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The third game of the preseason is often referred to as the “dress rehearsal, as traditionally, a team’s starters play a bit longer than they usually do in the preseason — sometimes even a whole half — as a warm-up for the regular season.
Friday’s Raiders-Packers game was not a dress rehearsal.
Because if it was, then the show should be canceled before it opens.
The Raiders’ 13-6 win wasn’t much of a football game and it provided little entertainment to boot. It was a truly unpalatable affair that featured two poor offensive lines, terrible quarterback play, shambolic special teams, and flags.
So, so many flags.
An “excruciating” amount of flags, per Raiders head coach Jon Gruden.
Ultimately some of the soul-crushing terribleness was by design — neither team took the exhibition contest seriously (Aaron Rodgers and a slew of top Packers players did not suit up) — but that doesn’t give us back those interminable three-plus hours of our lives.
Alas, the regular season starts in two weeks — we should try to find value amid the undeniable ennui.
So here’s what we learned in the Raiders’ third preseason game:
Jon Gruden isn’t telling us a damn thing
Earlier this week, I wrote about how the Raiders are the NFL’s biggest mystery. Even though there was a whole, 60-minute “game” on Friday night, nothing has changed since I posted that column.
I said it then and I’m repeating it now: Gruden isn’t just playing his cards close to the vest — the cards are under the vest and a few other layers of clothing. He doesn’t want you to even know he has cards.
There’s validity to that strategy — particularly when the NFL schedules your first-round opponent as a preseason foe (what the hell was the league thinking?) — but Gruden has really taken it to the next level.
As such, after three preseason games, we have little idea of what Gruden’s offense is going to look like in 2018.
There are a few breadcrumbs — the Raiders are going to zone block (more on that in a moment) and I think they’ll use 21 (a fullback and one tight end) and 22 (a fullback and two tight ends) personnel often — but Gruden’s offensive play calling has been aggressively vanilla. The Raiders’ are running a high school — or Todd Downing — offense right now, and while I carry plenty of skepticism towards all things, including Gruden, I’m going to give the Raiders’ old/new coach the benefit of the doubt on this one: he’s not going to tell us a damn thing about his offense — the one he’s theoretically been developing in the lab for the last decade — until the season opens on Monday Night Football, Sept. 10.
Of course, with Friday’s game being the third preseason affair, Raiders quarterback Derek Carr entered the contest with the expectation that he would play most of the first half — if not all of it.
With No. 4 under center, I thought we’d find a few more breadcrumbs. If the starting quarterback plays multiple series, it’d be impossible to not get a few more hints, right?
Well, that question still remains — Carr played one series and was pulled.
To be fair, it was a solid series that started with a 49-yard pass to Amari Cooper and was highlighted by a nice third-down conversion deep in Green Bay territory, but those plays didn’t tell us much of anything about Gruden’s offense.
Derek Carr to Amari Cooper on the first snap of the game: pic.twitter.com/wMvISgU4xM
— Dieter Kurtenbach (@dkurtenbach) August 25, 2018
“There isn’t much more for me to see. The battle for us is who is behind Derek,” Gruden said after the game. “I wanted to get Connor [Cook] first team all offensive line for a couple series. But we have a pretty good idea who our starters are on offense. I was really pleased with Derek on how he started the game.”
And on the other hand…
The Raiders don’t have a viable backup quarterback (what’s new?)
My intrepid colleague Matt Schneidman asked Gruden after the game if Carr’s backup was already on the roster.
The Raiders coach didn’t say yes.
That should tell you everything you need to know about how poorly Connor Cook and EJ Manuel played against the Packers.
Cook looked to have the inside track to the backup job — presuming the Raiders only carry two quarterbacks on their roster — after a solid performance in the Raiders’ first preseason game. That advantage was fully squandered on Friday.
Cook looked absolutely overwhelmed by a Packers defense that was mostly comprised of second and third-string players. He couldn’t execute basic NFL passes — even when he had time to throw. It was painful to watch, and he finished the game 6-for-15 for 72 yards and one interception. He should have had two interceptions to his name — he was bailed out by a flag — and frankly, his yardage is inflated by a play he didn’t make — a 26-yard Jalen Richard bubble screen.
All in all, an abysmal evening.
Packers rookie CB Jaire Alexander picks of Raiders QB Connor Cook. Alexander was selected 18th overall. pic.twitter.com/967rUMmMYR
— Football Dungeon (@DuaneLively) August 25, 2018
A penalty against the Packers and away from the play, negates a would be pick 6 for rookie CB Josh Jackson. pic.twitter.com/bNWCJXYo1f
— Football Dungeon (@DuaneLively) August 25, 2018
Manuel played in the second half and while his stats looked better (8-of-12 for 87 yards) and he did drive the Raiders to the game-winning touchdown against a Packers’ defense comprised of guys who will be free agents this time next week, truth be told, he didn’t do anything to endear himself to the coaching staff or fans on Friday. His best plays were probably scrambles and there were a couple of throws that were downright head-scratching.
