On the Miami Dolphins’ against-all-odds, game-winning drive Saturday night at Allegiant Stadium, the Raiders were scrambling to fill a key secondary position and playing without the help of the defensive backfield coaching staff.
Such is life for the Raiders and every other team in the NFL during a season impacted by COVID-19.
Trailing 25-23 with 19 seconds remaining and the ball on their 25-yard line, Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick completed a 34-yard pass to Mack Hollins on first down that carried to the Raiders’ 41-yard line.
On that play, Isaiah Johnson, a reserve cornerback in just his second season, was lined up at safety for the Raiders. He was only playing safety because Saturday’s starter, Dallin Leavitt, suffered an injury earlier in the game.
In addition, the Raiders’ coaching ranks were so depleted with the loss of defensive backs coach Jim O’Neil and assistant Taver Johnson — both of whom missed the game because of COVID-19 — that general manager Mike Mayock, a former college and NFL defensive back, was in the coaching booth lending a hand. Backup safety Jeff Heath, who is on the injured reserve list, was also pressed into coaching duty.
Leavitt has dressed out in just eight games this season. In fact, he was starting only because Erik Harris, the normal free safety, was put on the COVID-19 list last week along with his backup, Daryl Worley, who was signed by the Raiders just two weeks ago.
As a result, Johnson was pressed into duty as an emergency replacement. And his understandable inexperience was immediately evident on the Fitzpatrick throw to Hollins.
Lined up on the deep right side in support of cornerback Damon Arnette, Johnson mistakenly rolled to his left shortly after the snap of the ball thinking Fitzpatrick was throwing to the middle of the field. That left Hollins wide open along the sideline after he ran by Arnette, who thought Johnson was behind him to pick up coverage.
On the Dolphins’ final drive, the Raiders merely needed to make one, maybe two tackles inbounds and they win the game.
The Dolphins, though, were gifted a miracle — the pass from Fitzpatrick to Hollins and a facemask penalty on Raiders defensive end Arden Key that tacked on an additional 15 yards, moving the ball to the Raiders’ 26-yard line.
Hollins was also able to get out of bounds on his reception and stop the clock with 12 seconds remaining. Not that that really mattered, considering the facemask penalty on Key also would have stopped the clock. He twisted Fitzpatrick’s helmet so severely he couldn’t see where he was throwing the ball.
Then, after an incomplete pass left six seconds on the clock, Jason Sanders kicked a 44-yard field goal to give the 10-5 Dolphins an improbable 26-25 victory that kept their playoff hopes alive.
Not long after, the 7-8 Raiders were solemnly walking off the field after suffering their fifth loss over the last six games, after thinking they had put the game away just a few moments before.
“It’s a terrible way to lose a game,” Gruden said.
“This one might be the hardest,” said Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, who has seen his share of disastrous losses over his seven years with the Raiders. “It’s a tough way to go out.”
The loss ended the Raiders’ playoff hopes and means they will finish with a non-winning season for the 17th time in the last 18 years.
“Nineteen seconds left, on your own 25-yard line with no timeouts,” Gruden mused afterward. “I’ve called plays a long time, and the probability of getting that done is remote.”
But that is exactly what happened to the Raiders on Saturday night, with a big assist from COVID-19.