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Optimistic Raiders poised for potential midseason run with 'best football' in front of them

LAS VEGAS -- Maxx Crosby did not look like a man who had welcomed the birth of his first child a week earlier.

The Las Vegas Raiders' Pro Bowl edge rusher was wide-eyed and energized when he returned to his locker after a stint in the weight room Wednesday. There were no yawns or deep sighs, just smiles and gratitude. Baby Ella Rose had proven to be a heavy sleeper, allowing Crosby and fiancée Rachel Washburn to get plenty of rest.

"It's only been a couple of days," he said, "but I'm just hoping she keeps sleeping through the night and we're not going to have any worries."

Crosby is also hoping that a larger group of people continues to sleep on the Raiders' ability to turn around a season that, to date, has not gone as expected. One year after battling through unprecedented adversity to win 10 games and reach the playoffs for the first time in five years, the Silver and Black are 1-4 and tied with three others for fewest wins in the league.

The slow start has angered much of Raider Nation, which, judging by posts on social media, believes the new coach is overmatched, the quarterback needs to be replaced and a prized free-agent acquisition is past his prime. To hear those folks tell it, the season is over with 12 games to play. To hear Crosby tell it, it has only begun.

"Everything is still very much in front of us; it's early in the season," he said. "Obviously, you've got new coaches and things like that, and sometimes it takes a minute to get everything rolling, but I feel like we're definitely going in the right direction. We're going to be just fine. You can see it. It's not like guys are dreading being in the building. We have a lot of confidence. We're right there. We're about to go on a nice run, I'm telling you. It will be awesome."

Some believed I was serving up click bait 11 days ago when, minutes after the Raiders blew a 17-0 lead and lost 30-29 at Kansas City, I tweeted that they were about to go on a six-game win streak. My opinion has not changed. If anything, it has strengthened following a trip through the Raiders locker room this week. I found no apathy, division or dejection. Players and coaches were genuinely upbeat. Some said it was their best Wednesday practice of the season.

Why my optimism? A handful of reasons, in no particular order:

1) Character

Many of the Raiders' key players know and understand how to deal with adversity after overcoming what might have been the most challenging 30-day stretch in league history last season.

It began with head coach Jon Gruden resigning after reports surfaced that he had used racist, misogynistic and homophobic language years earlier in private emails. Three weeks later, wideout Henry Ruggs III, a former first-round pick and the team's leading deep threat, was released after he was arrested and booked on a charge of DUI resulting in the death of a 23-year-old woman. And one week after that, cornerback Damon Arnette, another former first-round draft choice, was released after a video that appeared to show him threatening to kill someone while holding a gun went viral.

Individually, each incident buckled the franchise's knees. Collectively, they appeared to put the Raiders down for the count, with four losses in five games following the Arnette release. But in a show of fortitude that should be remembered when projecting the rest of this season, Las Vegas won its final four games to reach the playoffs, capped by an overtime defeat of the division-rival Los Angeles Chargers in an elimination game on the final day of the season.

"Last year, we went through a lot of adversity, and, of course, this is a different team," left tackle Kolton Miller said. "But a lot of the same people are here. I think that built a type of resilience in us. This year is more about adapting. It's a new culture change, new roles, so I feel like we're the type of group that's going to have each other's back and really try to focus on the details and execute."

2) Circumstance

Like many others, I thought there would be a fairly smooth transition to Josh McDaniels, the former Patriots offensive coordinator who was hired to replace popular interim coach Rich Bisaccia. He came from a winner and was said to have matured from a disastrous stint as the Broncos' coach in the late 2000s. Plus, the team had many of the required ingredients for success: a veteran quarterback in Derek Carr, proven pass rushers in Crosby and free-agent addition Chandler Jones, a talented running back in Josh Jacobs, and a lethal group of receivers that included tight end Darren Waller, slot receiver Hunter Renfrow and former Packers All-Pro Davante Adams, who was acquired in an offseason trade.

