The Raiders matched last year’s win total in this season’s seventh week. Considering 2014’s pockmark was a gruesome 3-13, head coach Jack Del Rio didn’t start popping bottles in honor of a third win and an even record.
That would be more a celebration of how far past Raiders had fallen versus how far they’d come. It’s not Jack’s style to acknowledge recent pre-Del Rio problems. He remains focused on what this group has done, accomplishments which ain’t shabby in the early going.
His Raiders are 2-1 on the road, .500 on the season and in the AFC West. They’ve been competitive save once, in a season-opening dumpster fire versus Cincinnati. They have blossoming superstars in Amari Cooper, Derek Carr and Khalil Mack and productive players dotting the roster.
And, after Sunday’s 37-29 victory over the San Diego, Del Rio’s Raiders are the AFC’s sixth-ranked team. They sit just outside the all-too-early playoff picture, with 3-4 Indianapolis in ahead of them as the AFC South division leader.
The all-too-early wild card leaders above them are the New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers. Raiders play both in the next two weeks.
Del Rio is comfortable with such talk, even if it doesn’t dominate Raiders internal discussion.
“We don’t sit and fixate on it every day,” Del Rio said. “…Winning the division was a stated goal. We’re not going to back way from that, but what we’re going to focus on every day is being a good football team. Demanding, developing and growing as an organization, as a football team. I’m proud of our guys because I see plenty of good signs of growth.”
The signs were large and legible during Sunday’s victory, where the Raiders forced two turnovers, scored on seven straight offensive possessions and dominated for three straight quarters. The final period went off the rails, with 23 unanswered points from San Diego that left Del Rio’s quest for a complete game unfulfilled.
“I’m frustrated with that fourth quarter,” safety Charles Woodson said. “We had an opportunity to have the coaches kiss our (butts) a little bit during the week to having them kick our (butts) during the week. Once we watch the film and really look at what we did defensively, we’ll see that what we gave up in the fourth quarter was our fault. We have to know how to sustain a little bit longer. Once you get on a team, you have to keep them down.”
Postgame reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, with focus on how well the Raiders played for 45 minutes on offense, defense and special teams coming off a bye.
“It’s a continuation of the growth of our team, of our staff working hard, of our players working hard and us collectively working hard toward being a good football team,” Del Rio said. “I think what we saw yesterday was an example where all three phases played well and it came together for us.
“There is more there. It’s not like we arrived or anything, but it certainly was the best football we’ve played to date, so we’re going to acknowledge where it was good and praise and then point out the things that weren’t as good and talk about the growth and opportunities that are there in front of us.”
That’s why matching last year’s win total is but a milestone on a long path, a spot to stop, pour some on the block and keep on walking.
Great room for growth remains for this group. They have been well coached by Del Rio and staff, unafraid to tinker with their own schemes. General manager Reggie McKenzie better stocked the roster after recent misfires, with another solid draft class and veteran free agents playing a positive role.
We can unequivocally say the Raiders are better. Even if they lose the next two games and playoff talk proves fleeting, the Raiders are still trending up. There is athletic and coaching talent here, with a personnel department on a run of solid picks that built a promising young foundation.
The Raiders still have trouble spots and young players will make mistakes, but the optimism surrounding them is just.
“I feel like we’re growing as a team,” Del Rio said. “I feel like we’re getting better. And I think we all recognize that there’s still a lot to be done, there’s still a lot of work in front of us, there’s still a lot of opportunity for growth and refinement.”