The trademark “Chucky” grimace was on display for a national TV audience on “Monday Night Football,” late-night style. The home crowd in Oakland was energized. The Raiders actually were competitive for much of the night against the powerful Los Angeles Rams as Jon Gruden made his highly anticipated return to the sideline in the first regular season game of his second go-round as an NFL head coach.
What was missing?
Or, more accurately, who was missing? That would be the Raiders’ best player, sent on his way when the team ended its contract stare-down with Khalil Mack by trading the standout pass rusher to the Chicago Bears.
About 24 hours after Mack made an eye-catching debut for the Bears with a first half as dominant as they come Sunday night in Green Bay, the Raiders lost to the Rams in the second game of ESPN’s Monday night doubleheader. Oakland’s pass rush was practically nonexistent. Quarterback Derek Carr threw three interceptions and the Raiders came undone late and fell, 33-13.
The nostalgia about Gruden’s return gave way to the harsh reality of the Raiders’ current predicament. Gruden acknowledged that at his postgame news conference.
“It’s not time for that any more,” he said. “It’s about getting this football team better. And it wasn’t good enough tonight.”
The outcome was no surprise. The Rams reached the playoffs last season as their first-year coach, Sean McVay, transformed Jared Goff into a franchise quarterback and helped tailback Todd Gurley to be a league MVP candidate. The Rams upped the stakes this past offseason by adding wide receiver Brandin Cooks, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib. They are in Super Bowl-or-bust mode.
And after a sluggish start Monday, understandable after McVay kept his offensive stars under wraps during the preseason, the Rams gradually asserted themselves as the game progressed and took complete control late. They outscored the Raiders, 23-0, in the second half. The Raiders led, 13-10, at halftime and were tied at 13 until the final moments of the third quarter.
“The crowd was in it,” Gruden said afterward of his team’s early success. “It was electrifying. Unfortunately we could not bottle it and sustain it.”
The way in which the Raiders lost was troubling. Carr made puzzling mistakes, throwing one interception on an up-for-grabs pass and another that was returned for a touchdown by Peters.
The Raiders sacked Goff only once, on a play during which Bruce Irvin forced a fumble. Other than that, the Oakland defense could put almost no pressure on Goff. The absence of Mack, the former NFL defensive player of the year, was glaring.
In the first half Sunday night, Mack had a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, an interception and a touchdown on defense. He and the Bears could not sustain that, and they succumbed to the second-half exploits of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. But Mack reinforced what a game-changing, difference-making player he is. He left little doubt that he is worth the six-year, $141 million contract given to him by the Bears, making him the league’s highest-paid defensive player.
Mack, while still with the Raiders, had been holding out, seeking such a deal. The Raiders didn’t want to give it to him. They have a $125 million quarterback in Carr. They have a $100 million coach in Gruden. They drew the line at handing out another mammoth deal, not wanting to further strain their budget or push the boundaries of the salary cap. They regarded the king’s ransom of draft picks put forth by the Bears, including a pair of first-rounders, as an offer they couldn’t refuse.
In truth, they could have refused it. They could have kept Mack and waited until he showed up. Or they could have given him a huge contract. They had an operating profit of $41 million last season, according to Forbes. That’s modest by NFL standards, but nevertheless considerable. Their financial situation will improve once they relocate to Las Vegas. The salary cap grows annually, and contracts such as Carr’s and Mack’s won’t seem as daunting in a couple years.
The Raiders can try to justify the trade by maintaining that they couldn’t afford to pay both Mack and Carr. They can envision using the first-rounders that they’ll receive from the Bears to attempt to bolster their roster by the time they move to Vegas. But they’ll have to cash in on those draft choices. They’ll have to try to find a pass rusher who can change a game like Mack can.
In the meantime, Gruden must attempt to win with a roster that is old and lacking. The early returns Monday were not particularly promising. Things might not get better in the foreseeable future. And every time that Mack plays well for the Bears, the Raiders’ decision to trade him looks that much worse.