Raiders News: Derek Carr and Khalil Mack

Bad Romance: Why The Raiders Were Better Off Without The 2016 Core

We, as sports fans, are all guilty of romanticizing the past. Las Vegas Raiders fans, in particular, are consistent indulgers in nostalgia because it is all we truly have. The upcoming season will see reunions with not just one, but all three major components of the last semblance of Silver and Black glory: the 2016 season. There’s a special fondness for a young roster that finished 12-4 thanks to heroics from homegrown talent. Quarterback Derek Carr, edge rusher Khalil Mack, and wide receiver Amari Cooper represented something Raider Nation had craved for the better part of two decades.

A sustained base of talent that was in it for the long haul.

Some believe a catastrophic injury to then-MVP candidate Carr derailed a true contender that season. Others saw a team with major flaws and a ton of lucky breaks. Regardless, Mack and Cooper faced an abrupt exit. The returning dictator, I mean, head coach Jon Gruden, shipped out the aforementioned cornerstones for a barrel of first-round picks. Despite the influx of selections, the team continued to struggle, ultimately leading to Carr’s exit.

Fast forward eight years, and the Raiders are in an all-too-familiar place we call purgatory. But is that truly due to the detonation of the former core? Could Gruden’s hasty decision-making actually be an avoidance of the inevitable?

Raiders LB Khalil Mack Was The First Domino To Fall

Listen, this writer was never a fan of dealing away Khalil Mack, but playing Devil’s Advocate is too fun to pass up.

The fan base’s backlash surpassed the shock of Mack’s trade to the Chicago Bears for four draft picks. We aren’t here to litigate what those picks became—that’s an entirely different headache in itself—but rather how his well-deserved contract extension and the state of the Raiders would’ve led to an inevitable split anyway.

In 2018, the Buffalo product would immediately ink a 6-year, $141 million deal with Chicago, finishing second in DPOY votes. However, the Bears, much like the Raiders two seasons prior, would be one and done in the postseason. The following seasons would see a decline in total sack production and no playoff success. In fact, Khalil needed another change of scenery—Mack’s trade to the rival Chargers prior to the 2022 season—to surpass his career high in sacks.

But much like seasons past, Mack’s 17-sack season in 2023 would not signal a playoff contender. The former fifth overall selection’s talent and production have never truly been the issue; it’s been his supporting cast. Would Las Vegas have wisely surrounded Mack with a defense capable of freeing him from constant double and triple teams? Would the offense match what the Raiders were in 2016? How long before the team made him a cap casualty while he was in Chicago or asked him to restructure as they did this offseason in Los Angeles?

No matter how you look at it, Mack deserved better financially and got it from the Monsters of the Midway. But what about the Raiders’ first pick in the 2015 draft?

Amari Cooper Couldn’t Live Up To The Expectations

This one is much easier to parse out. Alabama alum Amari Cooper entered the league with a boatload of potential. Despite a few moments of brilliance, Amari Cooper’s potential remains firmly grounded.

Cooper started slowly in his rookie campaign before breaking out in 2016 to the tune of 83 catches and 1153 yards. The fireworks would be short-lived, as the following year would see a major dip in catches and yards (48/680), as well as time missed due to injury. Cooper would be sent to Dallas six games into the following season with little to no fanfare. Since his departure, Coop has yet to crack 100 catches or 10 touchdowns in a single season. Despite looking like the answer to Dallas’ pass-catcher problems, he would be hastily dealt to the Browns in 2022.

While Cooper would record a career in receiving touchdowns that season (9) and in yards the following year (1250), the same questions have always remained. How can top corners easily muzzle such a smooth route runner? The fact is, Cooper may never have been the true number one option his eventual contract would’ve commanded in Las Vegas.

Derek Carr’s Departure Ended An Era

Even when the other members of his triplets were cast off, Fresno State product Derek Carr remained the face of the franchise.

For better or for worse.

You can bicker over whether Carr was keeping a sinking ship afloat in the depths of mediocrity or weighing down on your own time. At the end of the day, DC4 could never recapture the form that had him a leg snap away from an MVP trophy. For every average receiver he would help get paid in free agency, for every fourth quarter comeback he pulled out his Bible Belt-supported keister, there was a head-scratching turnover. A missed receiver. Another .500 or worse finish.

And when you’re the most consistent piece of the puzzle, it’s hard to escape the label of “problem.” Despite finishing with a better completion percentage and passing yards in the years since, Carr has yet to surpass his passing touchdown total from 2016 (28). Most importantly, his interception total has significantly increased since he finished with just six in that exceptional year.

Could Carr have been given better? Yes. But after awhile, a change of scenery is best for all parties involved. Derek’s absence from the roster enables a closer examination of the other notable deficiencies that have persisted over the years. But hey, at least he was kind enough to provide the parting gift of Davante Adams.

Las Vegas will face the Browns and Saints in weeks 4 and 17, respectively. Derek Carr will avoid the Allegiant crowd’s ire as his Saints welcome the Raiders to New Orleans. Amari Cooper, however, will be faced with the fan base he was drafted into for the first time since his departure.

In any case, I am sure the Raider faithful will treat them fondly.

*Top Photo: Getty Images 

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