Looking for comedy brought us to Sunday’s Raiders-Colts game. Indianapolis hired TV’s Jeff Saturday on Tuesday. At a time of the week when most teams were finalizing their game plans, the Colts were turned down by their first internal candidate for the play-caller role because they didn’t want to pay him for the privilege. They made a last-minute decision to switch quarterbacks and still managed to show up in Las Vegas on Sunday to claim their fourth win of the season.
We didn’t know it at the time, but it turns out any laughs would come at Josh McDaniels’ expense.
First, some disclaimers, a kind of legal fairness attempt: The Raiders are struggling with some injury problems. Hunter Renfrow is now ready for the season. Darren Waller too. The linebacking corps and defensive line have seen better days.
Next, an admission of sorts: I have absolutely no idea what to make of Jeff Saturday winning his first game as head coach. The range of possibilities in my head is too wide right now: maybe Colts owner Jim Irsay is a genius and Saturday is a really good football coach? Maybe Saturday’s headset was actually just a rigged Fisher Price Chatter phone that wasn’t connected to anything, and John Fox was running the whole deal? Maybe it’s not great Difficult to Coach an NFL Football Game and Should We All Try? We need a larger sample size.
Now for the part where we say what everyone else must be thinking: McDaniels lost a game to a person who’s never coached at any level in the NFL before, and in terms of looks, that’s as bad as it gets goes. If Saturday didn’t secretly rally the support of the coaching staff behind the scenes like a Senate whip, he’d have to win over an entire building, gain the trust of the players, don a live headset for the first time in his life (t count) and find Find out how you can handle a feat on the field that moves faster than an illegally weighted Formula 1 car. McDaniels built its reputation on the strength of a Patriots organization that wins games by taking a small advantage of the other. If Sunday had been a Monopoly game, it was like the Raiders started with hotels across the board. The Colts won it with Baltic Avenue.
That was absolutely inexcusable. The Raiders are better than they were a year ago in almost every way, when a combination of Jon Gruden and Rich Bisaccia led the team to the playoffs and within a few games to victory over eventual AFC champions Bengals (this while dealing with the aftermath dealing with Gruden’s racist and anti-LGBTQ emails being released and Gruden being fired, in addition to the aftermath of a horrific car accident in which wide receiver Henry Ruggs III was speeding and intoxicated, resulting in the death of a 23-year-old woman caused ; and everyday life in a supposedly toxic work environment). They spent this offseason, acquired the best receiver in football (Davante Adams) and somehow rendered themselves utterly incapable of winning games in a division where a Russell Wilson without a bracelet still qualifies one as competitive.
While it seems the Raiders’ current predicament makes them all but unable to make a coaching change (how many former employees can Mark Davis afford to pay off at once?), one has to wonder how McDaniels did against this team compete and inspire a certain level of self-confidence. As hard as we imagined it would be for Saturday to go in and convince a guy to run through the proverbial wall for him, it gets even harder for McDaniels to maintain an aura of willingness or mental superiority. We’ll now see how long Davis can tolerate the idea of his franchise swallowing itself entirely.
That aura was why McDaniels was widely considered the top candidate for so many jobs over the years. The Patriots simply knew more about football than the rest of the world. McDaniels and Tom Brady were deeper into the machinations of football than we could ever fathom. I’ve spoken to coaches who planned everything they could think of when it came to playing the Patriots and still got goosebumps on game day because they knew the coaching staff would be up there with something new.
What’s left of that reputation, at least as far as McDaniels are concerned, is gone. His Raiders came into this game as a mediocre offense and a bottom-of-the-barrel defense that had some time to turn the corner. They’ve been 0-5 in one score games this season and we could all see a world where luck and random ball bounces started to populate in their favor and helped them climb back towards .500. Instead, McDaniels went 0–6 in games decided by a touchdown or less and something of a downsized Viktor Tikhonov character in NFL history; a person who will forever carry the distinction of losing a game they absolutely didn’t have to lose. (You can read more about Tikhonov’s very famous ice hockey game in SI’s vault.) During the game, the reporter on the network’s sideline noticed shouts and expressions of frustration, followed by complete silence between offensive series. After the game, Derek Carr almost cried on the podium.
McDaniels’ most ardent defenders might point out that dealing with caretaker coaches is always a grab bag. In many situations, however, interim members replace someone who was despised or at least tolerated by the organization. Saturday replaced Frank Reich, one of football’s most popular figures. To say the Colts came into the week emotionally devastated would be the understatement of the year.
We don’t know what’s next for McDaniels, but it’s far from funny right now. Before this weekend, the Raiders could at least point to the Midwest and tell themselves that at least they weren’t the Colts. Now everyone else will be saying the same thing about Las Vegas. Everyone will be tuning in next week just to watch the chaos.
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