Almost immediately after settling into his postgame media zoom conference after the Raiders embarrassing 43-6 loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, Derek Carr conjured up every bit of leadership he could muster and, in a blast befitting the arm sleeve he wears in tribute to the late Kobe Bryant, he let the Raiders have it.
In doing so he drew a line in the sand that, depending on what side the Raiders operate on over the next five weeks, will set the tone for their playoff push.
“I didn’t think, personally, we had our best week of practice,” Carr said, expressing disappointment in how he and his teammates went about their business leading up to the Falcons game.
The Raiders’ quarterback pointed to the flat atmosphere he sensed throughout the practice facility. It was in stark contrast to the typically high-level focus and accountability a young, rebuilding team has established for itself this year.
“Our week of practice was not to the standard that we have set,” Carr said.
In hindsight, that failure made what happened against the Falcons almost inevitable. The lack of investment by the Raiders resulted in a predictable return. They were beaten at every level, committed five turnovers and were flagged for 11 penalties for a whopping 141 yards.
The harsh lesson came at a steep price. By losing to the Falcons, the Raiders surrendered their spot in the AFC playoff picture. If the season ended today, they would be on the outside looking in at the postseason.
It was a painful reminder of what can happen if you don’t approach the work week correctly. The Monday through Saturday process typically determines the Sunday result. A young Raiders team learned that the hard way against the Falcons.
“There’s a level of commitment in our locker room we’re still trying to consistently find,” Raiders fullback Alec Ingold said. “We have leaders and we have really good players, but weeks like last week show our youth.”
On one hand, the backward step is understandable. The constant shadow created by COVID-19 has created a year like none other, going all the way back to the offseason, and it’s resulted in almost a daily barrage of challenges.
The Raiders have gone entire weeks with significant segments of their lineup unable to practice. Their starting offensive line and seven members of their defense weren’t allowed in the facility in the days leading up to a pair of big games while completing COVID-19 protocols, only to be reinstated just a few hours before kickoff.
Over the last two games, starting defensive end Cle Ferrell and slot cornerback Lamarcus Joyner were unavailable while on the COVID-19 reserve list.
The constant question of who is available and who isn’t has been a major disruption. When added to all the operational changes due to COVID-19 — professionally and personally — it makes sense there might be some mental slippage from time to time.
But as Carr pointed out — and Ingold reiterates — the current situation demands even more focus, not less.
“I know it’s a crazy time for all of these guys, but it’s really a gut check for teams that want to be here,” Ingold said.
This isn’t about coaching or game plans, Carr and Ingold maintained, it’s the players being laser-focused on a day-to-day basis.
In publicly pointing out the disappointment with the Raiders’ work week ahead of the Falcons game, Ingold and Carr aren’t singling out any particular player. But they are delivering a clear message about the grave consequences a similar approach will have.
“Whatever we did last week will not work,” Ingold said. “Now or in the playoffs. So we just can’t do it anymore.”
Making sure that doesn’t happen again begins on Wednesday when the Raiders report back to work at their Henderson practice facility. In an ironic twist, up next is the same New York Jets team that curb-stomped the Raiders in Week 11 last year to ignite a late-season swoon that saw them lose five of their last six games to fall short of the playoffs.
Once again, the Raiders will be venturing to the East Coast to play an inferior team in blustery weather conditions in a game with major playoff implications.
They failed the same exact test last year and never quite recovered. Their performance on Sunday against the Falcons creates anxiety about a repeat swoon this year. Avoiding that requires a return to the commitment level the Raiders created over the first 10 weeks of the season. And that begins well before kickoff.
“It’s a good opportunity to show how much better we are this year compared to last year,” said Ingold. “To play a game in about the same scenario. How do we prepare? How do we show up for the game? How do we find a way to win? I think this next week is really going to show character and poise and team commitment levels.”
It will set the tone for the next five weeks.
“Everyone says champs don’t lose in December leading up to the playoffs,” Ingold said. “Well, we have about five playoff games before the real ones start.”