In August, UFC president Dana White casually mentioned on live TV that Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski almost joined the Raiders, not the Buccaneers, in 2020.
“Brady was already looking at houses,” White said. “It was almost a done deal. And at the last minute, [Jon] Gruden blew the deal up and said that he didn’t want [Brady]. And all hell broke loose, man.”
Well, Brady can probably resume his house-hunting trips soon. And all hell may break loose again, but for a different reason. This time, the stars are aligning for Brady and the Raiders to finally get hitched.
The Raiders unofficially announced this past week that their quarterback job will be open in 2023 when they benched Derek Carr for the final two games. Former Patriots backup Jarrett Stidham is in line to get his first two NFL starts.
Brady will be an unrestricted free agent in March. And the Raiders now have a coach — Josh McDaniels — who is likely receptive to having him at quarterback.
Having Brady and Gronkowski on the Raiders, playing nine home games just west of the Las Vegas Strip, would be the biggest party in America. ESPN, NFL Network, and NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” may as well build studios in Las Vegas.
Let’s break down the Raiders’ fascinating decision with Carr and what it means for the Raiders and Brady:
▪ Benching Carr was first a football decision, more about the long term. Carr, who was a second-round pick in 2014, has started 142 of a possible 144 regular-season games. He’s still a top-24 quarterback and should find a starting job next year. But Carr is just 63-79 and has played in only one playoff game (he would have played in two but broke his leg at the end of the 2016 regular season).
Carr, 31, has been beset by organizational instability, playing for four full-time head coaches and four offensive coordinators. The switch from Gruden’s offense to McDaniels’s this year hasn’t been kind, as most of his stats are at or near their lowest levels since his rookie season. Carr leads the NFL with 14 interceptions, he is 26th in passer rating (86.3), and 31st in completion percentage (60.8). Most importantly, the Raiders are 6-9 and one of the biggest disappointments in the NFL. The Raiders don’t seem inclined to fire McDaniels after one season, so they are putting the blame squarely on Carr.
“None of us are happy with where we’re at,” McDaniels said.
The Raiders haven’t said anything definitive about Carr’s future, but there is no going back. This move probably explains why Carr was so emotional, to the point of tears, after some of the Raiders’ losses this year. He knew he was on thin ice.
▪ Of course, it wasn’t strictly a football decision. As usual, follow the money — in this case, $40.5 million in injury guarantees from the three-year contract extension Carr signed in April.
The contract provided little protection for Carr past 2022, and in reality, was just a one-year pay raise from $19.8 million to $25 million. The contract has only $5.6 million in dead salary-cap money next season, and the Raiders won’t owe Carr another dollar of salary if they trade or release him before his injury guarantees vest on the third day after this February’s Super Bowl ($33 million for 2023 and $7.5 million for 2024). A trade would have to be done in February but wouldn’t be official until March 15, giving the acquiring team about a month to back out of the deal. If Carr gets released, he may have a hard time earning $33 million next season from another team.
▪ The Raiders not only benched Carr, but made him the third-string quarterback and agreed to let him leave the team for the final two weeks, all because of the injury guarantee. The Raiders don’t want him getting hurt in practice, and his presence would only serve as a distraction as Carr is popular in the locker room. Undrafted rookie Chase Garbers will back up Stidham the last two weeks.
▪ The other players probably have a bad feeling, as this move likely portends major changes for the Raiders this offseason. They kept together the core of last season’s 10-7 team, one coached by Gruden the first five games and then Rich Bisaccia. But a Raiders executive noted at the Patriots game two weeks ago that the Raiders have a mercenary vibe this year, with about 30 players on one-year contracts because of poor drafts from the previous regime. Don’t be surprised to see McDaniels bring a major overhaul to the roster in 2023.
“Huge draft for us,” the Raiders executive said.
The Raiders’ players have said the right things, but there’s clearly some tension in the room.
“The only thing that’s productive is to support Jarrett going forward,” said tight end Darren Waller.
Receiver Davante Adams wrote on Twitter that Carr is “the reason I’m a Raider” and told reporters, “I’m not going to sit here and go on and on, but obviously I support my guy.”
