Friday, Dec. 8, 2023 | 2 a.m.
The Raiders returned to their Henderson headquarters for their first practice off a bye week Wednesday afternoon in a similar position to where they’ve sat at this point the last couple years.
They’re technically on the fringes of the playoff conversation with a 5-7 record but not widely seen as a realistic contender. Publicly available projection models all give Las Vegas around a 1 percent chance to claim one of the seven AFC playoff slots with 12 teams ahead of it in the standings.
The postseason was always a long shot for the Raiders this year. More important was that they showed progress coming off a highly disappointing 6-11 campaign a year ago.
They’re in position to do so: The first of five chances to match last season’s win total comes with a contest against the Minnesota Vikings at 1:05 p.m. Sunday at Allegiant Stadium.
But a lot of bigger questions loom in what’s wound up as another wild season for the Raiders.
Here are the five most pressing questions going into the final stretch of the season.
Will Antonio Pierce earn consideration for the permanent coaching job?
The former linebackers coach was largely looked at as a stopgap around the league upon being promoted to interim coach following the firing of Josh McDaniels. That may no longer be the case.
Pierce still has a lot of work to do to bolster his claim to the permanent job, but he’s strengthened his position through his first four games at the helm. Las Vegas has mostly played well under the former Super Bowl-winning linebacker, and the players have clearly responded to his fiery style and willingness to empower them to make decisions.
McDaniels was a control freak; Pierce has come off as ultra-egalitarian. Raiders owner Mark Davis seems to have loved the newfound looseness of the roster, even through controversial touches like edge rusher Maxx Crosby supplying victory cigars in the locker room.
The organization has reestablished some of the swagger it was known for in its 1970s and 1980s heyday, and that’s no minor positive to Davis. But it’s also not a substitute for victories.
Davis already passed on hiring an interim coach the players endorsed in his last coaching search, letting Rich Bisaccia go despite the longtime special teams guru leading the Raiders to their lone playoff appearance since moving to Las Vegas. Bisaccia went 7-5 to end the 2021 season, and Pierce almost surely needs a winning record to give Davis the impression he’s capable of long-term success.
That means Pierce must win three of the final five games, a tall task considering the Raiders are currently underdogs in all of them by betting odds.
“You can’t sit there say, ‘The Raiders are not playing hard, they’re not playing at a high level, it doesn’t look different,’” Pierce said. “It does. And they made up their minds it’s going to be that way. But at the end of day, it’s about wins and losses and we need more wins than losses.”
Where does Aidan O’Connell fit in going forward?
Pierce and interim offensive coordinator Bo Hardegree may have publicly said otherwise but gave every indication that they didn’t fully trust their rookie quarterback in their first three games in charge.
That may have changed in the last game, a 31-17 loss to the Chiefs. O’Connell showed flashes of brilliance early and finished with his best statistical outing — completing 23 of 33 pass attempts for 248 yards and a touchdown with no interception.
“That kid played well,” Pierce said. “He gave us a shot. He gave us a chance to win, took care of the football, made the adjustments, made the corrections that we needed to, was poised, was calm didn’t blink, and that’s what we want to see.”
O’Connell has already shown enough to be considered a capable backup option going forward. That’s usually the most NFL teams hope for out of a fourth-round pick like the Purdue product, though there’s a recent trend of relatively unheralded young passers being given a larger opportunity.
It’s certainly working for the San Francisco 49ers, as they’re the Super Bowl 58 favorite behind second-year quarterback/former Mr. Irrelevant Brock Purdy. Meanwhile, Washington Commanders quarterback Sam Howell has led the league in passing for most of the season a year after being taken in the fourth round out of North Carolina.
A great quarterback on a rookie contract is the biggest advantage an NFL team can field. Las Vegas needs to figure out if it can contend O’Connell starting next season, or if it would be better to restart the clock and potentially take someone else early in next year’s NFL Draft.
Will Davante Adams see enough to want to stick around?
The answers to the first two questions may largely inform how this one plays out.
The Raiders’ best offensive weapon is a big supporter of both Pierce and O’Connell. It’s almost certain he would stump for Pierce keeping the job.
