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NFL

The Raiders Cannot Defeat December

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - DECEMBER 17: Wide receiver Tyron Johnson #83 of the Los Angeles Chargers celebrates after scoring a 26-yard touchdown against Daryl Worley #36 of the Las Vegas Raiders during the first half of their game at Allegiant Stadium on December 17, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Chargers defeated the Raiders 30-27 in overtime. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

While Comrade Ley strolls and trolls around Jon Gruden’s headwear, the deeper and therefore shallower dive here concerns the seemingly annual celebration of the Raiders’ playoff chances tanking to Patriot and Cowboy levels as proof that Al Davis’s celestial war against the holidays is going no better than his terrestrial war did. In other words, Santa still be kickin’ that ass.

In losing an overtime game Thursday night to a team coached by Anthony Lynn, the Raiders went from being nearly a lock for a playoff berth on Thanksgiving to nearly a lock to miss the playoffs again. Put another way, going from 87 percent to two percent is quite the achievement, and giving up 180 points in those five games is a devotion to dereliction of duty we can all admire in these can’t-get-off-the-couch times. Their defense has been the failure point this year, and that has been addressed by Gruden firing defensive coordinator Paul Guenther on three days’ notice. But it fails to take into account that the franchise’s persistently futile efforts to have the season end on November 30 have taken their toll.

This year, they only beat the New York Jets because the Jets’ defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, decided that everyone else has gotten it wrong in every Hail Mary situation since the birth of the forward pass, which is easily the coaching blunder of the year (followed by any four late-game performances by Lynn in Los Angeles). The Raiders have backed those up by giving up five touchdowns to Philip Rivers and another three to the Chargers, including a game-winning 75-yard drive in less than two minutes of overtime after overcoming three deficits in regulation and taking a 27-24 lead with 3:18 left to play in OT.

They are now 1-2 in December, which does not necessarily show what devoted non-finishers they are, but it is part of a greater body of work. Since 1995, a date we chose because it marks the return of the Raiders to Oakland, they are 36-75 in Santa Season, when the most important games are played. It certainly explains why they have fewer playoff appearances in that span than any other team that has played all 25 years.

A year ago, they were 6-4 and finished 7-9. In 2017, they were 6-6, finished 6-10 and fired Jack Del Rio. In 2015, they were 4-3 and finished 7-9. In 2011, they were 7-4, finished 8-8 and fired Hue Jackson. In 2010, they were 5-4, finished 8-8 and fired Tom Cable. Three other times they actually closed strong, and the rest of the time sucked from the opening flyover. In sum, that 23-36 mark is not just well-merited but explains so much of what the Raiders have become—a team that does three-quarter seasons if they do any at all.

But Gruden was brought in to effect change across the board of this long-ago-proud-ship-gone-mothballed, and in this seemingly valuable phase of the game, he has his own issues. Last night’s loss, which cost him his most successful reclamation project in Derek Carr, dropped his own December record to 23-36 over 14 years with either Las Vegas, Oakland or Tampa. This would rank him only slightly higher than the Raiders and the Detroit Lions.

The franchise’s December futility run covers 11 other coaches as well as Gruden, and the only two commonalities across this swath of time are (a) they have sucked on defense almost all the time, allowing more points than any other team not named the Cleveland Browns by a margin of more than 150 points, and (b) they have been either directly run or been overseen by either Al Davis or his gigantic stadium pyre.

This may seem unfair in that it lets Mark Davis off the proverbial stocking hook, but he has not been what we would call active on the football front save hiring Gruden, a weird paternal that we haven’t the psychoanalytical background to plumb. But this was one of those rare seasons in which the Raiders seemed prepared to overcome their programming. Jets/Colts/Chargers didn’t look all that daunting, and Dolphins/Broncos to close out the year was very doable, even though the Denver game was going to happen in January, in which they are 6-10. They were 6-3, they had beaten Kansas City, New Orleans, and Cleveland (aggregate record, 31-8) and they held playoff tiebreakers over Baltimore, Cleveland, Miami and Tennessee. Today, they have the same chances of playing a 17th game as reduced fat milk.

And it’s all apparently because Al Davis got sideways with Santa Claus (we’d say the baby Jesus, but we are devotedly non-sectarian, plus the baby Jesus hates football). It’s the only explanation available, unless you believe the Raiders lose the plot every November and just decide to process away yet another season. This isn’t their worst December ever, but it’s in the running, and but for Gregg Williams and his brain bubbles it would be in much stronger contention. That’s something to ruin the gift-giving next Friday morning at the Davis household: knowing they NEEDED Gregg Williams. One’s skin rolls up like a cartoon window shade just considering it.