For months, we talked about how the 2020 season had the potential to be a statement year for Jon Gruden's rebuild with the Raiders.
The Silver and Black added talent on defense and explosiveness on offense during the offseason, hoping to bring them closer to the NFL's true contenders.
A gritty Week 1 win over the rebuilding Carolina Panthers was no measuring stick. The Raiders' chance to show true progress came Monday night in their Allegiant Stadium opener against Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints.
They passed with flying colors in a 34-24 win, but it wasn't always easy.
Through a quarter-and-a-half against one of the Super Bowl favorites, it looked like the Raiders still weren't in that weight class. Brees and coach Sean Payton had gotten whatever they wanted early, and the Las Vegas' offense was spinning its tires as New Orleans took a 17-7 lead with five minutes to play in the first half.
It looked like the Raiders were going to be delivered a dose of reality in their new $1.9 billion digs. But the reality is: These Raiders aren't the same as teams that trotted out spare parts at wide receiver and cardboard cutouts at linebacker over the past few seasons.
They are much different.
These Raiders took an early punch from a Hall-of-Fame coach/quarterback duo and came swinging back, delivering a knockout blow with a win that would've only been better if there were 65,000 fans in attendance to christen Allegiant Stadium's maiden voyage.
Trailing by 10, Derek Carr marched the Raiders right down the field, going 75 yards in 10 plays and capping the drive off with a 15-yard touchdown pass to Zay Jones. The Raiders' defense immediately got the ball back when Nick Morrow picked off Brees, leading to a Daniel Carlson field goal to knot the game at 17 at halftime.
The second half was all Silver and Black. Carr, always the subject of immense scrutiny, was efficient in commanding Gruden's offense, opening the third quarter with a nine-play, 75-yard drive that ended with a 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Darren Waller on fourth-and-goal to give the Raiders the lead.
They never looked back. Never wavered. Never flinched. Last year's Raiders would have buckled when Jalen Richard fumbled midway through the third quarter, giving the Saints the ball with a chance to tie.
But a young defense that was missing linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski stood tall and forced a punt, giving Carr and the offense the ball back to deliver the kill strike, which fittingly came on a 20-yard run from Richard.
This was Carr and Gruden's moment. Much has been written about their relationship. Carr's future with the team always is a hot-button topic. But he played arguably the best game of his career Monday night, going 28-for-38 for 282 yards and three touchdowns. He fed Waller (12 catches, 101 yards and a touchdown), took care of the football, commanded the offense perfectly and was the better quarterback on the field Monday night.
Last year, the Raiders opened with a win over the Joe Flacco-led Denver Broncos before being put in their place by Kansas City Chiefs. They had no wins over teams with winning records last season. The 2019 Raiders were a 7-9 team that was greater than the sum of its parts and had a long way to go to reach true contention.
But the 2020 Raiders are different. They are faster. More explosive. Through two games, they seem sturdier, able to take punches and respond. They were unafraid of a team many expect to be in Tampa Bay come February.
“It tells me that we’re on the right track," Gruden said after the win. "We have a real competitive group of guys. We need to get healthy. We need [Nick] Kwiatkoski back, we need Trent Brown back. Obviously, we need [Richie] Incognito back. This is a young team, I give Matt Mayock and his staff a lot of credit because some of these young guys are getting better and that’s a good sign. We got a short week no time to really enjoy this because we’re going to Foxborough and playing New England Patriots, so we’re excited to do that.”
Gruden came in and tore the team down to the studs to remake it in his image of a winning football team. One that controls the tempo, is efficient on third down, scores touchdowns in the red zone and makes plays on defense. It's still a work in progress, but they are on the right path.
Coming off the field, Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock celebrated the victory like two guys who know they are on to something, grabbing and pushing each other like two frat brothers who just won the intramural league title.
These Raiders are indeed on to something. The defense still needs work, but that will come.
The victory isn't about warts the team still has, but rather how far it has come from a year ago when Carr was little to work with on offense outside of Waller and Hunter Renfrow and the defense was gashed weekly.
For Carr, it was a moment he had long envisioned.
He has dealt with the questions and speculation surrounding his long-term prospects as the Raiders quarterback. But with a full arsenal of weapons around him, Carr finally is showing how high his ceiling can be. A ceiling he wants to reach as the quarterback of the Las Vegas Raiders.
"Through times our team struggled, there’s no doubt about it," Carr said. "But to be on the other side of things and to be 2-0 as the Las Vegas Raiders -- that’s a pretty cool thing. Just like when I told you when we were standing out there to break ground, I said I am going to take the first snap in that stadium, and that’s a dream that I had. A lot of people didn’t believe it. The first day I moved here, Tom Brady was on the front page of the newspaper. It just adds fuel to the fire and still be here to accomplish things that mean so much to you. This is family to me, it’s more than football."
"We're on to New England," Carr added as he exited the presser.
Indeed, the 2-0 Las Vegas Raiders are headed to New England where another statement game awaits.