Raiders players maintaining faith in Josh McDaniels despite slow start

ByPaul Gutierrez ESPN logo
Wednesday, November 30, 2022

HENDERSON, Nev. -- It was in the still of a locker room as exasperated as it was somber in steamy Jacksonville on Nov. 6, after the Las Vegas Raiders had blown a 17-plus-point lead for the third time this season, where a besieged Raiders player shuffled his way to an incoming reporter.

"What's happening?" the player asked. "What's wrong with us?"

The player, a key member of the team, said since he couldn't figure it out, he wanted a take from an outsider.

What's happening?

A week later, the season having reached its nadir with a stunning home loss to a struggling Indianapolis Coltsteam in chaos, tears flowed.

Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, who has alternated between operator and a passenger on the franchise's roller coaster since being selected in the second round of the 2014 draft, wept at the postgame podium, rocking back and forth uneasily as he paused several times in an attempt to catch his breath.

"I love the Silver and Black," Carr said that day, "and I'm going to give it everything I can every time I go out there. And I can't speak for everybody, for every man, what's going on in their head, but I can tell you what's going on in my head and I'm going to give it all that I can, every single time."

A day later, with the Raiders' record at 2-7 and rumors swirling about first-year coach Josh McDaniels' job security, team owner Mark Davis told ESPN he had already given his coach a "vote of confidence" when he hired him back in January. And Carr said Davis' support allowed the players to exhale, since another coaching change was not in the cards.

"Rome," Davis added, "was not built in a day."

Fast forward to Sunday afternoon in Seattle, when, in the din of a crisp autumn locker room, the same player who asked the reporter for input on the situation three weeks earlier simply smiled and winked. The Raiders had just pulled off another improbable OT victory on a walk-off 86-yard touchdown run by Josh Jacobs, their second straight walk-off win. And while their record improved to merely 4-7, the vibe felt awfully familiar to those who had been around the team during their unlikely run to the playoffs in 2021.

ESPN talked to several key players to get a sense of the tone of the locker room during the rough start to the season. Those players reiterated their faith that the Raiders are close to turning things around. And if the last two weeks are any indication, that belief might be starting to bear fruit.

A YEAR AGO, the Raiders were the late-season darlings of the NFL, an inspirational rag-tag outfit that dealt with unprecedented adversity. And still, the Raiders went on an unlikely, season-ending four-game winning streak to finish 10-7 and, thanks to an NFL-record six walk-off wins, force their way into the postseason for just the second time since losing Super Bowl XXXVII after the 2002 season. They took the eventual AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals to the wire in the wild-card round before the dream ended.

Surely, Rich Bisaccia, who endeared himself to the roster and a weary fan base, and general manager Mike Mayock, now unencumbered by Jon Gruden's presence, would get a shot to run it back ... no?


In January, Davis went in another direction, looking to the New England Patriots in hiring their director of player personnel Dave Ziegler as GM and longtime offensive coordinator McDaniels as coach. The thinking, Davis said at the time, was to elevate a playoff roster with the addition of a lauded X's and O's offensive tactician.

"I think that now we're just moving to the next level," Davis said in introducing the new regime. "It's not a rebuild. It's not a reload. It's just taking this to the next level and getting to that Super Bowl and winning some championships."

Things haven't gone to plan. Despite trading for star wideout Davante Adams, adding edge rusher Chandler Jones in free agency and locking up Carr, tight end Darren Waller, slot receiver Hunter Renfrow and defensive end Maxx Crosby to contract extensions, the Raiders have just a 5.5% chance of advancing to the postseason, according to ESPN's Football Power Index.

Waller, who has dealt with knee, back and injuries to both hamstrings since Thanksgiving 2021 and is on injured reserve, sees the progress the Raiders have made in flipping the script with two stunning wins, in Denver and Seattle, heading into Sunday's home game against the Los Angeles Chargers (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS).

"We believe in Mark [Davis]. He needs us. He thinks that Josh [McDaniels] was the best move for us coming in," Waller said. "Guys believe in that. Guys have seen it from the jump, the way that [McDaniels and Ziegler] prepare, the way they're passionate about the game. They want to win. There's no doubt about it. You plant a seed, you've got to give it time to grow."

This simply could be regression to the mean. The Raiders went 10-7 last season but had a minus-65 point differential. The games they have blown this season -- they were 0-6 in one-score games before the two-game winning streak and their offense had the ball at the end of each of those games with an opportunity to either go ahead or tie -- are games they won a year ago . They were 7-2 in one-score games a year ago and ranked 23rd in ESPN's FPI; they're 12th this season despite being three games under .500.

Plus, Waller said, as much as the players loved Bisaccia, the team had to move on. And quick.

"It's a turn-the-page thing as soon as it happens, because if you leave that door open, you're not really fully trusting what guys are trying to do here and what guys are trying to build here," Waller said. "We love Rich, we appreciate him for what he did but for us to be like, 'Aw, we wish he was here,' that's not fair to Josh.

"Just because it's not being built as fast as we'd like it to be doesn't mean that things aren't being learned, things aren't being applied. We just have to stay in the moment and trust."

Yeah, expectations were high. But McDaniels' last head coaching gig ended poorly -- he's just 9-24 in his past 33 games as head coach since starting 6-0 with the Denver Broncos in 2009 -- and his system is not the easiest to navigate, let alone manage. To wit, Carr's 63.0% completion percentage is the fourth-lowest of his career and his lowest since 2017 despite the addition of Adams.