Adams may not throw a huge fuss, though. Although he has 88 catches for 1,290 yards and 12 touchdowns, Adams has caught just 55 percent of his targets, down from 72.8 percent and 77.2 percent the last two years with Aaron Rodgers. It speaks to Carr’s erratic play.
▪ The 49ers, Buccaneers, and a few other teams will likely be in the running for Brady, but Vegas looks like a perfect landing spot. He can play home games in a dome. The weather is warm. He’s closer to his parents in California. There is very little local media presence. Every home game will be a spectacle. Mark Davis will probably give Brady whatever he wants. The idea of throwing to Adams, Waller, and Hunter Renfroe (and probably Gronkowski) has to be appealing.
▪ If Brady doesn’t end up with the Raiders, Jimmy Garoppolo certainly makes sense, though his injury history has to scare teams. There are rumors of the Patriots trading Mac Jones to the Raiders, but I don’t think a) the Raiders view him as much of an upgrade to Carr, if at all, and b) I have doubts that the Patriots want to give up on Jones and his uber-cheap contract. The Raiders also currently have the No. 9 draft pick. Signing Brady or Garoppolo wouldn’t preclude them from drafting and developing a quarterback.
▪ These last two games are a nice opportunity for Stidham, the fourth-year pro who was a Patriots fourth-round pick in 2019. Stidham has never started an NFL game, and is just 32 for 61 for 342 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions in his career. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent after this season and fortunate to now get a two-game audition. Unfortunately, his first start comes Sunday against the 49ers and their No. 1-ranked defense. Good luck, kid.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
Bengals-Bills will bring out the best
Monday night’s Bills-Bengals game in Cincinnati will be the first matchup between Joe Burrow and Josh Allen. For a regular-season game, it doesn’t get much bigger than this.
The game could determine the AFC’s No. 1 seed and first-round bye. It’s currently a race between the 12-3 Bills, 12-3 Chiefs, and 11-4 Bengals, but the Bills and Bengals have head-to-head wins over the Chiefs. Whoever wins Monday gets a season sweep over the other two top AFC teams.
The game could also determine the MVP. Burrow and Allen are the only two players this season with 4,000 passing yards, 30 passing touchdowns, and 5 rushing touchdowns. MVP often goes to the quarterback on the best team, so if this game determines the No. 1 seed in the AFC, it very well could determine whether Burrow or Allen wins his first MVP — though Patrick Mahomes, Jalen Hurts, and Justin Jefferson will have something to say about it.
ESPN has had some ugly games of late, but Bengals-Bills will be the third “Monday Night Football” game ever to feature two teams with at least 11 wins. The Bengals enter with a seven-game win streak, and the Bills on a six-game streak. The 66 combined touchdown passes by Burrow and Allen — who, coincidentally, both train with quarterbacks coach Jordan Palmer in the offseason — are the most entering a “MNF” game.
“There’s no secrets about why he’s so good,” Burrow said of Allen. “He’s fun to watch — runs around, makes plays, makes throws that nobody else can make. It’s going to be fun to go against him.”
Watt brought energy like few others
J.J. Watt announced this past week that he will retire at the end of this season, and it’s certainly understandable. Watt is still productive, with 9½ sacks this season for the Cardinals, but he has lost 42 games in his career to back, groin, leg, pectoral, and shoulder injuries, and is 33 with a young family.
It’s easy to forget, given the injuries and mostly irrelevant teams he played on, that from 2012-18, there was no more disruptive force in the NFL than Watt. He racked up five All-Pro nods and three NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards (2012, 2014, and 2015), and had a terrific comeback season in 2018 after losing most of two years to injury. A spot in Canton surely awaits him.
Two prevailing memories of covering Watt. One came in the 2012 season opener between the Dolphins and Texans. The Dolphins came into the game with a lot of excitement — the first game for rookie first-round pick Ryan Tannehill, and the first game for new head coach Joe Philbin, the former wiz offensive coordinator from the Packers. Watt, coming off a disappointing rookie season, single-handedly wrecked the game, knocking down three passes at the line of scrimmage, two of which were intercepted by the Texans in a 30-10 romp. The performance earned him the nickname “J.J. Swat,” and he finished the season with 16 batted passes, still the most by a defensive lineman in NFL history.
