ALAMEDA -- It was bound to come up eventually. After all, Antonio Brown is, despite all his warts as a human being, one of the best receivers in football.
Brown drove the Raiders to release him earlier this month. An offseason of crazy that culminated in an altercation with general manager Mike Mayock and a subsequent fine that voided the guaranteed money in Brown's contract led the receiver to demand his release. At their wit's end, the Raiders released Brown, who had a cup of coffee with the Patriots before being ejected after 11 days in Foxboro.
The Raiders responded to the loss of Brown by an adrenaline-fueled Week 1 win over the Broncos, as quarterback Derek Carr sprayed the ball around in a 24-16 victory.
Since then, though, the offense has sputtered as the Raiders search for someone who can occupy the Z receiver role. The role Brown was meant to occupy.
Tyrell Williams has shifted from No. 2 option to the top guy, and even more has been thrust on the plate of tight end Darren Waller. Rookie Hunter Renfrow hasn't been great through three weeks, J.J. Nelson just returned from injury in Week 3 and the Raiders released Ryan Grant on Wednesday.
Jon Gruden admits they still are searching for a way to fill the void left by Brown's exit.
"It's caused us a little bit of re-thinking," the Raiders coach told the media Wednesday. "When you lose your starting Z who arguably is a great player, I don't think anyone would dispute that, you have to replace him. We're making an effort to move Tyrell around, we're bringing on some younger guys, J.J. Nelson also got hurt, don't forget that. Dwayne Harris got hurt. So we've had multiple things to deal with and we're dealing with it."
Over the last two weeks, the Raiders have struggled to push the ball down the field with the lack of a dynamic, big-play guy they expected Brown to be.
In their 34-14 loss to the Minnesota Vikings in Week 3, Raiders quarterback Derek Carr opened the game 3-for-4 for 7 yards, while being sacked twice and tossing an interception. By the time the Raiders got their second first down of the game, they were down 21-0.
While Carr and the Raiders make no excuses for their offensive issues over the last seven quarters of play, the hole left by Brown's departure has allowed opposing defenses to key in on Williams and force the Raiders to go to a lot of two- and three-tight end sets.
The Raiders used the offseason to prepare an offense that would feature Brown, and they have had to adapt on the fly now that he's gone.
"It's definitely different," Carr said when asked about the changes the offense has needed to make early in the season. "[Williams} has got to make different cuts, he's got to run different routes. He's got to do a lot more for us than originally was planned. We had a plan of two guys sharing a certain load of things and now we got him, J.J. is back from his injury, we got [Trevor Davis], Hunter, we are trying to figure out the right way to do it.
"And we got three really good tight ends. We're just trying to figure out how to do it. Honestly, the biggest thing is more on Tyrell. He's got more on his plate. I think you guys have talked to him and know him well enough to know he can handle it."
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Carr and Williams hooked up for touchdowns in each of the first three games, but the Raiders must find a way to get production out of receivers not named Williams and Waller.
Brown is gone, but the Raiders still are searching for a long-term solution to his absence.