Las Vegas Raiders' slow-starting, Jekyll-and-Hyde offense has season on the brink

Derek Carr and the Raiders have consistently vacillated between airing it out and playing it safe all season, sometimes during the same game. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

"The adage that goes around in professional football, and I hear everyone say it, 'Take what they give you.' That all sounds good to everybody but I always went the other way -- 'We're going to take what we want.'" -- Al Davis, to NFL Films

HENDERSON, Nev. -- It's a fine line, really, between taking what a defense gives you and taking what you want from a defense, a line the Las Vegas Raiders' on-again, off-again potent offense has straddled repeatedly this season.

When not slipping, falling and landing spread eagle on a balance beam like an unfortunate gymnast having a bad day.

Yeah, it's been that maddening kind of consistently inconsistent season for what was supposed to be the Raiders' strength. Light up the Dallas Cowboys for 509 yards and drop 36 points on America's Team on Thanksgiving for a national television audience at Jerry World? That's what the Silver and Black Raider Nation has been waiting on.

Lose the time of possession battle by a near 36-24 margin and score just 15 points on the Washington Football Team at home, with four more days of rest, and get beat? That's more Silver and Blech.

Why, in all that is holy in Silver and Blackdom, does it take so long for the Raiders' offense to get untracked and become aggressive?

"I'm with you," Raiders receiver Hunter Renfrow said. "We've got to figure that out. Because it feels like it, right? It seems at the end of games, when we've got to have it, we go down the field and we get it, for the most part. We just have to look internally, and I'm with you on that. We've got to figure that out, for sure."

How erratic has Las Vegas' offense been this season? Six times the Raiders have scored 16 points or less; five times they have scored 31 points or more.

Consider: Raiders quarterback Derek Carr averaged 4.5 yards per passing attempt in the first half against Washington, but averaged 10.1 yards per attempt in the second half before the Raiders' final, futile possession. Plus, Carr's deep ball to the end zone at the end of the first half, which fell incomplete, traveled 36 air yards, more than his other 18 passes of the game combined at that point (27 yards).

It's not as if the normally accurate Carr doesn't have a strong enough arm to throw the deep ball. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, his last-second unanswered Hail Mary to Zay Jones had an air distance of 68.1 yards (from point of throw to target) -- tied for the longest throw in the NFL in the past five seasons.

To be fair, Carr was without Pro Bowl tight end Darren Waller, who suffered back and left knee injuries in Dallas, and versatile running backs Jalen Richard, who went on the COVID list the morning of the game, and Kenyan Drake, who suffered a broken right ankle in the second quarter Sunday.

Still, Carr had veteran game-breaker DeSean Jackson running deep and open on more than a few occasions but settled for checkdown-type throws, acknowledging an early play in which he saw Jackson running free. But because he could not account for Washington's nickel linebacker in coverage, Carr took the safer throw.

"I'm not going to throw a ball blind," Carr said.

"They were trying to stay on top as best as they could. There were times where I was just trying to throw a go ball or there were two guys behind our guy. It was definitely an emphasis for them to stay on top. It's one thing to emphasize this and one thing to do it. They did a good job for the most part."

Again, that whole take what they give you vs. take what you want argument, no? It becomes even more apparent with the Raiders' season on the brink as they travel to Kansas City on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS) with their Jekyll-and-Hyde offense and voices growing louder for quarterback Marcus Mariota to give the team a spark because, as an eight-year starter, Carr's a known commodity.

But go back to Thanksgiving, or even the Raiders' first two games after Jon Gruden resigned. All wins. All big, aggressive showings by the Las Vegas offense against the Denver Broncos, Philadelphia Eagles and Cowboys, respectively. Screen passes. Tunnel screens. Play action.

The Raiders have gone from a 5-2 record at the bye to a 6-6 mark thanks, in part, to an offense that can't figure out what it wants to be. As such, Carr was asked after the Washington loss if he was content with the playcalling of offensive coordinator Greg Olson, who took over those duties upon Gruden's departure, or if a change was needed.

"To answer your real question," Carr said tersely, "I love Oly, and he's doing a great job."

Then which is it -- conservative playcalling by Olson until it's too late, or Carr simply being too cautious early in games? Because something's not right.

Overall, Carr's 8.9 yards per completion against Washington were a season low, and his fewest since he averaged 7.4 yards against the Cleveland Browns last season, a game that took place in a rain and hail storm.

Running back Josh Jacobs said the slow starts have been "frustrating and annoying" enough for him that he "voiced" his thoughts to the receivers and offensive line during Sunday’s loss.

"We've got to be who we are, or who we think we are," Jacobs said. "And we've got to have some juice and some energy and some type of swag to us. I feel like we come in just stiff and dull in games sometimes and I don't feel like it should take somebody having a big play for everybody to take to that mindset of wanting to be on that.

"It's a mindset. ... We kind of just coast a little too much."

Indictment much?

"You try to emphasize, you try to fix it, and you go and it doesn't happen," Carr said. "It happens one time, and it doesn't happen every time.

"Each play has its own story, each play, each series. To answer your question, it is frustrating that you emphasize something, it looks good one week, then the other week ... it's not."