The Las Vegas Raiders spent the week grappling with grief and guilt, which certainly puts into perspective a few bad decisions and high throws and ragged red-zone play.
The Raiders lost to the New York Giants on Sunday, 23-16, for all of those reasons. Maybe the horrific car crash caused by former Las Vegas receiver Henry Ruggs III early Tuesday, which claimed the life of a young woman, really had nothing to do with the team's underwhelming offensive performance, as the Raiders all insisted. The NFL prizes compartmentalization and an ability to block outside noise. Still, quarterback Derek Carr knew that was going to be difficult. And now the Raiders, 5-3 after a 3-0 start in September, somehow have to piece together a season that has already been riven by shock and loss from the kinds of transgressions that even the most well-adjusted and counseled would have trouble processing without an opposing defense bearing down on them.
Only the Raiders know if their lack of offensive sharpness, if the disappearance of their big-play game, had anything to do with the wrenching events of the week and, more specifically, with the absence of Ruggs, who had been a key part of the explosive gains with his ability to take the top off the defense. Interim head coach Rich Bisaccia said he saw no issues with players' emotions, resilience, effort, attitude or poise, and Las Vegas didn't completely fall on its face, easily outgaining New York in total yards, 403 to 245. But in six trips to the red zone, the Raiders scored just one touchdown. Vegas' passing game -- the No. 2 aerial attack in the league entering the weekend -- was a beat off all day.
If the Raiders couldn't make up for Ruggs' absence, if they couldn't clear their heads quite enough, that is to be expected and it shouldn't define their season. It isn't to minimize that tragedy that took Tina Tintor's life -- or, to a lesser extent, the shock of Jon Gruden's quick departure after his offensive emails were revealed -- to suggest that the Raiders are getting awfully, sadly, good at dealing with nightmares.
"Personally, it's definitely blown me back a bit," tight end Darren Waller said. "Coach Gruden was somebody who risked a chance to bring me in to give me a chance to play football again. Henry is somebody everybody liked, not just because he was the fastest person you've ever seen run on a field -- he was a good person, a respectful person, somebody you liked being around on a daily basis. It is shocking. It does hurt a little bit. All we can do is the best we can do to move forward and focus on football. Nobody asked for this, but at the same time, as far as training and resilience and adversity, I feel like we're getting the best practice and training you could get in that, so you've just got to move forward."
To that end, Las Vegas is signing wide receiver DeSean Jackson, NFL Network's Mike Garafolo reported Sunday. Jackson can still run, so he should help the downfield passing game that was diminished on Sunday. That, and a little bit of time, may be all the Raiders need to overcome the raw emotions of the last week.
"Things happen in your lives and you're still professional and do a great job," receiver Hunter Renfrow told reporters in his press conference. "Same thing with us. We can't let that affect us. No matter what it is. So, I wouldn't say it took too much. We just have to play better. I think, at the end of the day ... if we would have won today, we probably wouldn't have gotten a lot of these questions."
If there is reason to believe the Raiders can avoid sinking with their sadness, it is because of Carr. He has provided a case study in leadership this season. The quick departure of Gruden should have impacted him more than any other player because of Gruden's deep involvement in the offense. But Carr excelled in his first two games without Gruden, completing 80.3 percent of his passes for 664 yards and four touchdowns during wins over Denver and Philadelphia. This past week, as the face of the franchise, he was pitch perfect in balancing his sorrow and his love for Ruggs. Now, Carr did look at times to be in a fog on Sunday -- he was intercepted twice, lost a crucial fumble and missed a wide-open Waller in the back of the end zone at the end of the first half -- but he got the big stuff right this week. Las Vegas, and any other team, would take that trade-off every day from its franchise quarterback.
On Sunday, Carr said his mind had not been elsewhere during the game, and he even smiled when a reporter characterized the missed throw to Waller as "lousy." After days of dwelling on events they could not control, Carr and the Raiders were desperate to drag their season back to football.
"That's why we lost -- please, talk about me turning the ball over," Carr said.
The alarm that this loss might spur among Las Vegas fans has nothing to do with the extenuating circumstances of last week, but it may also provide a point of focus for the Raiders. They are now 0-5 coming out of their last five bye weeks, and in the last two seasons, hot starts have faded into endings with no playoffs. Bisaccia steadied the Raiders when Gruden left earlier this season and now he will have to convince them that those results from prior seasons mean nothing for an entirely different team.
This past week, during practice, Raiders players were pleading amongst themselves for nothing else abnormal to happen this season. The schedule, with a Sunday night game against the rival Chiefs on tap, is handing the Raiders a gift. Focusing on avoiding a losing streak -- a trial in any other season -- will be a blissful banality in this one.