The relationship between residents of this city and these Raiders was always going to be a delicate dance.
If hometown star Marshawn Lynch experienced a rebirth, if Derek Carr remained healthy and continued to improve, if the defense bent but refused to break, then the fans would roll the dice, table the long-term future (think Las Vegas) and ride with the team to another postseason.
But this wasn’t the deal. A 2-3 start to a season is more likely to end in misery than a trip to the Super Bowl. Since 1990, teams that lose three of their first five games reached the playoffs only 21 percent of the time.
Now, even in Las Vegas, those are lousy odds. Yet against the Baltimore Ravens? In the Coliseum? One would think that those were not such lousy odds. The Ravens arrived mired in their own mediocre stretch (2-2), confronting their own quarterback issues and facing a Raiders team that had not lost on the their home field since Oct. 16.
But forget about the struggling Joe Flacco, his team’s challenges and his quarterback rating of 65 for a moment. On Sunday he looked every bit the strong-armed gunslinger who leveraged his Super Bowl victory over the 49ers into a hefty long-term contract.
While fans were still entering the building, he connected with wideout Mike Wallace on the opening play for 52 yards. Before the fans settled into their seats, he handed off to Vince Mayle for a two-yard touchdown run and a 7-0 lead. Before the fans had a chance to hit the concession stands, cornerback Jimmy Smith scooped up a Jared Cook fumble and raced 42 yards for another touchdown, making it 14-0 Ravens with 11:22 left in the first quarter.
“Pretty disappointing,” a terse Jack Del Rio said after his club’s 30-17 defeat. “Started the game the way we did. I thought we stuck with the game plan pretty well, continued to run the ball. That’s what we really wanted, to run the ball efficiently, play good defense, be the better team. We didn’t get that done.”
While the Raiders coach believes Carr will be recovered from his back injury and able to start next Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers, a healthy quarterback isn’t a cure-all for what ails his club.
The CliffsNotes version of the Raiders’ woes reads something like this: Talented wideout Amari Cooper, aka the invisible man, was targeted only twice by quarterback EJ Manuel and finished with one reception for seven yards; Cook lost the fumble and later dropped a catchable pass; Lynch scored on a three-yard run that trimmed the deficit to 24-17, but he has yet to produce one of his familiar, punishing Beast Mode performances; the maligned Sean Smith was beaten badly on another of Flacco’s deep throws, this time a 54-yard pass to a wide-open Mike Wallace, setting up another Ravens touchdown before halftime.
And yet ...
After the increasingly restless crowd showered the Raiders with boos on their opening two possessions of the second half – both three and out – Manuel led an impressive 65-yard, 12-play drive that ended with Lynch’s TD burst. Carr’s backup hit Michael Crabtree for a first down, rolled out and found Seth Roberts for 26 yards, then scrambled for 10 more yards before handing off to Lynch for the score.
But the respite, such that it was, was brief. The boos returned again in the fourth, shortly before Del Rio made a decision that left him vulnerable to second-guessing afterward. With his Raiders down 27-17, nine minutes remaining and staring at a fourth-and-3 at the Ravens 44, he elected to punt – a move that preceded a time-consuming, game-clinching drive expertly orchestrated by Flacco.
“You’re thinking the defense will give us a stop and get us the ball back,” Del Rio said. “We didn’t. A fourth-down call with nine minutes left in the game, was that the difference? I don’t think so.”
Several players who were asked about the decision deferred to their head coach.
“Whatever decision he makes, we feel like it’s best for the team,” Manuel said. “I’m sure he had a plan for getting them stopped on defense. That’s how I look at it.”
Maybe, but whatever is going on has stripped the Raiders of the swagger and the positive energy that characterized training camp and their first two games. This 2-3 start is jarring, at the very least.
“It’s a big shock,” running back Jalen Richard admitted. “We just keep getting our ass whupped. It’s going to come down to, ‘When are we going to get tired of getting our ass whupped?’ ”
The Raiders? Who expected this?