An undefeated preseason hinted at big things to come, but lost in the excitement was the longstanding NFL reality that, typically, it takes time to jell after significant changes in staff and personnel. That is where the Raiders are now. Things that should be second nature are still in the developmental stage, which was apparent Wednesday in a pass-game meeting where Carr and the receivers were still going over where and how guys like the ball in certain situations.

Success involves trust, and trust is often a result of positive shared experiences. A sign of progress for the Raiders came against Kansas City on Adams' 48-yard touchdown reception. He beat double coverage and, without looking back, threw up a hand as he sprinted down the middle of the field with defenders just off his hips, signaling for Carr to throw the football. He trusted that the ball would be there, and Carr, as the pocket crumbled around him, trusted that Adams was clear and in a position to make the play.

"That was definitely a good one," Adams said Wednesday. "It was a great example of not letting the coverage itself, or what the designed coverage is meant to do, take you out of the play."

3) Competitiveness

Last year, the Raiders were as good as anyone at winning close games. Seven of their 10 victories were by one possession, six were by four points or less, four were in overtime and two were as time expired in regulation.

The trend of being involved in close games has carried over to this season, although the success has not. Their losses have been by one, two, five and six points. Some see their failure to come through down the stretch as a cause for concern; the Raiders view this development through a different prism, contending that the silver lining is they have been in a position to win despite so many coaching and personnel changes.

"We're one of the most highly penalized teams in the league offensively, yet we're in the top six in scoring," McDaniels said. "It doesn't take much to figure out that if we stop hurting ourselves with penalties, we might improve on that even more. Those are the little things. We have so much room for growth here, and there are so many areas where we can make progress and improve. That's really where our focus is."

4) The schedule

Three of four losses have been to teams that either lead or are tied for first place in their respective divisions. Now the Raiders get to face what, on paper, appears to be a kinder, gentler stretch of the season, with only one of their next six games against a team with a winning record.

In order, they play Houston (1-3-1), at New Orleans (2-5), at Jacksonville (2-4), Indianapolis (3-2-1), at Denver (2-4), and at Seattle (3-3). If ever the Raiders were going to go on a run, this is it. These are winnable games that must be won if December is going to matter. They are also critical when it comes to keeping players from going numb to the messaging.

"The messaging is, we're going to continue to get better," McDaniels said. "Our best football is in front of us."

5) Josh McDaniels

Others may question McDaniels' hiring -- or flat out doubt him -- but I don't. I believe he ultimately will get things right, because his football IQ is high and he has faced and addressed what arguably had been his greatest past weakness: relatability.

Thirteen years ago in Denver, he was a young coach who got too much power too quickly. He didn't know how to, or maybe understand the importance of, developing relationships that could bring out the best in players and coaches. It was as if he viewed them as pieces on a chess board, ignoring or overlooking the human element.

Now listen to his comments from Wednesday, when asked about linebacker Denzel Perryman: "As I've been in the league longer and grown as a coach and a person, it's more important for us to get to know the guys and what makes them tick off the field. That's as important as what we do in the meeting room and on the practice field. ... The depth of a human being is something that, if you take time to get into that and find out about people, they usually reciprocate that."

McDaniels was texting with Crosby so regularly during the delivery of Ella Rose that he felt like he was in the delivery room. There was genuine concern for the human being, not just the player. That behavior can go a long way. It's not a guarantee of on-field success, but it is known to strengthen the familial bond that typically is associated with successful teams -- and that's as important as reducing penalties, improving efficiency in the red zone and getting more production from the return games, all areas of focus as the Raiders return this week from their bye. It helps a team walk by faith as much as sight.

The Raiders know there is room for improvement in a number of areas, but they believe they have the people to make those improvements. They are learning each other, and acclimating to the process this coaching staff has laid out for achieving success. Have mistakes been made at times, both in execution and play-calling? Yes. But they also are correctable.

"After that Kansas City game," Jacobs said. "I told the guys, 'It's time to go on a five-game run. It's possible. If this game doesn't show you anything else, it shows you that if we do it for 60 minutes and grind it out, we can beat anyone.' That's the mentality we have."

He's not alone.

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.

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