Jon Gruden's Raiders should be most desperate of 0-2 teams

Charles RobinsonNFL columnist

“I’m trying to throw the game back to 1998.”

That’s what Jon Gruden said last February at the NFL scouting combine. Right about now, that might sound like a great thing for the Oakland Raiders because the last time an NFL franchise started 0-3 and made the playoffs, it was the 1998 season – making this season the 20th anniversary of a Buffalo Bills team that dug itself out of a deep, impossible hole.

The Raiders aren’t there yet. But at 0-2, they’re on the cusp of a disastrous start to this highly anticipated Gruden reboot. They’re alongside five other abysmal 0-2 teams: the Arizona Cardinals; Buffalo Bills; Detroit Lions; Houston Texans and New York Giants. Another will also be added Monday night, when the loser of the Chicago Bears-Seattle Seahawks falls to 0-2.

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Jon Gruden is still searching for his first win since he returned to the Raiders as head coach. (AP)
Jon Gruden is still searching for his first win since he returned to the Raiders as head coach. (AP)

Like the Raiders, every one of those franchises should be locked into what this week means. And that is this: You fall to 0-3 in the NFL, your season is over for all intents and purposes. History says those teams will be playing out the season for pride, development and draft position. We know Gruden doesn’t like analytics and predictions, but he might want to consider this little bit of data: Since 2007, 10 of 91 teams (roughly 11 percent) have started 0-2 and made the playoffs. Things get considerably worse at 0-3. Since the inception of the 16-game schedule in 1978, less than 3 percent of teams that started 0-3 rebounded for a postseason berth (the 1998 Bills being the last).

For the Raiders, 0-3 would represent a different kind of black hole, where hopes and dreams and a portion of team owner Mark Davis’ bank account goes to die.

The optimism of Davis and Gruden in turning this thing around quickly has already arrived at a must-win week. Come out of Miami (2-0) with a loss and it turns the rest of 2018 into an audition for 2019. That isn’t what fans had in mind.

But that’s what you get with a defensive pass rush that has been mostly flat (and we know why) and an offense that seems to be getting outmaneuvered at halftime. You get an 0-2 start and the pieces of incremental optimism that come from following an embarrassing loss in Week 1 with a less embarrassing loss in Week 2. Quarterback Derek Carr bounced back and eliminated the dumb mistakes he made against the Los Angeles Rams, but he also managed for much of the game – albeit with remarkable efficiency and accuracy.

This is what Gruden runs in his system. He gnashes his teeth into powder over turnovers, which is why Carr is running a scheme that largely relies on short and intermediate routes, and getting the ball out as quickly as possible. There’s going to be a lot of running, a lot of short passing, and at times, a lot of complaining that the offense doesn’t rip the top off defenses and pile up points.

We’ll see if that can survive long-term in the NFL nowadays. The record will tell fans everything they need to know. Right now, 0-2 suggest there’s reason to have trepidation. But 0-3 is a whole other level of white-knuckling. The Raiders lose in Miami and there will be some significant dread in Oakland. If only because it signals that the playoffs are likely long gone, and one more season of promises before the Las Vegas move has come up empty.

Sam Bradford went 17-of-27 for 90 yards and an interception in Sunday’s blowout loss to the Rams. (Getty Images)
Sam Bradford went 17-of-27 for 90 yards and an interception in Sunday’s blowout loss to the Rams. (Getty Images)

Arizona Cardinals
Will they make the playoffs? I don’t have enough Jim Mora memes (Playoffs?!?) to answer this.

They’ve scored six points in two games. The offensive line is so poor that David Johnson will be lucky to break 1,000 rushing yards this season. Quarterback Sam Bradford looks completely uncomfortable. The offense is so distorted that it’s hard to tell if Bradford is even a starting quarterback at this point. At some juncture, the coaching staff is going to decide that he isn’t. Once that happens, this all becomes about Josh Rosen’s development. The only thing keeping Rosen out of the lineup at this stage is the fear of either hurting him behind that line or ruining him mentally. Regardless of when he’s inserted, it’s clear this is a roster in a total state of rebuilding. The record will ultimately reflect it and Arizona will be choosing high in the next draft. Looking at the schedule, it’s hard to see the Cardinals being favored in any game the rest of the season.

