Raiders can gamble with trick plays, rookies in lost season

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Sure, the Oakland Raiders are still two years away from calling Las Vegas home. But they are already playing with house money, so to speak.

And while it might not result in many, if any, wins, gambling a bit will make things interesting and, perhaps, more exciting for a team this close to simply playing out the string, and for the No. 1 overall draft pick.

Sunday's 20-6 defeat to the Los Angeles Chargers dropped Oakland to 1-8 on the season. The Raiders have been outscored by a combined 75-9 since going up 28-21 against the Indianapolis Colts in the third quarter on Oct. 28

The most exciting play in the Raiders' ho-hum loss on Sunday?

Rookie punter Johnny Townsend's 42-yard gallop down the left sideline on a fake punt on fourth-and-4 in the first quarter. And as Next Gen Stats saw it, Townsend's top speed of 20.48 mph was faster than anything turned in by New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara or Kansas City Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt as a ball carrier this season.

Then there's this: Townsend, a fifth-round draft pick, has been struggling mightily during his rookie season, so his 42-yard run was longer than his punting average of 41.9 yards at the time. Perhaps a bit buoyed by his trick-play success, Townsend later boomed a career-best 57-yard punt against the Chargers.

"I have always said that I believe in that kid," Raiders coach Jon Gruden said. "In that fake punt you can see he is one of our fastest players. He is a tremendous athlete. He took his medicine for a while, like a lot of us, but he is going to be a really good punter for us."

As the Associated Press noted, Townsend became just the third player since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger with a run of at least 40 yards and a punt of of least 50 yards in the same game, along with Reggie Hodges for the Cleveland Browns in 2010 and Jeff Hayes for Washington in 1983.

"I completely blacked out on the play," Townsend said. "I can't even tell you what happened during it. We prepared all week and did a great job seeing the look and reacting to it. The edge came inside and we took it outside. The guys gave me a great running lane, so props to them.

"It was a nice confidence boost. It's fun to have bright spots and feed off it."

Gruden may never be confused with "Gamblin'" Jack Del Rio, who rolled the dice many a time in the Raiders' 12-4 campaign of 2016, but Gruden is loosening up a bit.

Or did you miss the Raiders going for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1 in the first quarter?

If you did, maybe that's because Dwayne Harris could not punch the ball in on a misdirection handoff.

"I have no idea what Derek saw," Harris said of quarterback Derek Carr, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. "But it had to be an ideal look for us to run it. But we ran it. Definitely didn't get blocked the way we ran it in practice."

Still, Gruden has gone for it three times on fourth-and-goal from the 1 this season, and the Raiders have been able to score only once.

Hey, in baseball, that's a .333 batting average. In football, though, it sounds like desperation. Or the growing pains that accompany a rebuilding project. And that's exactly what is happening in Oakland in anticipation of the Las Vegas move in 2020.

There's a reason Gruden called all of his rookies together last week, in the wake of the embarrassing 34-3 loss at the San Francisco 49ers.

"Obviously, the big part of the message is what a big part of this organization they will become and they are," Gruden said. "They must handle that responsibility and take advantage of it.

"I think, at the halfway point, you make some key points to them with all the coaches in there so we're all on the same page. I want them to be a united group that's learning from the [poor] start, how hard this business is and how painful it is on all of us. I want them to be a part of solution and the big picture, not only this week, but for years to come."

As if on cue, rookie defensive tackle Maurice Hurst got Philip Rivers for his third sack of the season, which tied him with the recently-waived Bruce Irvin for the team lead.

And rookie defensive end Arden Key hit Rivers when he was intercepted.

"You could see [flashes]," Hurst said. "Beginning of the game, first quarter, we were lights out on defense. It's exactly what you want to see from us and just figure out how we can do that for four quarters. That's what's important right now because that's one of the best teams in our conference. If we're able to do that for four quarters, then we're going to be a hell of a team in the future."

Indeed, early in the second quarter, the Raiders had 165 yards of total offense to the Chargers' 6 yards, on six plays.

Rookie offensive tackles Kolton Miller, the team's first-round pick, and third-rounder Brandon Parker, helped key a resurgent running game -- Oakland had 88 rushing yards before contact in the first half, its most such yards in a game in the past two seasons. -- even if quarterback Derek Carr was again under duress late.

Cue tape of Carr throwing the ball away on fourth-and-5 from the Chargers' 19-yard line while down 14 points and with 4:10 remaining, and then scratch your head.

Hey, the only Raider to score in the past nine quarters is another rookie in kicker Daniel Carlson, who has three field goals during that time.

Then take in this joke overheard in the tailgate area before the game: What did Gruden say when he got those three first-round picks? "Tanks." Get it? No, the Raiders are not tanking the season, even if it feels like it at times.

"Definitely not tanking," Hurst said. "Every day we go out there and we give it our all. We don't prepare the way we do to tank. That's annoying to hear from fans. It definitely pisses us off. It's disrespectful."

It's also called playing with house money.