"We have the same attitude," said the ninth-year quarterback, who got a three-year, $121.5 million extension with a no-trade clause this past offseason. "We have the same mindset. We're just trying to make it all come together right now. And sometimes it takes more time than you want to. It definitely takes more time than anyone on the outside wants it to because it's the NFL. It's like, 'What can you do for me right now?'"

Consider: While 116 different players had taken a snap for the Raiders the past two years through Week 12 of the 2022 season, the fourth-most in the NFL behind the Tennessee Titans (127), Chicago Bears (120) and New York Jets (117), just 27 players had taken a snap for the Raiders in both 2021 and 2022 through that same time frame, the third-fewest in the NFL behind the Bears (20) and Atlanta Falcons (26), per ESPN Stats & Information.

While Davis credited Bisaccia and Mayock for creating a "foundation" upon which Ziegler and McDaniels could build, the owner also gave the new regime the autonomy to forge their own culture.

Said McDaniels: "When you change visions or philosophies or cultures, it just doesn't happen overnight where everybody just all of a sudden is the same and adopts it. We're not all from the same background, we're not all from the same place, and we're going to try to do it the best way for us here. We're not trying to copy everything that Dave and I have been a part of [in New England]. We're trying to do some of it, but also, we're taking a lot of input from other people and trying to figure out what works best for us."

Coaching changes and immediate success -- Mike McDaniel with the Miami Dolphins, Brian Daboll with the New York Giants and Kevin O'Connell with the Minnesota Vikings-- have Raiders fans gnashing their teeth, though.

THERE HAVE BEEN hiccups with the Raiders, with the early season lack of on-field success. Even as the players say they see how it can materialize on film. Because as Jacobs said, McDaniels has pointed out the Raiders being in the "top three" in a lot of offensive categories, such as "four yard-plus" run plays and "not having negative plays in the run game."

"But it hasn't translated into wins," Jacobs lamented after the Colts loss.

"A lot of people on the outside are saying this, that and the third about Coach McDaniels. If you're on the inside, honestly, everything that he tells us, the key points to win the game, and if we do the things that he says to win the game, we literally are in the best chance of winning the game. And if he says we've got to do this, this and the third right and we don't do that, we lose the game. What he's saying is literally on point. It's more so on the players right now just buying into everything. I feel like a lot of the guys are bought in ... the effort is there, but it's more about the details. The little minute things."

Jacobs, who is in a contract year after not having his fifth-year option picked up by Ziegler and McDaniels, shook his head at the notion that McDaniels had lost the locker room when the team was 2-7.

"Nah, it takes losing your captains to lose the locker room," Jacobs said. "Obviously, a couple guys say things here and there but it's like, 'You don't play that much,' so it's like, do it matter? But when you lose the guys, that's when you lose the locker room. And he definitely hasn't lost the guys yet."

While Carr has looked alternately lost and found in McDaniels' scheme, Jacobs is having a career year -- he became just the fourth player in the Super Bowl era to have 300 all-purpose yards with two TDs in a single game Sunday -- and with 1,159 yards rushing and nine touchdowns, is on pace for a franchise-record 1,791 rushing yards (Hall of Famer and mentor Marcus Allen rushed for 1,759 yards in his 16-game NFL MVP season of 1985) and 14 TDs. Adams has 71 receptions for 999 yards and 10 touchdowns -- on pace for 110 catches for 1,544 yards and 16 TDs.

Defensively, the Raiders have gotten next to nothing from their three-year, $51 million free agent investment in Jones, who has half a sack in 11 games but did have a clutch fumble recovery against the Seahawks. Crosby, who inked a four-year, $99 million extension, is playing at an All-Pro level, starting the season with six sacks in the Raiders' first five games. He currently has 10.5, good for fourth in the NFL.

Even he, though, was at a loss for how a playoff team with so much talent slid so quickly with so many supposed upgrades.

"S---, I don't know," he said when asked the question after the Colts loss. "You can fold and say, 'F--- it, we're going to lose.' But that's not going to get you anywhere. You've got to be positive and embrace every single day. It's a blessing to be here and play in the NFL and be with your brothers every day. We can be negative about it and sulk about it and listen to all the outside noise, or we can stay together and try to improve."

They found that improvement the past two weeks. And with the Raiders' next four opponents having a combined record of just 19-25 in the Chargers (6-5), Los Angeles Rams (3-8), Patriots (6-5) and Pittsburgh Steelers (4-7), maybe the way Las Vegas has taken advantage of the opportunities thrown its way the past two weeks is affirmation of McDaniels' philosophy of dripping water on a rock over time to "hope something sprouts."

"Part of the process is how you handle adversity," McDaniels said. "And I think it's probably one of the things that I've matured in the most over many, many years ... just understanding how you have to respond to that and how you need to act in the moment.

"The temperature inside the building never really changed. We just continued to be consistent."

Patience is what Davis leaned on when he offered his support to McDaniels in the wake of the 2-7 start.

"You either win, or improve," McDaniels said this week. "We've earned the results we've received the last two weeks. But I think we all know we could have earned some different results earlier in the season had we done things right."

He didn't wink when he said it, either.

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