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Andy Furillo: Time for Raiders to show if they’ve got it

The Raiders released Aldon Smith on Monday, March 5, 2018.
The Raiders released Aldon Smith on Monday, March 5, 2018. AP

The fun in the sun of San Diego and the beauty of a Black Hole beating of the Jets gave way to a loss in Pittsburgh and a slip and fall at home against the Vikings. So where does this put the mood of the Raiders?

“Same as it was in the beginning of the season,” left tackle Donald Penn said as the team prepared for Sunday’s game at Detroit. “We’re on the same path and we’ve got the same mission, to win our division and try to get a playoff berth.”

It might take an act from The Above for the Raiders to overtake the Broncos in the AFC West, or the work of Beelzebub if you’re a Denver fan. The playoffs are far more achievable, and the Raiders don’t need to make a deal with the devil to get there. All they need to do is win.

You’d think Sunday’s game against Detroit (2-7) is a must for the Raiders (4-5), if they hope to make the playoffs. While a victory might be necessary, it is by no means a given. Detroit beat the Bears, who beat the Raiders. Last week, Detroit also beat the Packers, a team some thought would go to the Super Bowl.

The Raiders just have to beat a team, and any team will do. It seems they haven’t won in weeks, and by game time Sunday it will be three. It’s not nearly as bad as last year, when the Raiders started 0-10, but seven teams are fighting for two wild-card playoff spots, making each game bigger than the next, until you’re out of it and they don’t mean anything. .

Same as it was in the beginning of the season. We’re on the same path and we’ve got the same mission, to win our division and try to get a playoff berth.

Raiders left tackle Donald Penn, on the team’s goal

Since January, the Raiders’ story has been one of positivism. It’s also been one of uncertainty. Today, you’re in Oakland, tomorrow it’s Carson, and before you know it they’re talking over your grave. The Raiders transcended the past tense this year when principal owner Mark Davis sprang for free agents, general manager Reggie McKenzie signed the right ones, they hired Jack Del Rio as coach, and he put together a world-class staff of assistants to change a decade-long culture of defeat.

They looked like geniuses in the glory days of three weeks ago, when the offense did everything it wanted and the defense stuck a cork in the Jets. The 34-20 win pushed the Raiders’ record to 4-3. Among the wild-card contenders, they held the joker. Now, the world has caught up with the Raiders, and the Bills have passed them, not to mention the Steelers and Jets.

Earlier this week, the Raiders were hit with the bad news that outsider linebacker Aldon Smith’s season was over when the NFL suspended him for a year. The issue was his powerlessness over alcohol and the problem it creates when he slides behind the wheel of a car or walks through a security check at the airport. Smith now takes it one day at a time. In his pursuit of sobriety, he has gained the respect of coaches and teammates. They have come to know his lesser-publicized qualities, like being a good teammate, and even a leader.

Smith was second on the team with 3 1/2 sacks when the NFL sacked him. Raiders defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. called Smith “a special player.” Back with the 49ers in 2012, Smith had 19 1/2 sacks and made first-team All-Pro. This year, during his recovery, the Raiders learned there is more to Smith than what he’s done. Norton said everybody also is impressed with “who he is.”

Rookie defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. will be asked to pick up some of Smith’s production. It’s been helpful, Edwards said, that Smith has shared some secrets in the sacking arts.

“He’s helped me a lot with the pass rush, new moves, things to try,” said Edwards, a second-round pick out of Florida State. “He’s a good vet. He’s always contacting everyone home or away to have the D-line dinner. He’s always been about making this a brotherhood on the D-line.”

The Raiders are moving into deep November having lost two straight and their second-best pass rusher. It may not be as dire as it was for George Washington at Valley Forge, but if Thomas Paine was around today he might tweet about this being the time that tries the soul of Raider Nation.

There’s a lot of football left, there’s a lot of games left. This is that time of the year, right in the middle of the grind, that the good teams start to separate themselves – November, December.

Raiders defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr.

But nobody in authority appears to be panicking. Norton hails the Raiders’ professionalism, their love for the game. Can they make this their time?

“There’s a lot of football left; there’s a lot of games left,” Norton said. “This is that time of the year, right in the middle of the grind, that the good teams start to separate themselves – November, December.

“So if we think we’re a good team, let’s do what the good teams do and put it all together.”

Positivism still abounds in Oakland, and it still can be transformed into playoff realism. A win in Detroit is crucial to the transition.

Andy Furillo: 916-321-1141, @andyfurillo

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