First-round talent… pic.twitter.com/3Uw9lKwtcT
— Austin Gayle (@AustinGayle_PFF) August 25, 2018
Also, he lost a fumble for the third straight preseason game, which has to be some sort of record.
The duo’s combined futility demanded the question Matt asked. I’m fascinated to see if Gruden has a better answer — or if he takes action — in the coming days.
We know he likes Cook, but there’s no way that the Raiders coach can have any confidence in the Michigan State product’s ability to win a regular-season game if Carr goes down. And while, I was surprised that Manuel was even re-signed this past offseason, and he’s clearly not the answer, even if he’s arguably a better option.
I understand that you don’t practice “f—ed” but conceding games — which is what the Raiders would be doing if either of these quarterbacks is named Carr’s backup — isn’t much of a strategy, either.
So where do the Raiders go?
The better question might be “when do they go?”
The longer the Raiders wait, the more tied they become to the options already in-house. That said, the currently available options at aren’t tremendous. Matt Moore might be the cream of the crop. (For those who will, logically, suggest that Colin Kaepernick should be called, I doubt the NFL, which is effectively a co-owner of the Raiders these days after they helped facilitate Vegas stadium financing for the team would be thrilled with such a move. Even though Kap is the best quarterback available and the Raiders of old wouldn’t hesitate to bring in such a firebrand, it’s likely a non-starter.)
Marshawn Lynch warming up his arm on the sideline. Taking matters into his own hands. pic.twitter.com/U2z2an2HNt
— Matt Schneidman (@mattschneidman) August 25, 2018
Perhaps the Raiders could swing a trade for Jets backup Teddy Bridgewater, but I doubt Gruden would want to give up an asset of any serious value for a backup quarterback at this juncture in the preseason.
Beyond that, is it worth waiting until after the fourth preseason game to land a recently cut quarterback like Chad Henne, Matt McGloin, Kevin Hogan, or Tyler Bray?
Well, after Friday’s game, it’s impossible not to say yes.
There’s plenty of interesting things going on in Alameda, but the backup quarterback job might be at the top of the list in the coming week. It’s a tricky scenario. What Gruden does will be telling.
The offensive line is in rough shape
Maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on the backup quarterbacks — after all, they were playing behind abysmal offensive lines on Friday.
Yes, what was once perceived as the Raiders’ strength is now an unmissable problem.
The first-string offensive line — with rookie Kolton Miller at left tackle and Donald Penn at right — had a rough going. The second-string looked just as porous.
The latter part — that’s not all that unexpected. They’re second-stringers for a reason.
The former part, though? Even though some growing pains are to be expected with a rookie left tackle, Penn shifting to the right side, and a new scheme being installed, I’m not sure it should be this painful.
Penn, in particular, was noticeable for all the wrong reasons Friday. He looks more than a step behind his teammates and certainly opposing pass rushers, and he was completely worked in what proved to be Carr’s final snap of the game. But it wasn’t an isolated incident — a few plays before allowing a drive-killing sack, he had whiffed on a cut block. All this to say that the transition is clearly not going well, and while Penn’s a pro who deserves the benefit of the doubt, the possibility still exists that a shift to right tackle and this scheme might be too much for him.
That was a pretty rough first series for right tackle Donald Penn in pass protection. Had a big whiff and then this…. pic.twitter.com/Iz1ROShExR
— Dieter Kurtenbach (@dkurtenbach) August 25, 2018
Donald Penn’s second series didn’t go much better than his first. Dude looks waaaaaay behind the curve. pic.twitter.com/EIgdv9xHP7
— Dieter Kurtenbach (@dkurtenbach) August 25, 2018
When asked about Penn after the game, Gruden spun the performance as a positive. That, of course, was him standing up for a veteran who has sacrificed money and accepted a move away from his left tackle position with grace.
“He played pretty well. He had one snap today where he was power rushed. I am going to watchthe tape before I make too many specific comments. It is a work in progress. He has been out for a long time. Doing rehab on the side with the trainers is one thing and coming out in these games and blocking rushers is another. He has ways to go before getting back to being 100 percent, but we do appreciate his hard work,” Gruden said.
On the other side of the line, Miller didn’t fare much better. If not for Penn’s poor play, Miller probably would have been the focus of the o-line concern — Penn’s guy barely beat Miller’s mark to the quarterback on a few plays Friday.
Both tackles look ok in the run game — Miller, with his athleticism, is clearly the prototype of a zone-blocking tackle and Penn is a road grader — but pass protection is perhaps the most important thing to the Raiders in 2018, given Carr’s propensity to be skittish in the pocket, and we’re going to go into Week One without truly knowing if the Raiders can protect the quarterback on passing downs.
Don’t worry though, the Rams — the Raiders’ Week One opponent — don’t have one of the best defenses in the NFL…
Gruden must be seeing something in Doug Martin the rest of us are missing
Keeping it with the offense, Gruden gave free agent pickup Doug Martin some solid run at running back Friday — it was somewhat a dress rehearsal for the former Buccaneer — and… I still don’t get it.
