OAKLAND, Calif. — At the risk of sounding entirely unhinged — who am I kidding, have you watched how things have gone for the Raiders lately? — Jon Gruden’s team faces a must-win scenario when opening its season against Denver on Monday night at RingCentral Coliseum.
I know. That notion is loopy as all get-out. There isn’t such a thing in the NFL. The opener is just the first of 16 games in a regular season that lasts until after Santa has consumed his share of stale cookies and month-old milk.
I mean, the Browns got thrashed by Tennessee on Sunday and isn’t Cleveland winning the Super Bowl?
Or so we’ve been told (a lot).
An opening game is merely the beginning to a long and difficult and tiresome football journey.
Fine. The Raiders still need to win.
For nothing else, it would signal a positive first act to move past the drama that was Antonio Brown, a near seven-month relationship between All-Pro wide receiver and team that brought far too much attention to areas other than the most critical: improving the culture and talent of what has been a losing franchise for some time now.
“There’s going to be a lot of opportunities to feel like there is some distractions here, but we’ve been through this for a while,” Gruden said. “We are playing Monday night, and we are going to play 53 or 47 guys, and we are going to be ready to go.”
The reported theories about what led to Brown’s release on Saturday — the latest being that the player sought the advice of social media experts on how to accelerate his being cut — won’t go away any time soon.
Brown is trending giant right now. He’s a click-bait windfall.
But while he’s now with the Patriots and out-of-sight for the Raiders, he also needs to be out-of-mind for a team that hopes to vastly improve on last season’s 4-12 record.
They need to move on from him in every conceivable way.
I’m just not sure how extensive any progress will be for a team that faces by far the league’s most demanding schedule when it comes to logistics and travel.
Gruden has admitted to becoming claustrophobic during flights, meaning the team better form a solid support group to aid the coach through the following: The Raiders travel a total of 32,023 miles this season, or more than the Bills, Giants and Jets combined.
After opening against the Broncos and then high-scoring Kansas City on Sept. 15, the Raiders won’t play another home game until Week 8 against Detroit. In between, they will travel more 21,000 miles over 49 days, including a trip to London for the second straight year.
The Jets travel 6,730 miles … all season.
So while beating the Broncos on Monday likely won’t be the start of a run that eventually ends in the playoffs — I’m thinking 7-9 might be the absolute peak of a mark the Raiders can reach — losing the opener could absolutely lead to an early drowning.
Or, put another way, do you really want to be the team that is 0-1 with Patrick Mahomes on deck and then faces five straight games away from home?
Over 30 new faces
Consider: As loud as things have been for the Raiders, Denver arrives to the 2019 season having made few headlines beyond a new coach (Vic Fangio) and quarterback (Joe Flacco). The Broncos were also 6-10 last season and are hardly considered AFC West contenders alongside Kansas City and the Chargers.
The Raiders need to win Monday for a host of reasons, but mostly because they absolutely can.
“I took a look at last year’s 53 (man roster) before Week 1, and we have over 30 guys on the 53 now that were not on that roster,” said general manager Mike Mayock. “There’s been significant change. Eight of our nine draft picks are on the roster. I think we have four undrafted free agents.
“I think we’re excited because we kind of feel like what we hoped to accomplish eight months ago when (Gruden) and I sat down together and talked about it was to get younger, more athletic and the right kind of mentality in this building. We think we’ve been pretty consistent with that. We’re real excited about the guys on this roster.”
We know who isn’t on it.
Win on Monday, and it’s a first positive act past the drama.
Contact columnist Ed Graney 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.