ALAMEDA (AP) — When the Oakland Raiders got blown out in the opener under new coach Jack Del Rio, it looked like just another year of same old Raiders.
But with back-to-back wins and a pair of tight losses that followed, it’s clear Oakland has made significant progress and is closer than ever to ending a 12-year run with no winning records or playoff berths.
With quarterback Derek Carr taking a big step forward in year two and the last two first-round picks Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper making significant impacts Del Rio has the Raiders (2-3) going into the bye week believing they can be contenders a year after losing their first 10 games.
“I know that we’ve made a lot of strides,” Del Rio said. “I know that 2-3 is not what we wanted it to be. We had hopes it’d be better. It’s what we’ve earned to this point. We have a lot of football in front of us, so we’ll focus on the road in front of us.”
The Raiders were just a couple of plays away from heading into the bye with a much better record. Three weeks ago against Chicago, they failed to convert a third-and-2 that could have run down the clock and then allowed Jay Cutler and the Bears to drive down for the winning field goal.
Two weeks agok against the Broncos, Sebastian Janikowski missed two field goals from 40 yards or closer and a miscommunication between Carr and receiver Seth Roberts led to a game-changing interception return for a touchdown when it looked like Oakland was poised to take a fourth-quarter lead.
But for a team that lost 13 of the first 49 games under general manger Reggie McKenzie by 20 points or more, these close losses are a sign of progress, as well as a cause for frustration.
“When you’re close and you don’t win the game, then those things eat at you because you know you’re better,” safety Charles Woodson said. “When you have games where you do win and there are some things that got to you, you go into that week saying ‘Oh we could have done better.’ But when you lose, man, it hurts. You could have got it done. To go out and have plays where you beat yourself, that’s tough.”
The 39-year-old Woodson has been one of the bright spots, tying for the league-lead with four interceptions, including two last week against Denver.
But it’s the younger players who truly give the Raiders reasons for optimism.
After an up-and-down rookie season, Carr looks like a different player in year two.
No longer flustered by pressure and aided by the additions of capable wideouts in Cooper and Michael Crabtree, Carr is showing signs of being the franchise quarterback Oakland has been seeking since Rich Gannon left more than a decade ago.
“He’s a better quarterback than he was last year,” Denver linebacker Von Miller said. “You can see it. He’s poised. He makes a lot of quick decisions. He’s not holding the ball for four, five seconds. He’s starting to become the quarterback that I think that they drafted.”
Carr has made sharp increases in his completion percentage, yards per attempt and touchdown rate, while cutting down on turnovers.
“It slowed down last year, but now I’m just playing football,” Carr said. “Trying my best to throw it exactly where I want to and all those things.”
He has a lot more help as well. Crabtree and Cooper are both on pace for more than 1,000 yards receiving, a mark no Raiders player has reached since Randy Moss in 2005. Latavius Murray is on pace to be Oakland’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2010.
The improved defense has been led by Mack, who has quickly established himself as one of the top edge rushers in the league in his second year with his ability to stop the run and pressure the quarterback. Newcomer Aldon Smith has added help on the other side and free agent acquisition Dan Williams has solidified the run defense.
With Woodson anchoring the back end, the Raiders have shown gradual improvement on defense. They played their best defensive game yet in the Week 5 loss to Denver. They didn’t allow an offensive touchdown, limited the Broncos to 2-for-13 on third down and allowed under 300 yards for the first time all year.
“That was as good as we’ve played on defense,” Del Rio said. “There have been several bright spots, several areas of improvement. A lot of things that we’ve worked hard on that are beginning to show themselves, manifest themselves in production on game day. We still know there’s a ton of work in front of us.”