite ways to win this year – the late long scoring drive. He had begun construction of a Stableresque mystique for turning games on a dime, a nice fallback position when all other avenues to victory have been denied.
Now the Raiders need to further develop the stout defense they are only in short bursts. They need to become a run-centric team that can move the yard markers while eating up valuable time. They need to be, well, un-Raiderlike at a time of the season in which most teams already are what they are.
And yet they are not utterly bereft of hope, or shouldn’t be. General manager Reggie McKenzie may have made his (skull-and-cross) bones drafting Carr three years ago, but the Raiders are not provably inferior to any playoff contender save Kansas City, and are not speculatively worse than any contender save New England.
That is, if they are up for a challenge nearly as daunting as the effort it took to dig themselves out of the 13-year ravine they dug for themselves.
After all, in the immediate aftermath of a catastrophic sporting development like the loss of a quality quarterback, hope turns to curse before determining whether to seek despair or defiance.
“Teams have to find a way to pick up and move on,” Del Rio said, his voice failing to convince as evidenced by the fact that he could not bring himself to say the words “Matt McGloin.” “We’ll rally around the next guy as best we can. That’s what you do. It’ll be incumbent upon the offensive line and the backs to do more, the defense to do more, the special teams to do more. As a team, pick it up and do more to fill in.”
It came off as an empty platitude, but in fairness, he hadn’t had time to get over the vision himself. He was as invested in Carr as anyone save Carr himself, and he had just seen the loss of the one thing so few teams in the AFC have had in the Belichick Era – a realistic chance to earn a trip to the Super Bowl.
But even an unrealistic chance is still better than the alternative, which is “no.” The Raiders are not powerless as regards their fate in this great-season-turned-miserable, but it will require becoming less Carr-dependent with very little time to determine how that would be done.
Maybe Carr is a miraculous healer. Maybe McGloin is a miracle worker. Maybe Carr’s proficiency has hidden other fluencies in this Raider team. Maybe this isn’t as bad for Oakland as it seems.
But it’s only Saturday night, barely hours after Carr self-diagnosed the end of his season. They, and you, are allowed to think at this moment that the season seems a lot like smithereens.