Raiders at Early Crossroads, Must Rally During Season-defining Stretch

MINNEAPOLIS – The Raiders suffered some setbacks early last season and immediately went into the tank. They had an incoming talent deficiency, but the Khalil Mack trade started an avalanche that swept that team asunder.

They were outmanned and outclassed, leading to a 1-8 start that had fans talking NFL draft by midseason. Veteran stopgaps quickly tuned out, and either were traded or cut as the team skewed younger as the season carried on.

The Raiders chose to tear the whole thing down and rebuild, a multi-year effort that started in earnest this offseason. Head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock set out to upgrade this year's group in terms of talent and veteran leadership, and largely were successful in that endeavor.

The Raiders weren't supposed to be great in 2019, but they were expected to be better. Sunday's 34-14 loss to Minnesota calls that notion into question. The Silver and Black got worked by a superior team, and it wasn't due to a series of mistakes or coaching innovations. They got beat the old fashioned way, by a solid ground game and a sure-tackling defense that denied explosive plays.

It happened at the start of a five-game stretch played away from Oakland, one that could define the entire season. Struggle through this stretch and the Raiders could be in a similar spot to last season, stuck in a huge hole that kills hope during the team's last year in the Bay Area.

This team is built of stronger stuff, with more mettle in the ranks. Will it be able to avoid similar results?

"No, I think we're more of a close-knit team," linebacker Tahir Whitehead said. "I'm not seeing it and neither do I want to see it. And that's why I just put that in guys' minds, look, we're too good of a team to experience what we experienced last year, another losing season. I think for a long time around here it's been losing season after losing season.

"We have the team to get back on track, we have the team to get things rolling. We have an explosive offense to go out there and put points up and we have a tough defense to go out there and keep the points down and keep teams out of the end zone. And the special teams group, they're fast. You put on that tape, they're fast, they're physical. We just have to play a complete game of football top to bottom from start to finish, all three phases."

That needs to happen next week against a tough Indianapolis Colts team that didn't lie down and die after Andrew Luck's retirement.

It's entirely possible the Raiders rebound well, especially after Sunday's postgame locker room environment. The Raiders were upset by what happened in Minneapolis, with defenders especially holding others accountable for game-defining mistakes. There was a healthy dialogue between veterans about what needs to get fixed, between Whitehead and Josh Mauro, between Lamarcus Joyner and Vontaze Burfict. Some of these guys aren't used to losing, and they want to right the ship quickly to avoid a losing skid that takes them out of contention.

"The moment we start doing that and we all start clicking, that's when we're going to start playing our best football," Whitehead said. "And until then, until guys take on the ship in their work and take pride in their work, it's not going to happen. And we're too good of a team to allow that to happen."

This year's Raiders have suffered some early setbacks, just like last year's group. Antonio Brown's exit was a big deal, even if the team was justified in cutting ties with the mercurial talent now on the street after getting cut by the New England Patriots.

The Silver and Black are worse without him, lacking the explosive playmaker that can single-handedly change games.

That was evident Sunday, when they stood no chance of coming back after falling into an early hole. The Raiders did exactly what you can't do against a rugged Vikings team. They fell behind early, on the road, against a team that plays old-school football.

"Once they get a lead it's tough, man, very tough," quarterback Derek Carr said. "We obviously could have played better, and I could break down everything, but at the end of the day, you get down like that against that team, it's going to be hard to fight back."

[RELATED: Grading Raiders's offense, defense in blowout loss to Vikings]

Games like this happen, even to good teams. Strong ones don't let individual setbacks turn into losing skids. The Raiders have to do avoid that at all costs, and rally during the practice week.

"It is not getting any easier for us, but I do not think that the guys in this locker room are looking for easy," tight end Darren Waller said. "They are looking to take that road that is tough as possible because that will bring the best out of us. It will bring the worst out of us sometimes, but in the end, it will push that all out and bring out the best in us. We are looking to forward playing a football game next week and just getting back at it."

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