Jon Gruden has no interest in discussing the big picture. Can’t blame him for that. The Raiders coach has a game on Thursday, just a few days after crossing the season’s halfway point.
He was surprisingly salty after Sunday’s 31-24 victory over the Detroit Lions, already pressing to prep for a mid-week clash with the Los Angeles Chargers.
There isn’t time to sit back and reflect on a 4-4 record halfway through the season, an honorable mark considering all of the personnel setbacks -- from Antonio Brown to Johnathan Abram to Vontaze Burfict -- and a five-game road trip against top teams.
“We’re building our team. I’m going to continue to hit that chord,” Gruden said Sunday night. “We want to win every week. We’d like to go to the Super Bowl and win it for our fans and our players and everybody included, but we’re building a team and I like some of the blocks that we have in place. I’m going to leave it at that. We have a heck of a challenge on a short week.”
On to the next one. That’s the message Gruden should harp. There’s no time or place for pats on the back. There are no congratulations for being competitive. The Raiders must do more and do better if they’re going to contend down the stretch, but it’s crystal clear Gruden has this team headed in the right direction and making significant progress despite adverse situations.
Let’s take a look at each position group in a midseason progress report:
Derek Carr said this summer he fully expected a career year in 2019. He's proving prophetic. He’s averaging a career-high 7.9 yards per pass attempt and is heading towards a 4,000-yard season despite significant turnover at the receiver position. He’s also taking care of the ball, a must working with Gruden, with just one interception in his last five games.
Carr attributes recent success to time and comfort working within Gruden’s offensive scheme. He’s showing confidence in reads and decision making, executing a balanced offense featuring star rookie Josh Jacobs.
Carr’s work in the run game must also be noted. He’s doing an excellent job getting the Raiders into the right runs, avoiding defensive strongholds to help Jacobs find space. Carr hasn’t been perfect this season, but he’s clearly getting better and more confident as the weeks pass.
Josh Jacobs is a special player. The Alabama product is the frontrunner for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, proving a top tier back in his first season.
He already has broken Marcus Allen’s Raiders rookie rushing record and the season’s only half over, projected to run 304 times for 1,480 yards and 12 touchdowns. Those are All-Pro numbers.
The offensive line loves working for Jacobs and the other backs. DeAndre Washington has been serviceable in reserve, and third-down back Jalen Richard proved his worth as a runner, receiver and pass protector in Sunday’s victory over Detroit. Alec Ingold has been solid at fullback, forming an excellent backfield partnership with Jacobs.
This group has undergone a major overhaul this season, with Antonio Brown, J.J. Nelson and Ryan Grant all released from Week 1 on.
Trevor Davis and Zay Jones were added in trades and have made positive contributions already. Hunter Renfrow is better at creating separation than he was earlier this year and has become a trusted option from the slot.
Tyrell Williams has been okay. He’s finding the end zone regularly but hasn’t been a dominant No. 1 receiver who can take over games.
This position group started as a clear team strength but now is a work in progress that needs offseason upgrades, most likely with a high pick in next year’s NFL draft.
Gruden calls Darren Waller, Foster Moreau and Derek Carrier the lifeblood of this Raiders offense. And that position coach Frank Smith probably deserves a raise. Both statements are true.
The tight ends have helped the offense weather in-season receiver group reconstruction, with Waller the top target in the pattern. All three guys are versatile enough to block or receive, allowing Gruden to get creative with formations.
Waller’s going to be a star, and Moreau will be a productive player for years. The LSU product has been a real surprise this season, showing well in his rookie year.
The projected Raiders offensive line has played 10 snaps together. That’s it.
The offensive front has been awesome despite that fact, functioning well despite Gabe Jackson missing six games, Richie Incognito's two-game suspension, Trent Brown battling various injuries all season and Rodney Hudson now down with an ankle problem.
Carr has been sacked just 10 times, and only once since Week 4. The run game is operating well using zone runs and occasional power to break Jacobs free.
Kolton Miller is coming into his own at left tackle, forming a solid partnership with Incognito. Andre James, David Sharpe and Denzelle Good have been valuable in reserve, keeping a good thing going throughout the season’s first half.
The Raiders have exceeded last year’s sack total in half the time. That shouldn’t be a badge of honor. The pass rush continues to struggle, even with an uptick in production.
Maxx Crosby has been an instant impact player, though No. 4 overall selection Clelin Ferrell still is finding his footing. Benson Mayowa has been efficient as a situation pass rusher. Arden Key still doesn’t finish with regularity.
The interior line has been good against the run, and Maurice Hurst and P.J. Hall have had some good moments crashing the pocket but not enough.
The Raiders need more from this group, which will have the season’s second half to progress and show management they fit in next year’s plans despite expected pass-rushing additions next offseason.
Losing Vontaze Burfict for the season was a significant blow. Tahir Whitehead and Nicholas Morrow have become a two-man position group at this point, without a third linebacker rotating in much.
Lamarcus Joyner stays on the field most of the time, except in particularly heavy packages. Will Compton’s the latest guy to step in when required, though Marquel Lee is expected to return off injured reserve when eligible.
The group is functional despite personnel setbacks, but it’s hard to say this position group has been good. They’re getting by, and right now that’s enough. That said, reinforcements have to be coming this offseason.
This is another unit in transition. The pass defense has struggled this season, which makes it difficult to deal with quality quarterbacks.
Gareon Conley has been traded, with Trayvon Mullen taking over that outside cornerback spot. He’s the real deal but will experience some growing pains as the season moves along. That’s a good thing because Mullen’s a part of the team’s long-term plans. Isaiah Johnson will come off of injured reserve Monday and should work into the defensive rotation.
The Raiders have some safety issues and were hurt by Johnathan Abram going on injured reserve after the season opener. He’s missing tons of experience and essentially will go through a second rookie year in 2020. Karl Joseph and Erik Harris have been just okay, and better is required from both. That’s especially true playing deep, where the Raiders have given up too many explosive plays.
The Raiders have missed return man Dwayne Harris, who has battled an ankle injury most of the year. Davis has filled in well, but Harris brings a unique element to the return game and is an excellent gunner in punt coverage. A young trio of specialists is doing just fine, and Rich Bisaccia has dialed up a pair of successful fake punts. This group is good, not great, and is getting solid work from young players.
Brown went nuclear. One illegal hit got Burfict suspended the entire season. The No. 4 overall pick has underwhelmed to this point. Not every personnel move has worked out great for Jon Gruden, but the Raiders head coach has managed to keep the team strong and focused.
The Raiders are a resilient bunch and come into each game fully prepared. Gruden’s offensive play calling has been spot on, and his work switching from an AB-centric offense to one focused on Jacobs is commendable.
Assistant coaches Edgar Bennett (receivers) and Tom Cable (offensive line) deserve credit for getting newcomers ready to play and making their position groups function despite significant setbacks.
The defense needs more talent at every level for Paul Guenther’s defense to function well. He’ll have time to build this unit over time.