Welcome to Season 9, Episode 3 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots' weekly matchup.
Turns out the intriguing mysteries of the Las Vegas Raiders do not begin and end with owner Mark Davis’s soup bowl haircut.
When Davis awarded Jon Gruden a 10-year, $100 million contract in January 2018 to come out of the “Monday Night Football” broadcast booth and run the Raiders, it looked like a decision certain to fail. Gruden, who coached the Raiders from 1998-2001, hadn’t worked on an NFL sideline since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers fired him in 2008.
He was entertaining in the TV booth but seemed out of touch, fawning over just about every quarterback he saw and dismissing analytics like a scowling troglodyte. And his early decisions with the Raiders — most notably trading All-Pro linebacker Khalil Mack to the Bears for a parcel of draft picks — suggested a recklessness in team-building and talent judgment that almost certainly would eventually leave the franchise in shambles.
What was he doing? Turns out, rebuilding the franchise with proper and unexpected patience, primed for the move to Vegas.
The Raiders went 4-12 in the first season of Gruden’s deal, and 7-9 last year. But something unexpected happened, something Patriots coach Bill Belichick noted this past week: Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock drafted well, and the Raiders began stockpiling young talent. The Raiders are seeing the fruits of that now, arriving in New England for Sunday’s matchup with a 2-0 record and fresh off a christening victory at their new Roomba-looking stadium over the Saints.
In the long run, the Mack trade — which brought the picks that the Raiders used on stalwart running back Josh Jacobs, cornerback Damon Arnette, and receiver Bryan Edwards — might even be a win for them.
Are the Raiders, who come in with the fourth-ranked scoring offense (34 points per game), actually good? Is Gruden actually good, too? Some of those mysteries will be answered against Cam Newton and the Patriots, who seek their second win. But they’re already better than some of us ever expected them to be.
Kick it off, Bailey, and let’s get this thing started …
Three players I’ll be watching
Isaiah Wynn: Most elements of following and writing about the Patriots over the past 20 years are extremely satisfying. One of the small downsides is that all of the success had led some among the fan base to lose context on what constitutes failure.
Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio have had their hiccups when it comes to the draft, which makes them like every other executive who has ever been in charge of procuring players. It’s too easy for some — especially those easily influenced by sports-radio caterwauling — to dismiss the great picks (“Yeah, but Rob Gronkowski was a no-brainer in the second round!”) to complain about what hasn’t worked, or even worse, to say a player is a bust before anything resembling a verdict is in.
There have been many complaints about the 2018 draft, in which the Patriots chose Georgia teammates Wynn and Sony Michel in the first round. Michel has had an uneven career. But Wynn, who missed his rookie season with an Achilles’ tendon injury and lost time with a toe injury last year, is rewarding those who had patience with him.
Belichick noted Wednesday that Wynn is a “smart kid” who “really takes well to coaching and making adjustments” beyond his obvious physical skills. Seems to me it’s much more fun to watch a player develop than it is to win the race to be the first one to declare him a bust.
Josh Jacobs: If you insist on complaining about the recent drafts, I’ll grant you this nitpick: When two running backs from the same college have been available in the same draft, the Patriots have ended up with wrong one.
In 2018, the Patriots took Michel at No. 31, four picks before the Browns took his powerhouse teammate, Nick Chubb. A season later, the Patriots made Damien Harris the second Alabama back taken at No. 87 pick, 63 spots after the Raiders grabbed Jacobs in the first round.
Now, you can’t fault the Patriots for missing out on Jacobs, who went eight picks before they even had a selection, but there will be inevitable comparisons between him and his former college teammate.
In 15 career games, including two this year, Jacobs has carried 294 times for 1,331 yards and 10 touchdowns. He’s going to get plenty of chances to puncture a Patriots run defense that allowed 154 yards and 5.1 yards per carry to the Seahawks last Sunday.
Kyle Dugger: Since the draft has become an accidental theme in this section, a quick thought on Dugger, the second-round pick out of Division 2 Lenoir-Rhyne: You’re going to be seeing a lot of DUGGER 35 jerseys at Gillette Stadium someday.
Dugger, who played 54 percent of the defensive snaps against the Seahawks, looked like a one-man tornado on one blitz in which he chucked aside 327-pound Seahawks guard Damien Lewis. I’m sure he’s raw, but he’s also electrifying, and that he’s seeing action so soon coming from a D2 program speaks to his mental acuity.
