Raiders

Remembering Warren Wells, a prototypical Raider from their best past

Remembering Warren Wells, a prototypical Raider from their best past

Two years ago, Warren Wells flew from his home in Beaumont, Texas, to light the Al Davis memorial torch at Oakland Coliseum. He’d been in uncertain health for some time, so the trip had particular significance both for him and for those who remember the flame from his own brief but prescient career as an Oakland Raider.

Wells, who died this week after a long battle with congestive heart failure at age 76, was one of the first of the great deep-threat receivers in pro football history, and in being joined with the throw-often, throw-deep-and-damn-the-torpedoes Raiders of the late pre-merger 1960s, he found his truest athletic calling. He was the player who opened the field for all of the Raiders’ other big-play offensive schemes, and his career, short though it was, still is remembered with great affection by remaining old-time Raiders fans.

In four years with Oakland, from 1967 to 1970, after one year with the Detroit Lions and two years serving in Vietnam, Wells averaged 23.3 yards per catch, which was the best in NFL history until the league changed the guidelines and imposed a 200-reception minimum (he finished with 158), and he led the AFL twice in touchdown receptions. He played in Super Bowl II against the Green Bay Packers, and was named to the first NFL-AFL All-Pro team.

But at the zenith of his powers, Wells ran into legal and substance issues that afflicted a good portion of his post-football life. That included an arrest after the 1971 Pro Bowl for a probation violation from a 1969 conviction for attempted rape. one of several scrapes that induced Davis, who always had been more than merely lenient with talented players with checkered pasts, to release Wells after that season. Wells was jailed for 10 months in 1971, and after being released by the Raiders, he never played football again.

Wells' post-football career became increasingly difficult, including a period in which he was homeless, and he was victimized repeatedly, including by the substance abuse center Synanon, and his was among the cases in the first NFL settlement with former players for damage from football. In all, his own demons and those who sought him out combined to make the bulk of Wells' life a nightmare.

The brevity of Wells’ career doesn't do his football impact justice, and he might have had the same career trajectory as teammate Fred Biletnikoff, who was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1988. As it was, Wells' career took on the trappings of a cautionary tale, and he largely was forgotten by the time the team returned to Oakland after a 13-year hiatus in Los Angeles.

But such is the nature of history that greatness without both curiosity and video evidence often is forgotten. Wells is a classic what-if tale, an emergent star whose personal demons and predators overcame not just his life as a football player but as a man.

NFL preview 2019: Derek Carr, three other possible MVP sleepers in AFC

carrusa.jpg
USATSI

NFL preview 2019: Derek Carr, three other possible MVP sleepers in AFC

With training camps getting started, hope once again springs eternal in the NFL.

Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots are primed to defend their crown, but a pack of worthy challengers is frothing at the mouth for the chance to take down the king.

Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes sits atop the NFL's other throne as The Shield's reigning league MVP. The dynamic signal-caller once again is viewed as the favorite to take home the hardware, and while the like of Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Baker Mayfield, Carson Wentz, Andrew Luck and Philip Rivers are viewed as the most likely to take the crown from Mahomes, the AFC has a few other young passers who are lying in wait.

When looking at possible MVP sleepers in the AFC, I made sure to look only at players that had odds at 80-to-1 or higher, as listed by Westgate Las Vegas. With the framework set, here are four potential MVP sleepers who reside in the AFC.

Derek Carr, QB, Raiders

The Case For: Carr has the arm talent and the leadership qualities to be an MVP. We saw that in 2016 when he led the Raiders to a 12-3 record before fracturing his fibula in Week 16. With a wealth of offensive talent around -- including Antonio Brown and Tyrell Williams, -- and a full year of Jon Gruden's system under his belt, it wouldn't be hard to see Carr returning to his MVP-caliber form in 2019. If he puts up big numbers while helping the Raiders navigate a tough early-season schedule, he should be in the mix.

The Case Against: There was little about the Raiders' offense in 2018 that would tell you a turn around is coming. The offensive line struggled and the running game was relatively non-existent. This is a make or break year for the Carr-Gruden relationship and there's a chance it just won't work.

Deshaun Watson, QB, Texans

The Case For: Despite a shaky offensive line, Watson completed 68.3 percent of his passes while throwing for 4,165 yards, 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He also rushed for 551 yards and five scores. If the Clemson product can get some protection, he could put up big numbers and lead the Texans to another AFC West title. The recipe for an MVP campaign is there for Watson.

The Case Against: The offensive line is atrocious. Watson might spend more time running for his life than looking downfield for the streaking DeAndre Hopkins. If the Texans can't keep Watson off his back, there will be no MVP delusions in Houston.

Marcus Mariota, QB, Titans

The Case For: When he's been healthy, Mariota has put up good numbers. That was with an offense designed for the 1940s with one offensive weapon. Mariota enters a make-or-break year for him with the Titans with two new wide receivers in rookie A.J. Brown and former Buccaneers Adam Humphries. If new offensive coordinator Arthur Humphries can tailor the offense to Mariota's strengths, the possibility for a breakout season is there.

The Case Against: Look, he hasn't been able to stay healthy. If Mariota can't stay on the field, then his chance at winning the MVP and the Titans' playoff hopes go in the trash can.

[RELATED: How Raiders' defense stacks up against AFC West rivals]

Lamar Jackson, QB, Ravens

The Case For: Jackson rushed for 556 yards in the seven games he started last season. If you extrapolate that over a 16-game season, it amounts to 1,271 yards. That would be more than the 1,039 yards Michael Vick rushed for in 2006. If Jackson has improved his passing and leads the Ravens to the playoffs, he could very well be an MVP sleeper.

The Case Against: As the Los Angeles Chargers showed in the AFC Wild Card Game, it's easy to stop Jackson if he's only able to move the chains with his legs. If the Louisville product hasn't made big strides with his accuracy and pocket presence then he won't be in the MVP conversation.

Raiders' Jon Gruden ranked as 15th-best veteran head coach by NFL.com

grudenrankingap.jpg
AP

Raiders' Jon Gruden ranked as 15th-best veteran head coach by NFL.com

Just win, baby.

Twice in his career, Jon Gruden has been given that directive as head coach of the Oakland Raiders. He was considerably more successful the first time around.

Gruden never finished below .500 in his first go-around with the Raiders, but in making his return to the franchise last year, he led Oakland to a 4-12 record -- tied for the worst record in the AFC.

Right after Gruden signed a 10-year, $100 million contract to move out of the Monday Night Football booth and back to the sidelines, many questioned whether his time away from coaching would put him behind the eight-ball. Given how the Raiders performed last season, it didn't exactly silence that noise.

And yet, at least one analyst believes Gruden is still an above-average coach. NFL.com's Elliot Harrison ranked the 32 NFL head coaches Monday, and Gruden came in at No. 15.

Here's what Harrison had to say about Chucky:

"As [Gruden] shipped out star players and cut ties with front office execs he didn't want in Oakland last year, the Raiders managed just four wins. That's why '19 should be the tell on what kind of coach he is going forward. New GM Mike Mayock helped Gruden begin to rebuild the roster after stockpiling picks, providing an infusion of talent that should at least make this team more competitive. Given the strength of the division-rival Chargers and Chiefs, simply leading Oakland to the playoffs should be a ringing endorsement for the coach."

[RELATED: Raiders given 20th best outlook in future power rankings]

Indeed, if they make the playoffs this coming season, that's an undeniable success for Gruden and the Raiders in their final season in Oakland -- one that would be worthy of Gruden ascending on next year's coaching rankings. But, as Harrison suggests, it's not going to be easy.