There are few teams in the NFL more intriguing this season than the Oakland Raiders. They are a lame duck in Oakland, on their way to Las Vegas for the 2019 or, more likely, 2020 season. They added hometown-hero running back Marshawn Lynch, welcomed back quarterback Derek Carr from the injury that kept him from last season’s playoffs and hoped to make a run at a Super Bowl title in what’s left of their time in the Bay Area.
But things are beginning to veer decidedly off course. The Raiders have followed a 2-0 start with losses to the Washington Redskins and Denver Broncos, and now Carr is to be sidelined for an estimated 2 to 6 weeks because of a transverse process fracture in his back.
It’s time for the Raiders to be realistic. If they believe that Carr’s absence will be closer to two weeks, fine. They can try to get by with backup EJ Manuel and third-stringer Connor Cook, then get Carr back into the lineup before falling too far behind the Kansas City Chiefs and Broncos in the AFC West and too far out of the playoff chase.
But if the likelihood is that Carr will be out closer to six weeks than two, that’s too long to patch things together with Manuel and Cook. The season could be lost before Carr returns, if that is the case. Under those circumstances, they would owe it to themselves to consider signing still-out-of-work quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
“I am not a supporter of EJ Manuel’s skill set or leadership ability — wasn’t when he came out [of college], either,” said a front office executive with another NFL team, speaking on the condition of anonymity to give a frank assessment. “I think Kaepernick is more talented. But only the Raiders know if he fits for them at this time.”
Manuel completed 11 of 17 passes for 106 yards after taking over for Carr against the Broncos. He threw an interception and was sacked once. He had a passer rating of 57.5.
He might be better this Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens in Oakland, with first-team practice snaps and proper preparation as the starter. Or he might not. He had a passer rating of 58.3 last season for the Buffalo Bills. He has a career passer rating of 76.9. The Bills, after selecting him in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft out of Florida State, gave up on him after only 17 starts.
Cook was not the answer last season when, as a rookie, he was forced into the Raiders’ starting lineup for a playoff loss at Houston that brought a once-so-promising end to a bitterly disappointing end.
Can the Raiders win their next two games at home against the struggling Ravens and winless Los Angeles Chargers without Carr? Sure, they can. Can they get Carr back for a key Thursday night showdown with the Chiefs in Oakland on Oct. 19? Maybe.
But if, in their heart of hearts, they wonder if they can beat even the Ravens and Chargers without Carr, if they are skeptical about Carr being back relatively soon, they should be considering being the NFL team that gives Kaepernick a job.
They fit the football-related criteria laid out recently by Hall of Fame front office executive Bill Polian for what it might take for Kaepernick to return to the league.
“Now, if you are in a situation where you lose both your quarterbacks to injury and you have a good team, something like Minnesota last year before they got [Sam] Bradford, if you have a playoff-quality team and catastrophe strikes with your quarterback situation, these points are moot because now he’s your starter,” Polian said in a recent phone interview. “None of that applies. You can build your offense around him and it removes those issues. It’s a very small window in terms of the number of teams, and it’s a small calendar window.”
Signing Kaepernick would require retooling of the offense, as Polian said. But that’s what coaching is about, isn’t it? Kaepernick is better than Manuel and Cook. He would give the Raiders, once he was brought up to speed, a better chance to win without Carr than Manuel or Cook would. Carr would have improved odds of returning to a team still in the playoff race.
Of course, any decision to sign Kaepernick is about far more than football. It is about Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem before games last season while with the San Francisco 49ers to protest the treatment of African-Americans in the U.S., and it is about President Trump recently amplifying the national controversy over players’ anthem protests.
But aren’t the Raiders all about the “Just win, baby” creed of their late owner, Al Davis? Aren’t the Raiders the franchise known for giving second chances to unwanted players, the team that doesn’t care what anyone else thinks? It might be time for Davis’s son, current owner Mark Davis, to reaffirm that.
This isn’t about long-term considerations. It’s not about how signing Kaepernick ultimately would play in Nevada, a state in which Trump won the Republican caucuses resoundingly but Hillary Clinton carried narrowly in the presidential election. It would be a short-term move, just as adding Lynch was a short-term move. It’s unlikely that Lynch will go with the Raiders to Vegas. Kaepernick needn’t, either.
The Tennessee Titans became the latest NFL team to pass on Kaepernick, agreeing to a deal Tuesday to add Brandon Weeden as an insurance policy behind injured starter Marcus Mariota and backup Matt Cassel. The Raiders, if they believe Carr’s injury could be serious, should not become the next team to leave Kaepernick in the ranks of the unemployed.
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