It’s preseason. It’s important to not put much stock in the preseason — it’s not real NFL football — but Gruden has given Martin rave reviews since he signed him and heading into the final week of preseason, I’m still waiting to see what the Raiders’ head coach is talking about.
Martin carried the ball four times for 24 yards on Friday. There was a 16-yard run, but other than that, the memory I will have of Martin’s game was him running directly into a pile of dude at the line of scrimmage over and over again. He doesn’t look — in any way — to be a game breaker.
Now, Gruden sees Martin every day — maybe the Stockton kid still has pop. I just haven’t seen it and with a nice stable of running backs (Chris Warren and Jalen Richard were both really good on Friday), one has to wonder what Martin’s role on this team is.
Alas, like most things, we probably won’t be able to say anything definitively until after Week One.
Arden Key has a chance to be a star — and that’s a factor in the Khalil Mack “negotiations”
There are a lot of things holding up the Khalil Mack contract talks and no one has a definitive answer as to what is going on with the Raiders and their star pass rusher.
What we do know is that there isn’t much of a negotiation happening right now. My understanding is that the Raiders have not extended a fair-market deal (see: one as good as Von Miller’s six-year, $114 million deal) to Mack and his representatives yet.
There seem to be several reasons behind that, though the weight of each varies based on who you talk to.
The first is that the Aaron Donald situation — despite what some might say — is absolutely a factor. It’s becoming evident that Mack and the Raiders are both waiting for Donald and the Rams to set a market price. They are certainly closer to a deal down south than Mack and the Raiders are, so perhaps that roadblock will be cleared soon.
Another issue is the fact that Gruden — an offensive-minded head coach — is in charge of the roster and he may not be completely convinced that a pass rusher is worth “quarterback money”. It’s easy to see how that could offend his sensibilities.
Add in the fact that if Mack is given “quarterback money”, he and Carr could eating up to a third of the Raiders’ salary cap space for next year, with 51 other roster spots to fill. That kind of commitment makes it difficult for Gruden to build the kind of veteran-filled roster he wants.
Mack is due $13.8 million this season — that’s the value of the fifth-and-final-year option on his rookie deal. Mack won’t necessarily become a free agent when that contract expires, though, as the Raiders can franchise tag him for an estimated $18 million.
If they wanted to franchise tag him for a second year in 2020, he’d make an estimated $21 million. Another franchise tag in 2021 would be around $30 million — they wouldn’t take it that far, I’d imagine — but it’s certainly not a preposterous number for one of the NFL’s best players.
And while it makes sense for the Raiders to sign Mack to a long-term deal to smooth out his cap hits — franchise tag money is all guaranteed and counts 100 percent against the cap — there is value in year-to-year dealings.
There are a ton of similarities to LeVeon Bell in Pittsburgh with this Mack situation — a disconnect between the market value and the team’s perceived value — and that’s why the sense is becoming that Mack will not get a new deal and will end up being franchise tagged in 2019.
[I cannot verify the popular theory that Davis cannot put Mack’s entire signing bonus into escrow, creating a critical problem in giving him a fair-market contract, but of the people I trust to know if such a thing is happening (which is, admittedly, a small list of people) no one has told me that is definitively not the case.]
Another reason a Mack deal does not seem imminent — Arden Key.
The Raiders’ defensive line has looked fantastic this preseason, even without Mack (the venerable Jerry McDonald broke that down Friday night as only he can), and Key, in limited game action, looks every bit like the top-10 talent he was billed as heading into the 2017 college season.
— Oakland Raiders (@Raiders) August 25, 2018
It was suggested to me earlier this week that while Mack is irreplaceable, Key has impressed so much in practices that there’s a sense that the pass rush would still be solid if the All-Pro holds out well into the regular season.
In short: the Raiders are getting such solid play from Mack’s backups that they’re not feeling the pressure to get No. 52 back into the fold.
That logic can be stretched out into 2019 and beyond, too. Again, Mack cannot be replaced, one-for-one, but this team might be able to recreate a solid chunk of his production for a fraction of the cost — and isn’t that the strategy of the modern, team-driven NFL?
Key’s cap hit is $3.4 million… total, over the next four years. Less than a million per year for that kind of talent is a steal. Add in a solid interior pass rush, Bruce Irvin (due $8 million this season and $9 million next year), and a couple of backups who have looked good in the preseason in Shilique Calhoun ($630k deal for 2018) and Fadol Brown (due $480k in 2018), the Raiders would be in good shape without one of the NFL’s best players.
The Raiders’ ability to say that they don’t need Mack to be successful on defense in 2018 and beyond — something that’s not entirely laughable these days — gives Gruden and company complete control of any negotiations. A pass rusher, no matter how good he might be, simply isn’t as irreplaceable as a franchise-caliber quarterback and the Raiders are proving it right now.
Add in the threat of a franchise tag and it’s hard to see the Raiders giving Mack a “quarterback” contract anytime soon.