The Oakland Raiders have not been to the playoffs since 2002. In that stretch, the only time the Raiders have come close to the playoffs was in 2010, when they went undefeated in the AFC West, but could not put together enough out of division wins to overcome the Chiefs and win the AFC West.
It is still early in the 2011 season, but after three games, the talk of playoffs for the Raiders has already begun, but it did not start in the place I would have expected. Rather than coming from a local Bay Area writer who comes off as biased and favoring the home team, the Raiders have been deemed a legitimate playoff contender by ESPN's KC Joyner in an Insider piece posted earlier this week.
In order to come to the conclusion that the Raiders are a legitimate playoff contender, Joyner did a detailed review of game tape and a metric analysis.After putting the Raiders under a close examination, Joyner came to the conclusion that the Raiders could easily win as many as ten games this season, and find themselves in the playoffs.
The first thing that Joyner points to is quite obvious. Darren McFadden is a beast. According to Joyner, McFadden has been as good as Jamaal Charles over the past three seasons on a game by game basis. This year, McFadden has started the season with an MVP like performance. No question having a player at any position, playing MVP caliber football is going to help you get to the playoffs.
Next, Joyner points out that Jason Campbell, who is in his second year in the same offense for the first time since high school, is looking rather impressive. Through three games, Campbell is top ten in the league in passer rating as well as Total QBR (ESPN's new system for rating a quarterback's performance). And, unlike his counterpart across the bay, this is not due to short, safe check down passes. Thirty-one percent of Campbell's throws are considered to be vertical throws, meaning they are balls thrown at least eleven yards down field.
However, perhaps most importantly, Jason Campbell has made zero bad decisions this season. Bad decisions are classified as a play where the quarterback makes a bad move with the ball, either resulting in a turnover, such as a fumble or interception, or a near turnover, such as a dropped interception or a fumble recovered by the offense. This is huge for Campbell. Taking care of the ball has never been Campbell's strong point, so his play so far has been rather impressive.
Joyner also gives credit to the offensive line unit that is allowing both Darren McFadden and Jason Campbell to succeed this season. Despite being an incredibly young line (LT Jared Veldheer is a second year player and LG Stefan Wisniewski is a rookie), the Raiders front five on offense has looked incredibly good. They have allowed a league low two sacks, and one of those sacks came as a result of Darren McFadden tripping Campbell as he went to make a block.
On top of Oakland's clearly improved offensive performance this season, Joyner also cites their defense as a reason they are a legitimate playoff contender.
He points out that from 2008 to 2010, the Raiders had the worst run defense in the NFL. This season, the Raiders have presented opposing offenses with an unfavorable blocking situation 56.8% of the time. Last season, only three teams were able to post a number above 50%, meaning the Raiders are on pace to be one of the best run defenses in the league this season.
Surprisingly, Joyner also points to an area that most would consider the Raiders biggest weakness, pass defense, as an area in which they have played well. This season the Raiders rank seventh in yards per attempt allowed, thirteenth in opposing quarterback passer rating and is one of six teams with at least ten sacks. Those statistics do not point to a dominant pass defense, but they are certainly numbers of a team capable of making the playoffs.
Next, Joyner points to Hue Jackson as a reason the Raiders should make the playoffs. As most have taken note of this season, the Raiders love playing for Hue Jackson. From his first day in Oakland, people were talking about how Jackson was a verbal coach who was always talking. Raiders fans could tell how passionate Jackson is last Sunday when he did something I have never seen an NFL head coach do. Late in the game against the Jets, Jackson turned to the crowd and started trying to pump them up. Jackson was clearly pumped up himself and his passion has rubbed off on players and fans alike.
Finally, Joyner explains that a big reason the Raiders have been able to turn the corner and start looking like a playoff contender is because of the drafting talents of Al Davis. Yes, that's right an ESPN analyst i complimenting the draft choices made by Al Davis, shocking right? We are so used to hearing outrage and shock at Davis' draft day decisions. However, as Joyner points out, Davis drafted the majority of Oakland's best players, including:
Darren McFadden, Jacoby Ford, Denarius Moore, Jared Veldheer, Stefan Wisniewski, Matt Shaughnessy, Lamaar Houston, Rolando McClain, Tyvon Branch and Michael Huff.
Clearly, the Raiders have had some big misses in the draft, but so has ever other team in the NFL. What is also clear, is that the Raiders have had a ton of success in the draft as well.
While Joyner makes an impressive argument for why the Raiders are a playoff contender, I think he missed one very simple, but also very big reason. The Raiders play in the AFC West, perhaps the weakest division in the NFL after the NFC West. The Broncos and Chiefs look dismal this year and will not likely be in the race for the AFC West crown. That leaves the San Diego Chargers as the Raiders only real opposition and the Raiders have owned the Chargers in recent years.
It's a very exciting time for the Raider Nation, it will be interesting to see how they play against the Patriots this weekend. A win would go a long way towards proving they are for real this year.