Four years ago, the poorest owner in the NFL committed over $1.1 billion he didn’t have toward building a $1.9 billion stadium in Las Vegas, at a time when NFL policies forbid team owners, staffers and players from even appearing to have connections to gambling.
Three years ago, he lured the franchise’s famous former head coach out of the announcers’ booth and back onto his sideline with a 10-year, $100 million contract. At the end of the following season, he hired the NFL Network’s top draft analyst to run his front office. Last season, his team played their home games in the brand-new, gleaming black Allegiant Stadium — but without any fans (or gameday revenue to pay down the attendant debt).
Mark Davis bet everything — his team, his fortune, and his father’s legacy — on this season being a success.
It didn’t look like it was going to pay off. Head coach Jon Gruden’s first three seasons back in black (19-29, .396 win percentage) were significantly worse than the three years under his predecessor, Jack Del Rio (25-23, .521). General manager Mike Mayock’s transition from mock drafts to real drafts has been bumpy, with Gregg Rosenthal of the NFL Network ranking him and Gruden as the worst-drafting front office1 in the league. Team President Marc Badain, who had spent all 30 years of his professional career with the organization, resigned days before training camp with little explanation. Mayock admitted before this season that his job likely depended on the Raiders making the playoffs, and FiveThirtyEight’s preseason NFL predictions gave them just a 24 percent chance to do it.
After two weeks, the Las Vegas (née Oakland, née Los Angeles, née Oakland) Raiders are 2-0, having knocked off the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers by a combined score of 59-44. Quarterback Derek Carr leads the NFL in passing yards with 817, nearly 130 yards ahead of second place. The team is No. 2 in the NFL in Sports-Reference.com’s predictive Simple Rating System metric.
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Is this a mirage in the desert, or are the Raiders for real?
Right off the bat, there’s room for skepticism: Simple Rating System, predictive as it is, pretty much only takes into account a team’s opponents and average point differential. This early in the season, it’s not even as predictive as point spread or point differential alone.
On the field, the Raiders boast the No. 7 scoring offense and No. 1 yardage offense so far this year. They rank seventh in yards per play and are tied for fifth in per-drive scoring rate. Though they can’t run the ball for beans,2 Gruden’s play-calling is drawing raves — and has Carr playing the best football of his life. The three-time Pro Bowler has the fourth-highest quarterback passing grade on Pro Football Focus, and he ranks fourth in Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR). (Carr injured his ankle in last week’s win over the Steelers, though, and is currently questionable for Week 3.)
Defensively, the Raiders are closer to the middle of the pack. They are tied for 10th in scoring defense and 16th in yards allowed. They’re 16th in Football Outsiders’ defensive Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA). But PFF loves the tape of defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s unit, grading them the sixth-best overall defense, with the league’s No. 1 pass rush.
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That pass-rush dominance shows up in the stat column, too. Despite blitzing less often than any other team, the Raiders rank 15th in pressure rate, according to ESPN Stats & Information Group. Mayock’s first-ever draft pick — defensive end Clelin Ferrell, taken No. 4 overall in 2019 — may never be productive. But the edge-rusher Mayock took 102 picks later, Maxx Crosby, has blossomed into a stud: two sacks, eight tackles, three tackles for loss, and 10 quarterback hits season alone, not to mention the highest overall PFF grade of any defender in the league. Right behind Crosby, in ninth place, is 2021 free-agent class headliner Yannick Ngakoue.
The Raiders do have significant flaws. Their offensive line ranks dead last in PFF’s run-blocking grades and 16th in pass protection. They’re also the league’s worst tackling team, according to PFF. That’s partly why they’re only a decent defense, despite dominant players up front. All told, the Raiders are still outside of the top 10 in most predictive team-strength metrics.
But look how much these two opening wins have impressed the models:
Vegas has made huge leaps in the models
Rankings and playoff odds in five models for the Las Vegas Raiders before Week 1 and before Week 3 of the 2021 season
|Football Outsiders DVOA||21||19||+2||31.5%||49.5%||+18.0|
|PFF Power Rankings||21||12||+9||49.0||59.0||+10.0|
Before Week 1, the Raiders ranked no better than 21st in any of these five predictive team-strength metrics. After Week 2, they’re 12th in both FiveThirtyEight’s Elo projections and PFF’s Power Rankings and at least in the teens everywhere else.
Jeff Sagarin’s model doesn’t predict playoff odds, but the other four metrics do, and after playing two games, the Raiders’ chances of making the postseason have jumped from a range of 17 to 49 percent to 50 to 60 percent. According to Rotowire, the Raiders’ betting odds of making the playoffs are now at +100, with an implied probability of 47.8 percent. Even though those odds are much better than the preseason high of +340, every predictive model we looked at thinks the Raiders are more “for real” than betting markets do.
Is it really the right time to get on board the Raiders bandwagon? Maybe not. But many NFL observers were skeptical of Davis — who, to put it mildly, zigs where most NFL owners tend to zag — and his ability to get a new stadium built without another team involved. Or attract attention in attraction-saturated Las Vegas. Or bring Gruden back into the fold. Or build a roster without the help of longtime Raiders execs like Badain, former general manager Reggie McKenzie or former CEO Amy Trask.
Yet Vegas is the hottest ticket in football, Gruden is prowling the sidelines, and the Raiders have better-than-even odds to make their third trip to the playoffs since Gruden left 20 years ago.
Davis bet it all on (silver and) black, and he’s going to let it ride.
Check out our latest NFL predictions.