Here’s a link to my Tuesday Raiders column. The full text runs below:
The Raiders are almost on the point of almost being a playoff team — wild card to be precise. They have played 11 games and usually, at the 11-game mark of a season, are out of contention. The players have contacted Bekins for the move back home and the team is playing out the string. Whatever the string is.
Not this season. The Raiders have a modest 5-6 record, are riding a modest one-game winning streak — if one win can be considered a streak. It’s more like a dab. With a few more wins, the Raiders can eliminate the word “almost,” and they can be for-real contenders.
Long time since the Oakland Raiders have mattered on Dec. 1. Good for them and good for their rebuilding program and for their owner and general manager and coach and good for the players.
Four teams in their conference have 6-5 records, precede the Raiders in the wild-card lineup. And that means the Raiders still are standing on the street on a cold day peering through the frosted window into the candy store wanting Chunky bars and Mounds and Three Musketeers. They want them all.
Starting Sunday, they get a chance to push open the door, walk into the shop and indulge. The Kansas City Chiefs are coming to Oakland. The Chiefs started the season 1-5 and have won five in a row and are one of the teams ahead of the Raiders for a wild-card spot. Beat the Chiefs, and the Raiders and KC both are 6-6 and the Raiders could be in business.
The Raiders quarterback, Derek Carr, is a rising talent in the league, his passes so precise, his nerve unquestioned, his leadership developing at an advanced rate. He and his offense showed heart and guts taking down the Titans at the very end last Sunday, taking them down in the rain and on the road.
But the Raiders defense is among the lowest-ranked in the league, needs to show it can hold its own. The degree of difficulty the Raiders defense faces against Alex Smith and the Chiefs offense is enormous. Possibly do-able. We’ll find out.
So, you bet this is a defining game. It defines if the Raiders can keep moving on, or if they move away – out of the picture.
That brings us to coach Jack Del Rio, who held his weekly news conference on a gray Monday afternoon at the Raiders’ silver and black headquarters. His personality is opaque. I don’t have a clue what he’s thinking. Nothing wrong with opaque. He keeps things in, is his own man, self-reliant. He is the strong silent type you read about in Hemingway.
Here’s a sampling of his news conference. Read these quotes for what they contain. That’s the point. But also read them for a read on Del Rio. For who he is and how he is.
Someone asked about the Raiders’ playoff chances. “It’s pretty hard to do anything more than one day at a time and one game at a time,” he said, launching into full cliché mode. “So, we’re going to look to be 1-0 this week and then worry about next week next week. For right now, let’s be 1-0 this week.”
In a sense, you want to die when you hear words like those. But only in a sense. Because even though you’ve heard this Coach Speak a million times, it still contains wisdom. The game after the KC game won’t matter so much if the Raiders lose to the Chiefs. Del Rio surely was saying he wants the goals to be specific and brief and manageable. The Raiders can’t play all five remaining games at once.
OK, we get that and appreciate it, even if it’s boring.
I asked, “What impresses you about this team’s growth?” Del Rio said: “It’s really not time to stand back and be impressed about anything as much as it is time to recognize, yeah, some of the things that have been good, but most importantly, some of the things that need to be better going forward.”
I asked, “Can you be specific about some of the things that have improved?” Del Rio said, “Yeah, I can be, but I’d prefer to move on to what we need to do better.”
I asked, “Can you name one thing you need to do better?” Del Rio said, “I’d say run the ball better. We’ve got to be more consistent running the ball. And I think defensively, really avoiding having those lapses where you allow somebody to go down the field and score.”
Think about all that. Strong silent Del Rio preferred to talk about what the team doesn’t do well. Refused to praise. Maybe he’s not a praiser. Non-praisers do exist. Or maybe Del Rio is a praiser, but he’s withholding praise to keep the pressure off his young, inexperienced players. Trying to keep the expectations modest, in proportion. Trying to deflect the pressure. I have no idea — maybe you can tell me.
He has reasons for tamping down the pressure. The Raiders are promising but vulnerable. After the Chiefs, they get the Broncos and Packers and Chargers (no big deal that team) and then the Chiefs again. Any sane man wouldn’t rush into thinking ahead to those games. Think about them too soon and Del Rio could go crazy.
Here’s one more Del Rio quote, came late in the interview: “For us, everything that we’d like to accomplish, for the most part, is in front of us. A lot of football left. Five big games left. An opportunity to play our best football down the stretch is in front of us and we’re going to need to because we have a heck of a challenge, starting with the Chiefs.”
For a moment, he slipped out of character, looked ahead, gloried in the golden opportunity, the pure promise ahead of him, everything right there, available, graspable.
For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at firstname.lastname@example.org.