“In this league, it don’t matter what position you’re in,” veteran safety Reggie Nelson said. “When somebody like that goes down …”
He trailed off. Still, eight months later, an unpleasant memory.
Oakland was 11-3 when Week 16 began last December. It had a disruptive mix of youth, experience and talent — led, of course, by Carr. The Raiders were an intriguing Super Bowl possibility when that Sunday began, but by sunset players knew they were mostly done.
Onto injured reserve went Carr, a then-25-year-old rising star and perhaps the league’s best young quarterback. Into the lineup went Matt McGloin, a 27-year-old former undrafted free agent who hadn’t started an NFL game since 2013 — when a very different Raiders franchise finished 4-12.
Back then, Oakland was one of the league’s most turbulent teams. Long after losing to Tampa Bay in the Super Bowl following the 2002 season, the Raiders would miss the playoffs for the next 13 seasons. Losing seasons were common and almost accepted, and when McGloin started six games in 2013 — all but one was a loss — it seemed like a classic example of the hapless Raiders.
Then, a few months after that season ended, Oakland General Manager Reggie McKenzie selected Khalil Mack with the No. 5 overall pick in the 2014 draft — “The best player in the draft,” McKenzie would say much later of a class that included Jadeveon Clowney, Aaron Donald and Odell Beckham Jr. — and, early in the second round, Fresno State’s Carr.
By last season, McKenzie and Coach Jack Del Rio had remade the Raiders into a young force. Mack would go on to be named defensive player of the year in 2016, and this past offseason, before he was surpassed by Matthew Stafford’s record-breaking contract, Carr temporarily became the NFL’s highest-paid player when he signed a five-year contract extension worth as much as $125 million.
Carr, back after McGloin’s Raiders lost to Houston in the first round of the playoffs, is now healthy and surrounded by one of the NFL’s best offensive lines and talented wide receivers such as Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree. Oakland added Marshawn Lynch, who sat out last season while on the retired list, though it’s difficult to know how much “Beast Mode” is left in Lynch’s 31-year-old legs. The team also parted ways with McGloin and added insurance at quarterback in former Buffalo starter EJ Manuel.
It was clear around Raiders camp, though, which player is most valuable — both in actual dollars and in importance to the team’s Super Bowl hopes.
Carr, Cooper said, “is the head of the team. You cut him out and it gets much more difficult, you know?”
Cooper, who won a national championship at Alabama, looked around the practice field.
“We definitely have some great players,” he said. “That’s the first thing. We just have to cultivate all this skill and make it work on Sundays.”
The biggest obstacle to that plan is Oakland’s defense, which other than Mack and Bruce Irvin isn’t exactly fearsome. Stopping the run could be a weakness, and the secondary will face some early questions with rookie Gareon Conley — on and off the field. Conley, 22, was a star at Ohio State but was selected during the NFL draft amid a connection to a rape allegation (a grand jury declined to pursue charges in late July). Days after McKenzie explained to reporters that Conley was not practicing because of shin splints, Conley tweeted that he in fact did not have shin splints, an unusual public rebuke by a rookie to his GM.
Conley, like his team, is talented but remains something of an unknown. There may be no better challenger in the AFC to the New England Patriots’ dominance than the upstart Raiders. Though Oakland lost in the first round, veteran defensive back Nelson said ending that 13-year playoff absence gave the team hope.
Now, especially if its key pieces remain healthy, it wonders if it can do what the Patriots have following two of the last three seasons: win the Super Bowl.
“That’s what we’re working for. We want that goal,” Nelson said. “That’s why we’re out here sweating, [giving] blood and tears for it. I don’t expect nothing less from us.”