The Raiders are hitting the early part of a schedule everyone viewed as difficult to begin the season. They are doing so with an offense that is both hurting and conservative.
One may logically follow the other, but the result Sunday was a 30-23 loss to Buffalo in a yet-again empty Allegiant Stadium.
The Bills are 4-0 and headed toward a third playoff appearance in four years. They’re legit. The Raiders are 2-2. They want to be and aren’t yet. Buffalo made winning plays. Las Vegas made the kind that doesn’t allow you to win.
It’s impossible to ignore those critical fumbles by quarterback Derek Carr and tight end Darren Waller that killed Las Vegas drives. Or that Josh Jacobs managed just 48 yards against a Bills run defense that suddenly decided to play like a Bills run defense.
But it’s not as if Raiders head coach Jon Gruden was a gambling man rolling a winning dice score. He could have pushed the envelope more. He barely attached a stamp.
The idea of not taking many chances is easy to understand on one level. The Raiders were down starting rookie wide receivers Henry Ruggs and Bryan Edwards to injury. One starting offensive lineman (Richie Incognito) is on injured reserve and who in the world knows what’s happening with starting tackle Trent Brown and what appears to be the most mysterious calf injury in the history of calf injuries.
Brown played just three snaps of the season opener at Carolina. He hadn’t done anything before. He hasn’t done anything since.
If there aren’t some coaches and teammates incredibly frustrated by the player Las Vegas made the highest paid offensive lineman in history last year, this team doesn’t have a pulse. And it does. Many are rightly irritated at Brown.
Injuries can dictate play-calling. They can limit how you attack a defense. The Raiders took some deep shots. Not near enough again. Carr still checked down when trying to mount a comeback. The Raiders tend to play a 14-point deficit like it’s a tie game.
When you’re playing a team that averages 31 points and made a game-opening touchdown drive appear easier than addressing that envelope Gruden wouldn’t push, you have to at some point embrace an unorthodox approach.
“We don’t have a lot of time to stand back there and survey the defense,” Gruden said. “We scored 23 points and had points called back on an alignment (penalty) in a formation we have been in 1,000 times. We played pretty good at times on offense — with our fourth different right tackle and third different left guard and a number of new receivers … We tried to stay aggressive.”
Analytics over the last decade or so have shown a vast increase in NFL coaches going for it on fourth down with five or fewer yards to gain, especially in an opponent’s territory. Last year, teams went for it in those situations 26 percent of the time. That’s the highest rate in 20 years.
Coaches not of this mindset need to rethink whatever is printed on those laminated sheets they drag around. If you need a field goal in the final seconds to win, fine. That wasn’t the case Sunday.
Gruden didn’t much care to join the go-for-it club with his team twice in scoring position, sending kicker Daniel Carlson out on fourth-and-2 from the Buffalo 36 in the first quarter and fourth-and-2 from the Buffalo 7 in the third. You can — and should — make the argument that the first decision was far more egregious, given a 54-yard attempt is hardly a gimme.
Carlson made it, though, and again from 25 on the second no-go call from Gruden. The Raiders did go for it on fourth-and-1 from the 7 and down 30-16 with 1:41 remaining. I should hope so.
“You kick yourself, but we were in that football game,” he said. “We only punted one time. We knew we could move (the ball). Unfortunately, we didn’t score enough.”
Hurting and conservative. Not a winning combination on Sunday.
Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.