It looked like a miracle from above. Derek Carr lofted a pass that dropped from the sky and landed in the hands of Henry Ruggs for the winning 46-yard touchdown with five seconds left.
The Las Vegas Raiders’ playoff hopes stayed alive with a wild 31-28 victory over the hapless New York Jets, who stayed winless (0-12) and on track to land the No. 1 pick in next year’s NFL draft. So was it a miracle or something nefarious?
Those with a fascination for conspiracy theories — the betting public included — immediately jumped to conclusions Sunday as the Raiders celebrated their improbable road win.
The theory is the New York coaching staff, specifically defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, wanted to lose the game and tank for the top draft pick. Williams called an all-out blitz that left cornerback Lamar Jackson, an undrafted rookie, in single coverage against Ruggs, one of the fastest receivers in the league. Essentially, sending eight defenders at Carr instead of sitting back in a deep prevent defense was the only way the Jets could lose.
“No, I don’t buy the conspiracy,” said VSiN’s Brent Musburger, the radio play-by-play voice of the Raiders. “I always think tanking is strictly for fans and the media, and athletes don’t go for that. The kids are still playing for their livelihoods.”
But what about coaches, and does the front office go for tanking? It’s a common occurrence in the NBA, where general managers send out teams that are basically incapable of winning.
It could be argued Adam Gase still is the head coach and Williams, who was fired Monday, still was calling the defense because Jets ownership surmised that sticking with the clumsy Gase-Williams duo was a way to keep the team winless and on the path to draft Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who could change the franchise’s direction for the next decade. That theory makes some sense.
Musburger said it makes no sense that the coaches, who surely expected to be fired soon, care enough about the No. 1 pick to go 0-16. It also makes no sense that the players want to lose, and proof was in the Jets’ defensive stop on fourth down previous to the Raiders’ final drive.
The Raiders were 7.5-point favorites and attracted heavy betting action, especially on 6-point teasers and on the moneyline (-400 at BetMGM) to win outright. Westgate SuperBook director John Murray said a Jets victory could have produced the biggest single-game win of the NFL season for his book, so everyone can rule out a Vegas conspiracy.
“We certainly did well and won money on the day, but we could have done so much better if the Raiders had lost,” Murray said. “The Jets purposely giving up the touchdown is disappointing. The players obviously don’t want to lose the game. The Raiders still had to execute the play, so you have to give them credit for that. But I don’t know how you could explain that (blitz call) other than they were trying to lose. It’s unreal. No coach could be that dumb.”
That’s why Williams is no longer coaching. Because the Raiders trailed by four points and had no timeouts left, Musburger said he was “stunned” by Williams’ decision to blitz.
“Gregg Williams is going to suffer for that play call because he left his secondary out to dry,” Musburger said. “I know that conspiracy theory is going to be out there, but professional athletes still want to win the game. It was a terrible defense to use in that situation. Williams is a pressure defensive coach and he’s going to bring it. He’s the bounty hunter, he was going after Carr, and he paid a tremendous price.”
VSiN analyst Michael Lombardi pinned the Jets’ loss on “coaching malpractice to the highest level” by Williams, and to a lesser degree by Gase, an oblivious bystander who failed to veto one of the worst defensive calls in NFL history.
“That was Williams being arrogant,” Lombardi said. “He should have been fired in the locker room. That loss belongs on one man. It’s ridiculous that Gase allowed that call to happen. It’s horrible. It’s not a conspiracy. It’s a false narrative. It has nothing to do with Trevor Lawrence. The Jets were trying to win the game.”
There are reasons to believe in some conspiracy theories, but not this one. This was not tanking. It was simply Williams’ ego and incompetence.
Las Vegas (7-5) lucked into a win that affects the AFC playoff picture. The Raiders are 2.5-point home underdogs to Indianapolis (8-4) this week in a game Musburger termed “huge” for both teams’ postseason chances.
The Raiders were the only team in the league to win outright as a double-digit underdog — + 11 in a 40-32 victory at Kansas City in Week 5 — until the New York Giants did it in Week 13. Joe Judge, a former New England assistant to Bill Belichick, coached the 11-point underdog Giants to a 17-12 win at Seattle. The Giants are 8-4 against the spread for Judge.
When handicapping the NFL, bettors would be wise to hunt for coaching mismatches, and there were two obvious such situations Sunday.
Belichick faced Anthony Lynn in Los Angeles, where the Chargers closed as small favorites. The Patriots rolled 45-0.
“We had sharp guys betting the Chargers -1.5,” Murray said in a tone of disbelief. “It was a hilarious game. It was like Anthony Lynn gave you a manual on how not to coach the game.”
Sean McVay faced Kliff Kingsbury in Arizona, where the Rams won 38-28 as 3-point favorites. McVay improved to 7-0 with six double-digit wins against the Cardinals the last three seasons.
Another profitable angle to consider is a coaching change — bet on a team the week after the coach gets fired. Houston fired Bill O’Brien after starting 0-4, and the Texans (-6.5) beat Jacksonville 30-14 the next week. Atlanta fired Dan Quinn after starting 0-5, and the Falcons (+ 3.5) beat Minnesota 40-23 the next week.
The angle improved to 3-0 this season when the Lions, 3-point dogs, rallied to win 34-30 at Chicago. Detroit’s players seemed to welcome the news of coach Matt Patricia getting fired after the Thanksgiving Day massacre. The Bad News Bears have slipped from 5-1 to 5-7, and Matt Nagy is another clueless coach who should be history soon.
Musburger said with a laugh, “If the Jets want to stay with the No. 1 pick, don’t fire Gase, because they will win next week.”