The 12-year expanse since his collapse with the Denver Broncos? Humbling. Realizing all the things he had mishandled during his first foray as a head coach? Humbling. Recognizing that he didn’t have to try and replicate the Bill Belichick experience? Having Mark Davis put the future of the Raiders completely in his hands?
Humbling, on all counts.
Four months later, humbling has devolved into humiliating. The Raiders are now 2-7 and McDaniels just suffered what is likely the worst loss of the 24 on his head coaching résumé. This particular defeat coming at the hands of the spiraling Indianapolis Colts, who rolled out Jeff Saturday as their leading man — despite having no coaching experience at the highest levels of football — and still managed to knock of the Raiders.
This moment is something lower and different than anything before it. It’s an inflection point worse than the 3-9 record McDaniels had in 2010, which ultimately got him fired during the season with the Broncos. At least in that failure, the head coaches he faced across the field all had legitimate résumés that ushered them onto the sideline. They had weeks or months or years of experience to prepare for McDaniels.
But Jeff Saturday? He was hired six days before he faced McDaniels and the Raiders. On Tuesday, he didn’t know who his offensive play-caller or starting quarterback would be. Yet he took a wrecked offense and outgained McDaniels’ unit 415 yards to 309 while looking remarkably competent, with an offensive line that couldn’t protect and a fading quarterback in Matt Ryan who had been benched weeks ago.
The loss was so devastating and frustrating that starting quarterback Derek Carr, a Raider to his core, mustered a postgame media conference essentially through tears. All while teetering back and forth on his feet and seemingly indicating that not everyone in the organization seemed to care about how a playoff roster one season ago had fallen into total disrepair and collapse.
“I’m sorry for being emotional,” Carr said. “I’m just pissed off. Some of the things that a lot of us try to do just to practice, what we put our bodies through just to sleep at night, and for that to be the result of all that effort? It pisses me off. It pisses a lot of guys off. It’s hard knowing what some guys are doing, like I said, just to practice, what they’re putting in their body just to sleep at night. Like, just so we can be there for each other. And I wish everybody in that room felt the same way about this place. And as a leader that pisses me off, if I’m being honest.”
Carr should be pissed off. Because when it comes to the four cornerstones of a football team (owner, general manager, head coach and starting quarterback), he’s unquestionably the most vulnerable piece as this all goes off the rails. Team owner Mark Davis can’t be fired. General manager Dave Ziegler shouldn’t be fired. And McDaniels, because of the money still owed on his contract and the cash-poor ownership, is almost certainly not getting the axe after only one season.
That means when the blame all comes down for this, it’s going in predictable directions whether it’s deserved or not: defensive coordinator Patrick Graham and Carr, whose horribly done three-year extension from last offseason left the Raiders with the ability to exit the deal after one year and a dead cap hit of only $5.6 million.
That number makes Carr ripe for an offseason trade in a market that should be interested. Because he’s not the primary problem here. What is? Well, if we’re being fair, part of what’s happening now is injuries. Part of it is a roster that should have had far more core talent in place if not for so many disastrous drafts of the past few seasons. But an undeniable part of this is also McDaniels having sold himself — not to mention the franchise owner and the fan base — on this season being a pivot rather than a moderate rebuild.
The offensive line was going to be an issue all season long. That was understood and grudgingly accepted once reality sank in during training camp. But so many other parts of this team should have been better, especially after trading for Davante Adams and signing Chandler Jones. Yet the offense was too fragile to overcome wideout Hunter Renfrow and tight end Darren Waller never being right. The defense has lacked chemistry. The coaching and leadership has never been able to get over the hump in close games, losing six by a touchdown or less.
If this had been sold as something that was going to be a re-tooling, that might be acceptable. But it wasn’t. And in the end, it looks like McDaniels hasn’t been able to win games by replicating the razor-thin percentage points of advantage that often kept New England ahead of opponents. It’s a problem because while it made sense to augment the Patriots’ design in some ways in his second shot at a head coaching job, one of the traits that never should have fallen short is those detail-oriented advantages. You just don’t see that in this Raiders start.
So what does all this mean now? Well, it means a numbers game is coming. It means that the 31-year-old Carr and the two remaining years of his contract don’t make sense if 2-7 ultimately translates into 4-13 and a top-five draft pick. It means that the larger rebuild that should have happened last offseason now needs to begin in earnest. That means playing the young players who might have a shot of sticking around, figuring out which veterans and salaries can be shouldered through the transition, and lining up the handful of destinations that make sense for Carr when it comes time to trade him after the season.
Is all of that ideal? No. Is it fair to Carr or Adams? Absolutely not. But it’s reality. The Raiders are broken. The record and the wavering disappointment of the quarterback says as much. And firing the head coach after one season is entirely unlikely, no matter how much that upsets the fan base.
McDaniels is humbled and humiliated and here for a longer haul than nine games. The sooner the Raiders come to grips with that, the easier it will be to solve the multitude of problems that remain with him moving forward.