Eighteen times the other day, in five mini-news conferences for players checking into training camp, the buzzword of the Raiders’ preseason – “expectations” – could be heard. Four more times, the singular version of the same word was used.
So that’s 22 times in an hour and a half, or 1.57 for every year since the team last made the NFL playoffs, in 2002.
While analytics experts parse that number for meaning, it’s understood that expectations don’t pay the bills. Winning does, and the Raiders seem to understand this. They know they’ll need more than expectations to win close games late in the fourth quarter. For this year’s team, that probably will be just about all of them.
Still, it’s only July. What’s the problem with taking a ride on the expectation train? Who wants to wake up in the morning thinking your day is done before you even get out of bed?
For years, there had been little hope for this franchise.
But that started to change a couple of years ago when general manager Reggie McKenzie wiped some bad contracts off the books. Then he drafted defensive lineman Khalil Mack and quarterback Derek Carr, and hired reality-based head coach Jack Del Rio, who brought in an elite staff of assistants that includes Bill Musgrave, Ken Norton Jr. and Mike Tice. They signed a slew of respectable free agents, including defensive tackle Dan Williams, center Rodney Hudson and linebacker Malcolm Smith, who solidified and deepened the roster. They drafted well again, adding wide receiver Amari Cooper, tight end Clive Walford and defensive end Mario Edwards Jr.
Last year they became respectable, winning seven games. Then they signed another group of even more talented free agents: cornerback Sean Smith, linebacker Bruce Irvin and offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele.
In that short time, the Raiders put together a team good enough to beat Denver and Kansas City.
Their goal this year will be to win the AFC West, and let’s not get too far ahead of that – or behind it, either. The Raiders could be better than a wild-card team.
Much of the expectation has come from outside the organization. The media have given them respect and credibility, and so have oddsmakers and gamblers, who have grouped the Raiders as belonging on the same field with the Broncos and Chiefs. As always, Raider Nation is on board.
“I think everybody hears the talk and hears everybody talking about what the expectations are, but I think as a team you just have to go out there and work hard,” cornerback David Amerson said Thursday. “Put the best foot forward, put 100 percent effort in each day, day in and day out, and live with the results and see what happens.”
The expectation isn’t all external. The Raiders will bring plenty of their own onto the heart of California wine country for preseason drills.
“We know the expectations we hold for ourselves and obviously the talk that’s been going around, but again we know that right now it’s just talk,” running back Latavius Murray said. “The only thing we can go out there and do is get better, come together as a team and put it all together so we can, again, play and win on Sundays.”
Last year, the Raiders competed strongly in all but their opener in Cincinnati. If they had won a few more downs, they could have gone 12-4. But had a few more gone against then, they just as easily could have been 2-14.
Looking at this year’s schedule, they conceivably could win 14 games – or go 7-9. Their success will come down to things that sound like coaches’ clichés but really aren’t, issues such as execution at key moments, not turning the ball over, maintaining poise when close games come down to the final few moments.
“I think every game is going to come down to the last drive or the last couple minutes,” defensive back T.J. Carrie said. “As you’ve seen in the majority of games last year, the talent is so high. Within that, there is always going to be a certain matchup that you’re looking for, and there is always going to be a certain scheme that you want to perfect, to defeat a certain opponent. From that, you just gather your best guys, and you put those guys on the field in the best way that you can to defeat that opponent.”
It is in those moments another huge element will come into play, the trust players hold for each other. It is an outgrowth of chemistry, and McKenzie and Del Rio appear to have assembled a team on which the personalities mesh. The Raiders seem to be a good mix of fun and business, and their energy is good.
And talking and listening to the Raiders, you get a sense they’re good guys, too.
In their glory days, the outlaws in shoulder pads won games with an assassin’s glare. Can decency in Silver and Black also prevail?
More often than not, we’ll get the answer late in the fourth quarter, when expectations are realized or shattered.
At a glance
Training camp: Napa; players reported Thursday; first practice was Friday
Preseason opener: Aug. 12 at Arizona, 7 p.m., Ch. 58
Regular-season opener: Sept. 11 at New Orleans, 10 a.m., Ch. 40