Think of predicting how the NFL season will play out as present-day cursive writing. No one has a clue what they’re looking at.
Mike Mayock of the Raiders is like any general manager in that Week 1 is sure to bring a level of apprehension. Now include preparations affected by COVID-19. The shield is a total mystery.
“I believe that sports in general, and football in particular — what did Bill Parcells say? — ‘You are what you represent you are,’” Mayock said. “We expect to get better. We’ve worked our tails off. But it’s got to show up on the field and there are no excuses, COVID or not.
“I hate to go back to old school football — I feel like my dad — but the bottom line is, all we care about right now is the Carolina Panthers. There are no conversations in this building about divisional foes or where we fit in the hierarchy of the game. It’s all about the Carolina Panthers.”
Hired to win
The Raiders will know far more about themselves Sept. 13 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, the second season opener with Mayock as general manager. He was hired in December of 2018 to join coach Jon Gruden’s reconstruction project.
Hired off a television screen to improve a franchise that has turned into a ghost when playoff berths are earned each year. Hired with no front office experience and yet the reputation as one with elite knowledge as to which college players best translate to the professional level.
Several new faces — both rookies and veterans alike — drafted and signed by the Mayock-Gruden duo this past off season have created a sense of optimism within the halls of a pristine practice facility in Henderson. A belief that a 6-4 team and in the playoff race last season before suffering a collapse the size of Allegiant Stadium can sustain success longer in 2020.
In this way, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of the Carolina game.
Just one of 16? Hardly. Gauging the ability of any team right now in which there are no preseason games is like knocking over all those rigged milk bottles at a carnival. Good luck with that.
But for a side that follows its opener with games against New Orleans, New England, Buffalo, Kansas City and you-know-who with Tampa Bay, the Raiders would be smart to hold up their end as a slight favorite in Carolina.
The tricky part will be knowing anything about the Panthers beyond the fact running back Christian McCaffrey is sort of good at football.
Carolina has a new head coach in Matt Rhule, straight from the sidelines of Baylor University. New staff. New philosophy. New quarterback (Teddy Bridgewater). Pretty much new everything.
“I think it’s less important that I know (about the Panthers) and more important that our coaching staff knows,” Mayock said. “It’s a huge challenge for them. You start to try to meld all of that together to guess what you might be seeing.
“I know Matt Rhule really well. I lived in Philly when he was at Temple. I used to speak to his teams. It’s a huge challenge for any team Week 1, but when you’re talking about a college coach coming in, some pro coaches, other college coaches, a new personnel, I think our staff has one of the toughest challenges in Week 1.”
The Raiders also have a mighty big one beforehand.
It’s one thing to evaluate young players on film. It’s another to see them live and at full-speed on the field. How do they react when formations get tight? How much added responsibility can they handle? How seamlessly do they blend with veterans?
This is where the elimination of preseason games will not only impact the Raiders, but all NFL teams. You won’t really know what you have until things kick off for real and that, as much as anything, makes for some anxious moments in a general manager’s office.
“If you can give a coach or a GM a compliment, the highest compliment you can give them is your kids compete,” Mayock said. “And that’s what I think we’re seeing. We believe we’re slowly getting to where we want to go.”
For now, it’s all cursive writing.
Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at email@example.com 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.