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The Oakland Raiders are just as ugly and gnarly in success as in failure

The failures of the 2017 Raiders can guide their future.

NFL: Oakland Raiders at Los Angeles Chargers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Raiders have always seemed like the NFL team most comfortable drinking bathtub gin.

They hadn’t had a winning record in 13 years, and yet they’ve always maintained a voracious following, especially on the road. With Derek Carr, a big offensive line, and defensive player of the year in Khalil Mack, they won 12 games last season with a lot of offense and a bad defense that wasn’t a fatal weakness thanks to a few heroic individuals.

If you had given me a heads up that this NFL season would be as weird and rough as it has been, I would have told you that the Oakland Raiders were the agents of chaos. In 2017, that gin-drunk was going to show all of you. They signed Marshawn Lynch! Fans bought out tickets to a lame duck team! Before the season, four of the top 20 selling jerseys in the NFL were Raiders players!

Super Bowl prognostications were bold but not unfounded. There were a lot of good reasons why the Raiders ought to have been better and not a lot of reasons to predict they’d become what they are — except that karma always funnels back to the mean, and for Oakland that means six wins, a new address, and a hangover.

So instead of the Raiders, the Rams and the Jaguars best embodied the gnarly, surly fun of NFL-brand football in 2017, and the gnarly, surly fun of the 2016 Raiders looks like a blip among all those seasons of the Raiders doing what they usually do. The Raiders are officially on GRUDEN WATCH after they fired head coach Jack Del Rio following a 20-point loss to the Chargers on Sunday.

That’s a bummer, and it’s hard to say exactly how the Raiders’ fall happened. They changed in a lot of ways from the 2016 season, and yet they stayed the same in many ways, too. Somehow, every decision they made was wrong.

I guess that starts with Del Rio. His first sin was firing offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. Del Rio seemingly wanted an OC who would bend to his compulsion to run the ball more, and quarterbacks coach Todd Downing was well-liked within the organization (and by quarterback Derek Carr especially). As a result, the Raiders went from sixth in the NFL in scoring to 23rd, and they rushed for nearly 25 fewer yards per game.

Defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. was fired during the season for producing roughly the same results from the year before, though whatever drop-off there was is explainable by being less fortunate with takeaways (14 after getting 30 last season) and injuries. (Gareon Conley and Obi Melifonwu, two rookies expected to shore up a bad secondary, appeared in a combined nine games.)

Indeed, the Raiders were less fortunate in a lot of ways in 2017. That they might regress wasn’t really a surprise. They went 8-1 in games decided by seven points or less last season, a skill that tends not to correlate from year to year. Nor does turnover margin: The Raiders went plus-16 last season, tied for the first in the league, and fell to minus-12, 29th.

But natural regression doesn’t account entirely for the Raiders’ drop — they may not have been 12 wins good last season, but they were still plus-31 in point differential and a legitimately explosive offense by almost any measure.

The fact that Carr was returning to the helm of that offense was perhaps the biggest reason to be bullish on the Raiders. He simply wasn’t as good in 2017, however. Carr’s passer rating dropped from 96.7 to 86.0, which had to do in parts to: a) natural comedown, b) worse running support (and that had something to do with the new zone blocking scheme), and c) a transverse process fracture in his back.

If Carr isn’t maybe quite as good as his 2016 season suggested, he is almost certainly better than a 2017 season that hasn’t been that bad — at least, statistically. He still threw significantly more touchdowns than interceptions, for example — 21 to 12.

It has been especially frustrating to see Carr struggle, however, in light of his seven fourth-quarter comebacks last season and among the litany of mild failings the Raiders suffered this season. Carr’s season was perhaps the most disappointing part of a brew of self-inflicted and unfortunate circumstances that, together, made up perhaps the most disappointing season for any team in the NFL.

It was mine, at least.

To close the book on the 2017 Raiders, I’d like to remind you, again, what the 2016 Raiders were. Carr finished fifth in MVP voting, and Mack was an easy case for DPOY. Chaos followed them wherever they went. In Week 2, they played a barnburner against the Falcons that I prayed would turn into a Super Bowl rematch. They won a game in which they outgained the Buccaneers 626 to 270, committed 23 penalties for a loss of 200 yards, and won in overtime on a fourth-down 41-yard touchdown pass as the clock was ticking down to a tie.

The 2016 Raiders were scrappy, gritty, and full of cuss. The 2017 Raiders were supposed to take on the next evolutionary form, becoming a team that could be scrappy, gritty, and full of cuss, but didn’t need to be. As it turns out, all of that junk has maybe always been a necessary part of what makes a Raiders team any good. The Raiders didn’t know how to win in a normal fashion in 2016. At least that’s one thing that held true in 2017, too.

The good news about being one of the NFL’s immutably weird teams is that the Raiders can draw strength from anywhere, at any time. In that sense, 2018 is full of possibilities — a year in which 12-4 feels just as possible as 6-10, both of which feel more likely than, say, a respectable 9-7, especially if Gruden takes the helm.

Gruden is nearly a decade out of coaching, which makes him perhaps the perfect option for the Raiders (even if perhaps not the best). This has been a disappointing year, to be sure, but at least the Raiders’ failings were in their own image. I realize that’s terrible consolation, but it leaves open the possibility of fulfilling the special kind of potential that the Raiders have.

2018 could be the Raiders’ last season in Oakland. The offensive personnel should draw plenty of coordinator applications. The defense should, theoretically, improve if players stay healthy. There is good reason to believe the Raiders could be what they were supposed to be last year.

Their success will always be the result of inexact recipe, however. Whatever happens, the only guarantee is that it will go down hard and taste like hell.