Updated June 25, 2020 - 1:16 pm
In Jon Gruden’s first run as their coach, the Raiders made a big turnaround in his third season. After two straight 8-8 finishes, the team went 12-4 in 2000 to capture the AFC West championship.
Fast-forward 20 years and Gruden and the Raiders are again heading into their third season together. Coming off two rebuilding seasons in which they went a combined 12-23, history could repeat itself with another big step forward.
One major difference: Patrick Mahomes and the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs were not in the picture in 2000. For the Raiders to duplicate another third-year Gruden turnaround and win a division title, it would probably require the Chiefs taking an unexpected tumble.
So, rather than making a serious run at a division title, the Raiders can more realistically target a second-place finish and a spot in the expanded playoffs. With the NFL postseason going from 12 to 14 teams and each conference sending one more team, three non-division-winning teams will qualify each year.
The Raiders should strive to be one of those teams.
Here is how we see the AFC West stacking up:
First place — Kansas City Chiefs
2019 record: 12-4
Projected 2020 record: 13-3
Comment: The Chiefs aren’t going anywhere for a while. That is a reality the rest of the division has to accept. Mahomes hasn’t reached his prime yet and he is already the best quarterback in the NFL and operates one of the league’s most potent and creative offenses. Yes, there could be some Super Bowl hangover and it’s possible there will be a tad less motivation, but realistically, the Chiefs are set up for a long run.
Second place — Las Vegas Raiders
2019 record: 7-9
Projected 2020 record: 9-7
Comment: After the Chiefs, it gets pretty interesting trying to figure out the second-best team in the division. While the national perception is that the Raiders are headed for a last-place finish, it would not be a shock if they took a big step forward and make a legitimate run at the playoffs.
Working in the Raiders’ favor: Derek Carr going into his third straight season in Gruden’s offense. In contrast, the Los Angeles Chargers have a new quarterback in Tyrod Taylor — who seems to be just a bridge to rookie Justin Herbert — and the Denver Broncos are making the full-time switch to second-year quarterback Drew Lock, who made just five starts last year.
The quarterback continuity afforded by Carr, especially after such a turbulent offseason, gives the Raiders a big edge on the Chargers and Broncos. Coupled with the addition of rookies Henry Ruggs, Lynn Bowden and Bryan Edwards to an offense that accumulated the 11th-most yards in the NFL, Carr and the Raiders are primed for a productive season. The Raiders have plenty of questions to answer on defense. But a slew of newcomers put them in position to make a big turnaround.
Third place — Los Angeles Chargers
2019 record: 5-11
2020 record: 8-8
Comment: The Chargers don’t lack for talent. No one in the division has this team’s defensive star power, with holdover standouts such as Joey Bosa, Derwin James and Melvin Ingram, let alone newcomers such as veteran cornerback Chris Harris and rookie linebacker Kenneth Murray.
The concern is on offense, where Taylor is taking over for longtime starter Philip Rivers. Plus, running back Melvin Gordon has left for the Broncos. Taylor is capable of providing solid, game-manager-type production, and perhaps that is all the Chargers need to push for a second-place finish. But somewhere along the line, he will have to carry the Chargers, and there is no guarantee Taylor will be able to do that.
Fourth place — Denver Broncos
2019 record: 7-9
Projected 2020 record: 6-10
Comment: The Broncos are a real wild card. So much is riding on Lock making significant strides in his second season. Maybe he’ll do exactly that and Denver will emerge as a playoff threat as the AFC West runner-up.
But there simply isn’t enough evidence to support that theory. He was merely OK in his five starts last year while completing 64.1 percent of his passes for 1,020 yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions. And just as he showed in college, Lock has a tendency to lose his mechanics when he senses pressure. Expect defenses to put heat on him to try to force off-balance, ill-advised throws.
Lock certainly has plenty of arm strength and is an accurate thrower. But nothing about his first season suggests a dramatic step forward in 2020. More likely, he will be inconsistent against defenses that are game-planning for him, which should result in big struggles.