Adams liked how McDaniels and former general manager Dave Ziegler keyed him in on the decision-making process, but it’s amplified with Pierce and interim general manager Champ Kelly.
Adams has also praised O’Connell and predicted a promising career ahead, but it’s uncertain whether the 30-year-old is comfortable with spending the last couple years of his prime alongside him. Adams initially requested a trade to Las Vegas from Green Bay thinking he was arriving at a contender where he could build his legacy.
He could think highly of O’Connell and still have doubts on if the quarterback is ready to produce to the sky-high standard Adams expects out of himself. Adams wanted the Raiders to pursue former teammate/close friend Aaron Rodgers this offseason, and the rumors linking a reunion of the two are already cropping up again.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter has reported that Rodgers’ current team, the New York Jets, will pursue Adams in the offseason. That seems like a move that would interest Adams on the surface.
He’s spent most of the year unhappy, though he’s cheered up since Pierce took over and frequently reiterated he doesn’t want to leave Las Vegas.
“I think the whole team kind of realizes where we’re at right now,” Adams said. “We made it a little tougher on ourselves, but everything is still out there in front of us. We’ve just got to find a way to finish the right way.”
How real is the defensive improvement?
The Raiders’ defense has been just good enough to coax the fanbase into thinking the long-suffering unit is on the path to being fixed. But it’s also been just flawed enough to hold the team back and keep them among the mediocre ranks.
Never has this dichotomy been more apparent than in the last two weeks. Las Vegas’ defense may have played its five best consecutive quarters in first holding Miami to only 20 points in a Week 11 loss and then shutting out Kansas City in the first frame of a Week 12 defeat.
But the dam broke from there as a Chiefs’ offense that has otherwise been struggling to hit its usual standard scored touchdowns on four of their next five possessions.
“We have five games left and we have to take it one day at a time,” defensive coordinator Patrick Graham said. “(The bye week gave us) a chance to reset, re-energize. Let’s go get it.”
The Raiders’ defense has been better than their offense, but that’s not saying much considering the latter sits 26th in the league in averaging 4.9 yards per play. The defense is 22nd in allowing 5.4 yards per play.
But the latter statistic could be misleading considering the Raiders’ defensive philosophy this season has been to bend but not break. And, on many occasions, they’ve executed that objective.
Figuring out the extent of the defense’s true ability and sustainability is key because there are big decisions on the horizon. Crosby is the only defensive player locked up long-term.
Even fellow veteran team captains like linebacker Robert Spillane and safety Marcus Epps, both of whom were signed in free agency this offseason, are on two-year deals. The Raiders also need to decide if they want to extend recent draft picks like safety Tre’von Moehring, cornerback Nate Hobbs, cornerback Amik Robertson, linebacker Divine Deablo and edge rusher Maclolm Koonce.
Can the team get anything out of Tyree Wilson?
Ziegler mishandled several personnel decisions to expedite his exit, but one of his biggest blunders may have come in the biggest spot.
He spoke of finding a foundational player with the No. 7 overall pick in last year’s draft but Wilson, an edge rusher out of Texas Tech, has fallen far short of that in the early part of his career. He’s only registered 1.5 sacks despite benefiting from constant double-teams on Crosby and has been unable to beat out Koonce for a starting role.
Pro Football Focus grades Wilson as the 107th edge rusher in the NFL out of 110 qualified players.
Wilson’s defenders point out that he missed most of training camp while recovering from a broken foot, but he’s since had plenty of time to get up to speed to the NFL game. He’s got to show some growth in the final five games.
Whiffing on a top-10 pick is the type of gaffe that can set a franchise back years, and it’s something that’s happened all too frequently with the Raiders over the last two decades. The top-level capital the franchise used on Wilson means he’s almost surely going to stick around for the next few years, and it will be a waste of resources if he does so as a backup.
Edge rusher is the premium defensive position in the modern NFL, and the Raiders thought they had it addressed for years to come going into this year. It will be a major setback if Wilson’s lack of development puts that into doubt.
“He’s improving each week,” Graham said. “That’s all you can ask for.”