Buffalo Bills
Will they make the playoffs? Their odds are lower than Josh Allen’s completion percentage has ever been or will ever be. (Zero. Their odds are zero.)

It’s not often a veteran starter quits in the middle of a season. But a key player retiring after six quarters of football? That’s unheard of. Perhaps Vontae Davis knows something we don’t. Or maybe he knows exactly what we’ve known since Josh Allen was named the starter last week: this season has been sacrificed for Allen’s development. And it was always going to be that way, from the moment the Bills traded away AJ McCarron and went with Nathan Peterman as the only threat to Allen. With almost $90 million in salary cap space next offseason, this is a season that is about finding which young pieces could be extended, while shaping up the free agency and draft needs to build around Allen. Think of it along the lines of the Chicago Bears starting Mitchell Trubisky in Week 5 last season. Was he ready? No. But the Bears were 1-3 and knew the greatest upside of the season was starting full-time work with their presumed centerpiece. That’s where the Bills are now. The result is going to be a slew of sacks, a ton of inaccuracy and a generally tough growth curve for Allen. Not to mention a double-digit loss season. If you had a pipedream about a playoff run, let it go. It’s not happening.

Detroit Lions
Will they make the playoffs? Not even in an NFC North that might be clinched by a nine-win team.

The loss to the San Francisco 49ers was an improvement. Matthew Stafford was far better and after all the heat on head coach Matt Patricia, this didn’t look anything like a team that is abandoning the coaching staff. That said, this also doesn’t look like the most mentally disciplined bunch. Like the opening loss to the New York Jets, there were some brutal mistakes that shouldn’t be happening. The 10 penalties were bad, with a mind-numbing defensive holding call negating a game-changing interception late in the fourth quarter. All in all, the first two efforts don’t appear to be an improvement over the kinds of things that got Jim Caldwell fired.

Now here is the big problem this week: Patricia has to face his former team, the New England Patriots, who are coming to Detroit off of an embarrassing loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. New England is a better team than the Jets and 49ers. And the Patriots are going to be very motivated after hearing about the Jaguars loss all week. That’s bad news for Patricia. Almost as bad as a potential 0-3 start with the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers remaining before the bye week.

Houston Texans
Will they make the playoffs? It’s not out of the question. Two road losses by a total of 10 points isn’t staggering. The talent is there to turn it around. Is the coaching?

Quarterback Deshaun Watson said it’s not time to panic. Considering the talent on the roster, you can see why he’s optimistic. Regardless of the roster, it’s time for deep concern. Starting with the offense, where the Texans have a problem getting out of the gate. They’ve gotten outscored 35-13 in the first half against the New England Patriots and Tennessee Titans and looked horrendous at times in the process. The chemistry on the offensive line is a significant problem, although Watson also deserves some of the responsibility for his seven sacks and 19 hits. The second-half performances have been much better, which suggests the adjustments have been solid. But something needs to change in the early going. One the other side, the defense has gone two games with zero sacks from J.J. Watt (who was definitely salty after the loss), Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus. Clowney wasn’t even on the field Sunday with injuries, marking the fourth time in five years that he has failed to play an entire regular-season slate. The bottom line: The offense needs to make adjustments to keep teams from throttling Watson early in games, and the defense needs to muster a pass rush. This roster is too talented to be in an 0-2 hole and already facing a must-win moment.

New York Giants
Will they make the playoffs? The NFC East is always a mess. That will leave the playoff door cracked open for a while. And hey, the 2007 season’s Super Bowl winning Giants started 0-2.

We can talk all we want about drafting Saquon Barkley versus Sam Darnold, but the quarterback isn’t the biggest problem right now. This team is bad because the offensive line is awful. Manning isn’t a world-beater at this stage of his career and he’s not getting the clean pocket he needs. The Giants looked overwhelmed with the Dallas Cowboys’ front on Sunday night in ways that aren’t easy to fix. Teams can’t just go find starting caliber players in September. The right side of that offensive line is what it is. The lack of depth and inability to suffer losses to injury isn’t changing. And Nate Solder’s pricey addition hasn’t anchored and reshaped the mentality of the group the way the Giants had hoped. If the Giants are going to regroup, the passing offense is going to have to be shortened considerably to get the ball out fast and Barkley is going to have to be the creative focal point going forward. Play to the one solid strength the Giants offensive line seems to have – run blocking.

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