Grievance of the Week
It should be clear by now that we’re an unapologetic sucker for ’70s and ’80s nostalgia in this space. Our editors could run a weekly photo montage of Sam Cunningham, Horace Ivory, Don Calhoun, and Andy Johnson running behind John Hannah and Leon Gray, and we wouldn’t just be cool with it, we’d encourage it. Give me all the sepia-toned flashbacks to the Steel Curtain, the Doomsday Defense, and Air Coryell that you can muster.
But the appreciation for that era screeches to a halt when it comes to the Raiders. They weren’t just hard-hitting, or dirty, or benders of the rules. They were malicious, and one player in particular, Jack Tatum, was downright evil. His refusal to apologize through the years for his cheap shot in an August 1978 preseason game that left Patriots receiver Darryl Stingley paralyzed from the neck down was pathetic enough; worse still was his deception at Stingley’s expense.
In 1996, the two players were supposed to make a television appearance together, but Stingley canceled when he got word that Tatum was using the occasion to promote a book.
On a far lesser scale, the Raiders benefited from one of the worst calls in history, Ben Dreith’s roughing-the-passer flag on Sugar Bear Hamilton, to defeat the Patriots in the ’76 playoffs. The Patriots' win in the Snow Bowl 25 seasons later was some measure of payback, but it wasn’t karma or comeuppance. When it comes to justice, the Raiders are long past redeemable.
Raiders tight end Darren Waller vs. various Patriots defensive backs
Raiders quarterback Derek Carr is off to a superb start, completing 73.5 percent of his passes (50 of 68) for 523 yards and 4 touchdowns without an interception. While he has targeted 11 receivers, Waller is his clear favorite option, and with good reason.
Waller, a 2015 Ravens sixth-round draft pick who missed the 2017 season after violating the league’s substance-abuse policy and was swiped off their practice squad in November 2018, has emerged as a story of both redemption and excellence. The 6-foot-6-inch, 250-pounder, who plays with the grace of a wide receiver, broke through last season with 90 catches for 1,145 yards and 3 touchdowns. Not bad for a player who entered last season with 18 career receptions.
He’s been equally prolific this season, with 18 catches for 150 yards and a touchdown through two games, including a dominant prime-time effort against the Saints last Monday in which he had 12 receptions for 105 yards and the go-ahead touchdown.
Carr knows what he has in Waller, targeting him 16 times Monday and 24 times overall this season, which puts him second in the league only to Arizona’s DeAndre Hopkins (25 targets).
Belichick, though quick to praise Waller (“He’ll definitely be a problem for us”), of course did not tip his hand on how he will defend him, so it will be interesting to see how the Patriots deploy their diversely talented defensive backs.
Joejuan Williams, who basically red-shirted last season but stood out in the opening win over the Dolphins while defending tight end Mike Gesicki (3 catches, 30 yards), should be prominently involved. But it’s probable that it will be a team effort, with Stephon Gilmore, Devin McCourty, and Adrian Phillips, and perhaps even Dugger often finding themselves lining up in Waller’s vicinity.
Or, it’s still a shame Mike Haynes got traded to the Raiders
Are you all-in on Cam Newton? Or perhaps the better question is this: How could you not be?
Newton has been in vintage form through his first two games as a Patriot, making an efficient debut (15 of 19, 155 yards, 2 rushing touchdowns), then proving last Sunday night that he still has his fastball when needed, completing 30 of 44 passes for 397 yards with a TD and an interception. Newton also ran for two more touchdowns, giving him four, the most by a quarterback in the first two weeks of a season ever. (And yes, it was almost five.)
Perhaps the most encouraging of many encouraging elements is Newton’s conscious effort to build up and lean on the new or inexperienced receivers. N’Keal Harry had eight catches — more than he had his entire rookie season — for 72 yards against Seattle, while newcomer Damiere Byrd had six catches for 72 yards.
Newton and his targets — most notably, sudden deep threat Julian Edelman — should continue to build on that progress against a Raiders team that is ranked 26th in total defense (406 yards per game) and 29th against the pass (285.5).
The good times with the new superstar quarterback in town roll on. Patriots 35, Raiders 24.