The other memory is not a single memory — it’s how Watt did shockingly little against the Patriots in his career. In nine games (1-8 record), Watt had 29 tackles, a half-sack, 6½ run stuffs, 13 quarterback hits, 1 forced fumble, and 9 batted passes, but not for lack of trying. To me, Watt’s lack of production was the ultimate sign of respect from Bill Belichick, who put significant resources toward slowing down Watt.
“You’re not talking about a guy that takes a play off,” Belichick said in 2017. “You’ve got to deal with his length, his power, his quickness on every single play. He just wears guys down with effort and toughness. Then when you take the skill that he has and combine it all together, that puts him at a very — I mean, you’re talking about the best defensive player in the league for more than one year.”
Patriots fail to measure up
When considering the disappointment of the Patriots’ offense, one of the main culprits is on third down, where the Patriots rank 26th in the NFL at 34.9 percent. But their struggles on third down are really about their struggles on the first two downs.
The Patriots average 7.7 yards to go on third down, tied with the Jets and Broncos for longest in the NFL. The Patriots also lag in a stat called “successful plays” — defined as gaining at least 40 percent of the necessary yards on first down (for example, 4 yards on first and 10), and 50 percent of the remaining yards on second down. The Patriots are 27th on first down (success on 47.1 percent of plays) and 29th on second down (success on 49.8 percent of plays).
The Patriots need to gain more yards on first and second down because they aren’t dynamic enough to convert third and longs.
The Broncos finally did the inevitable this past week, firing Nathaniel Hackett after a 4-11 start. Hackett joins an ignominious list of one-and-done coaches over the last decade: Urban Meyer (2021 Jaguars), Freddie Kitchens (2019 Browns), Steve Wilks (2018 Cardinals), Chip Kelly (2016 49ers), Jim Tomsula (2015 49ers), Rob Chudzinski (2013 Browns), Mike Mularkey (2012 Jaguars), and Hue Jackson (2011 Raiders) . . . New Broncos owner Greg Penner said this past week that general manager George Paton will keep his job and will be heavily involved in the coaching search, but the new coach will report to the owner, not the GM. That sounds like a dysfunctional setup that is destined to fail, or that Paton has had his power sapped and will report to the head coach, which isn’t uncommon . . . As for Russell Wilson, the Broncos surely are looking for outs in the seven-year, $296 million contract he signed in September. There is simply too much guaranteed money ($57 million over two years) and too much of a salary-cap disaster ($85 million in dead-cap money) for the Broncos to release Wilson this offseason, but they may be able to suck it up and do it in the spring of 2024 . . . When it comes to the Patriots, follow the yardage. They are 6-3 when winning the yardage margin (losses to the Ravens, Vikings, and Raiders) and 1-5 when they lose the yardage margin (win against the Jets) . . . Count on Dan Snyder to alienate some of the most iconic players in his team’s history. The Commanders are set to unveil a hog as their mascot, a nod to the team’s famous offensive line in the 1980s. But five of the era’s beloved players — John Riggins, Joe Jacoby, Mark May, Fred Dean, and Rick “Doc” Walker — are seeking a trademark for the term “Hogs” and are threatening legal action against the Commanders. “The Commanders are using the original HOGS brand for commercial purposes with NO compensation to the men who’s blood & sweat equity built the original HOGS brand 40 years ago,” they said in a statement . . . The 49ers’ Brock Purdy is looking to become the fifth quarterback to win at least his first four NFL starts, joining Ben Roethlisberger (2004), Phil Simms (1979), Mike Kruczek (1976), and Virgil Carter (1968) . . . An underrated story line from last Saturday: two contenders lost starting offensive tackles. The Bengals lost left tackle La’el Collins to a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee, and the Eagles lost right tackle Lane Johnson to torn abdominal muscles, though he is delaying surgery and hopes to play through the injury in the playoffs. The Eagles have lost 11 of their last 14 games without Johnson . . . Congrats to Titans quarterback Josh Dobbs, who threw his first career touchdown pass on Thursday night in his sixth NFL season, on his sixth team . . . Through 15 weeks and one game, there are 11 teams with a positive scoring differential, and 21 teams with a negative differential. If the NFL hadn’t expanded the playoffs to seven teams, all of the current AFC wild-card participants would be eliminated, and the only AFC playoff battle remaining would be for the South title between the Jaguars and Titans.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.