As the old seasonal adage goes: in like a lion, out like a lamb. The same could be said of the Oakland Raiders' 2015 campaign. A torrid start (Week 1 vs. Cincinnati notwithstanding) prompted early season playoff hopes before a 3-6 end to the year, before finishing 7-9, ended any post-season optimism. As the collective lens of the black hole turns to free agency (the Raiders will again have plenty to spend), the NFL Draft, and a possible move to Los Angeles--even worse, becoming L.A. bunk-mates with the San Diego Chargers--the "silver lining" is easy to find for most Raiders fans when they look back at the 2015 season.
Finding the "good" in Raiders seasons of recent memory has been akin to finding a needle in a haystack. The "haystack" in this allusion is typically a dilapidated roster that catches little breaks and the "needle" typically being Marcel Reece. This year, the Raiders have ascended beyond futile attempts of optimism, to real instances of grandeur.
Perhaps the greatest season-long highlight for the Raiders this year would be the meteoric ascension of Khalil Mack. Mack, who in his second year was named first team defensive end and outside linebacker (a feat no other player has done), is already seen as an elite player in the NFL. The last time the Raiders could claim a defensive cornerstone of Mack's caliber would have been prior to 2005, when Charles Woodson adorned the silver and black during his first term with the team. Despite Mack's accolades, the team's optimism wouldn't be as bright as it is without their "undisputed starting quarterback."
Undisputed starting quarterback is an exciting statement for Raiders fans. Derek Carr threw 19 touchdowns to four interceptions in his first eight games. While his final tally normalized to a 32/13 line, his 32 passing touchdowns had him tied with Matthew Stafford for 9th most in the league. More so, it was clear that Carr had made a seismic leap from his rookie year. Virtually all of Carr's efficiency numbers also improved, jumping from a 58% to 61% completion percentage and from under six yards per attempt to over seven.
None of Carr's 2015 accomplishments could have been achieved without his supporting cast. The addition of Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree transformed a maligned receiving cast into a formidable one. Cooper's 1,070 yard rookie season made him the first Raiders receiver to achieve the thousand yard milestone since Randy Moss in 2005. Along with Cooper and Crabtree, role players emerged in secondary options in slot receiver Seth Roberts and rookie tight end Clive Walford--the latter being virtually the only rookie tight end to contribute to an offense in 2015.
Along the offensive line, the free agency acquisition of Rodney Hudson helped running back Latavius Murray become the only 1,000 yard Raiders rusher since Darren McFadden in 2010 (noticing a trend?). In pass protection, the Raiders finished tied with five other teams for 11th best in sacks allowed--a regression of five spots (6th) and six sacks (26) from last year.
Many of the Raiders' woes this years entered around defensive questions that were posed before the season began. While both the line backing and defensive back corps improved from where they were at the start of the year, those areas still need a lot of maintaince if the Raiders are expected to make a comparable leap into 2016. The Raiders ranked 22nd best in points and yards allowed (talk about synergy), but suffered most in pass defense giving up roughly 260 yards per game to opposing quarterbacks.
The Raiders won't be better for wear after the team's best defensive back, Charles Woodson, retired at the end of the year. David Amerson and T.J. Carrie are likely the only players with entrenched roles in 2016, and even they aren't guaranteed to be high level contributors. Along with the questionable talent level left in the defensive backfield, defensive coordinator Ken Norton's play-calling endures criticism of being predictable.
Not all of the blame falls squarely on the defense’s shoulders, though. The offense failed to carry the momentum garnered in the first eight games over to the second half of the season. Although Derek Carr saw marketed improvement from 2014, the tape and stats show he regressed as the season went on. Between the months of September and November, Carr threw for 24 touchdowns and six interceptions. In the pivotal months of December and January, Carr threw for eight and seven respectively. Although it's impossible to argue the improvement of Carr's supporting cast, both Cooper (2nd) and Crabtree (8th) ranked in the top 10 for dropped passes.
The offensive line also failed to keep their early season momentum. Despite Murray's breakout season, the team managed to average pedestrian per game (104.9) and per carry (4.1) averages. Going into next season, serious needs need to be answered at left tackle--considering Donald Penn will be 33 by next season and is scheduled to become a free agent--and virtually the entire right side. Compounding the offense's regression, coordinator Bill Musgrave's 3rd and less-than-too-long draw plays and generally predictable play-calling put a damper on a promising group on offense.
For the Raiders and their fans, there's a lot to look forward to in 2016. The team now has strong home-grown leadership and legitimate big-time talent. This may be the last season for at least a few years that the Raiders will no longer expect anything less than a playoff berth. For many fans who endured the feudal last years of Al Davis' life and the rebuilding years of Reggie McKenzie's reign, 2016 and beyond will be a re-defining era for the team. As it becomes increasingly clear that the last years of the Oakland Raiders is quickly approaching, an image change may be a not-so-bad thing for the quite possibly, quite likely, Los Angeles Raiders.