By Dave Thomas
For the Oakland Raiders, what seemed like a magical season even just a few weeks ago quickly went downhill from there.
Cruising into the playoffs with the potential to take the top seed in the AFC, Oakland (12-5) saw its magical carpet ride come to a crashing end in the form of a broken right fibula for quarterback and MVP candidate Derek Carr. The QB sustained the injurt in the second half of their win over Indianapolis on Dec. 24. Even though Carr was done for the season, the Silver and Black were still guaranteed a playoff spot, perhaps even the AFC West crown.
Fast-forward to a week later in Denver, and the slow but painful end to a season was beginning to unfold.
After losing to the Broncos (24-6) and dropping the AFC West title in the process (Kansas City won it by virtue of its season sweep of Oakland), the Raiders had to take to the road to meet the AFC South champion Houston Texans.
Going into the Texans’ game with their third string QB (Connor Cook) at the helm, the Raiders saw their season culminate with a 27-14 loss in Houston.
So, how would one assess a season that saw this franchise make the playoffs for the first time since the 2002 season?
While teams never want to single out individual performances, there were some solid ones over the course of the 2016 campaign for the Silver and Black.
Carr, Raiders Put Themselves Back On The NFL Map
En route to a possible MVP coronation, Carr turned in a great season. Despite not being able to finish the regular season, the Fresno State product threw for nearly 4,000 yards (3,937 to be exact), accounting for 28 TDs along the way and only six interceptions. As any franchise that has been struggling for a number of years can tell you, having someone emerge on the team as its leader can turn things around. Despite having the likes of Amari Cooper (1,153 yards receiving), Michael Crabtree (1,003 yards receiving) and Khalil Mack (see more below) on the Silver and Black, Carr took the leadership role over this season with his performance. If he comes back fully healed next season, don’t expect his performance to slack off from the 2016 campaign.
Return Of The Mack
For the third-year pro out of the University of Buffalo, 2016 was another solid season. Khalil Mack finished with 73 tackles (54 solo stops) and 11 sacks. In doing so, the defensive end earned his second straight trip to the Pro Bowl (Jan. 29 in Orlando). Although this season’s numbers were down a tad from the 2015 campaign when he recorded 77 total tackles and 15 sacks, Mack has made it known with his play on the field that he is one of the top young defensive ends around. If he is able to play injury-free over the next decade or so, expect him to compile quite a career with the Raiders.
Murray Could Be 1,000-Yard Rusher Next Season
Although he isn’t likely to be mentioned in the same breath as an Adrian Peterson or 2016’s rookie stud Ezekiel Elliott, Latavius Murray had a sound season when all was said and done. The Central Florida product rushed for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns—this despite missing several games when he was injured. In the event Oakland decides to give more of the workload to Murray in 2017, don’t be surprised if he cracks the 1,000-yard season rushing plateau as he did in 2015 (1,066 yards).
Del Rio Pushes Most Of The Right Buttons
Lastly, head coach Jack Del Rio should be among the candidates for Coach of the Year. Having served nine seasons in the same role in Jacksonville from 2003-11, Del Rio seemed like a natural fit when he was hired in January of 2015 to get the Raiders back into regular playoff contention. A USC product, Del Rio pushed many of the right buttons this season in keeping Oakland in the playoff discussion. If there would be one possible criticism of the 53-year-old for the 2016 campaign, some might look to leaving Carr in the game against visiting Indianapolis on Christmas Eve, a game where Oakland had a relatively comfortable lead in the final quarter (Raiders won 33-25). To his defense, Del Rio said he left Carr in because he feared that Colts QB Andrew Luck could lead the visitors back to victory. In hindsight, if Carr is removed from that game for backup Matt McGloin, Oakland might have had a healthy Carr to go and try to win the AFC West the following weekend in Denver. Then again, hindsight is 20-20.
Keep An Eye On Oakland
When all is said and done, 2016 was a banner year for the Raiders in a number of ways. Most notably, this team had put itself back on the NFL map, something many others franchises would love to do. With seven selections to this year’s Pro Bowl (Oakland’s highest number since it put eight in the game back in 1991), the Raiders are definitely headed in the right direction. That being the case, others in the AFC—and the league, for that matter—will have to keep an eye on the Raiders in the years to come, even if Oakland ultimately isn’t their home base.