By Matt Youmans
VSiN senior editor
A team normally existing amid doom and gloom, the Oakland Raiders shocked the skeptics of the world. Derek Carr, no longer considered a question mark at quarterback, emerged as a star.
The Raiders made an unexpected run at a division title and finished 12-4 while Carr developed into a Most Valuable Player candidate. It was a giant leap from years past.
But 2016 is history, and each NFL season is full of surprises and reversals of fortune.
Oakland and some of last season’s other overachievers will be tested by the Bounce Theory in 2017. A bounce is a regression of form. Are the Raiders, who went 7-9 in 2015, a young team on the rise or a lucky team due for a fall?
“The Raiders would be first on my list to bounce,” South Point sports book director Chris Andrews said. “Carr had an unbelievable season, and I don’t know that he’s that good.”
Carr passed for 28 touchdowns with six interceptions and posted the league’s eighth-best passer rating (96.7). He matured into a impressive team leader in his third year. But the Raiders turned into a lost cause without him.
After a broken right leg sidelined Carr in late December, the Raiders were routed 24-6 at Denver in Week 17 and immediately bounced out of the playoffs by Houston.
The analytics-based handicappers and sharps who slighted Oakland all season tended to pay for it. The Raiders won five games by three points or fewer, finished the regular season 10-6 against the spread and easily topped their win total of 8½.
Still, the skeptics will point out Oakland ranked 26th in total defense, and almost all of coach Jack Del Rio’s rolls of the dice went the Raiders’ way. There is a significant luck factor in the NFL, and it seldom sticks in back-to-back years.
The opposition in the AFC West should get even stronger, and Oakland’s schedule includes only seven true home games, plus a “home” date against the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots in Mexico City. Of course, next season is the distant future, and many things will change with the draft and free agency.
The Raiders hope to get their relocation to Las Vegas approved before summer. It’s a team to watch, for better or worse. Five other teams that could bounce in 2017:
Carolina, last year’s Super Bowl loser out of the NFC South, serves as a cautionary tale for the Falcons. The Panthers pinballed from 7-8-1 in 2014 to 15-1 and back to 6-10. Cam Newton went from MVP quarterback to bust. Matt Ryan followed as the MVP.
Ryan passed for 38 touchdowns and led the league’s highest-scoring offense at 33.8 points per game. Atlanta improved from 8-8 in 2015 to 11-5. However, the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl was a crushing disappointment for Ryan and coach Dan Quinn.
The Falcons will hear a lot about a Super Bowl hangover, but there will be some optimists.
“Quinn is a young coach and he’s making some mistakes, including in the Super Bowl, but I still think he’s a good coach and probably will get better,” Andrews said. “Ryan is a very good quarterback, and I like their offensive line. I’m still old school enough to think that’s where football begins.”
Tony Romo’s back injury in the preseason seemed to spell doom for Dallas. The Cowboys responded by winning 13 games behind rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, the league’s rushing leader with 1,631 yards. Prescott was so good (23 touchdowns, four interceptions) that Romo is headed out of town. But is Prescott the real deal?
“The Cowboys could go down to 10 or 11 wins, but that’s not a huge regression,” Andrews said. “I would think they are still going to be pretty legit contenders.”
A career underachiever in the win column, Matthew Stafford passed for 4,327 yards and 24 touchdowns. The Lions improved from 7-9 in 2015 to 9-7, although they lost the NFC North title to Green Bay in the season finale. Detroit is not set up for a drastic regression, yet reaching the playoffs again will be a major challenge.
“I’m still not sure how the Lions did it. It was kind of with smoke and mirrors,” Andrews said. “But Stafford was pretty good, and their defense was really good. It might be a team that could fall.”
A 6-10 team in 2015, the Dolphins flipped their record to 10-6 in Adam Gase’s first year as coach. On the flip side, Miami beat only one team that reached the playoffs, and quarterback Ryan Tannehill still has a long way to go.
New York Giants
The Giants’ 11-5 season included a sweep of the Cowboys. New York’s surge was due mostly to a defense that ranked No. 2 in scoring by allowing 17.8 points per game. The Giants ranked 26th in scoring offense (19.4), with Eli Manning throwing 16 interceptions and coach Ben McAdoo holding a super-sized play sheet that scripted minimal success.
“I don’t trust the Giants, and I think they could bounce,” veteran handicapper Hank Goldberg said. “I don’t like the coach. McAdoo bothers me. I think Eli is borderline done. His arm strength seems to be gone.”
Andrews called the Giants a “prime candidate” to regress in a tough division, and more analysts would probably agree than argue.