Raiders showing clear progress after strong start to season – NBCSports.com

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Raiders showing clear progress after strong start to season – NBCSports.com

The Raiders are 3-2 at the bye. Knock on wood if you expected that after all the Silver and Black have been through.

We should be able to hear the refrigerator hum. Even wide-eyed optimists might not be reaching for pine after the Raiders lost Antonio Brown, Vontaze Burfict, Gabe Jackson and Johnathan Abram, and after they got dressed down in Minnesota to start a season-defining five-game road trip.

These Raiders persevered through all that and managed to beat Indianapolis and Chicago away from Oakland — in consecutive weeks.

Go ahead and load up the AFC playoff picture. Yup. Raiders are in it right in it, as a wild-card team. That doesn’t mean much given there are 11 games to go and tough opposition littering the schedule, but that was never even a pipe dream last season. The fact that it is, even at this way-too-early stage, is a sign of progress.

The Raiders have been tough, transitioning to a run-first team to focus on strengths at offensive line, tight end and running back. They’re using extra defensive backs to account for a lack of linebacker depth, and have continued to function well and remain tough even in the face of adversity.

Head coach Jon Gruden had plenty of reason to put his shoulders back, take a deep breath and smile in his Tuesday bye week press conference. The work his team and his coaching staff have done to this point is impressive.

He didn’t take that tact.

“We’re building our team. That’s all I’m going to say,” Gruden said. “We’re not making any other statements other than that. We like the progress. We like the development of some young guys. I think our veteran leadership has been excellent.

“…I can’t say enough about the camaraderie that we have on the team and the guys that have stepped up. It’s fun to be around.”

This team has gotten close, bonding over all the early-season adversity. Confidence comes from the ability to overcome it.

That was clear after beating the Bears in London, a victory established with a 97-yard drive in the waning moments.

“It was nice to see the fruits of our labor,” tight end Foster Moreau said. “We’re really coming together, and you could see how well we worked as a unit. That’s the type of drive, the type of win that you can really hang your hat on.

“I think this team is getting really tight. You need good chemistry to win tough games, and we have that.”

And they have some emerging talent. The Raiders are far from a complete product, with glaring deficiencies at several spots, but there are stronger areas carrying the team through. Overcoming those issues is a testament to coaching, from game planning to player development to chemistry built over training camp and a week holed up in London.

That has been vital considering all of the team’s setbacks. Younger or unheralded players have filled in well and played critical roles in this quality start.

“Well we’ve had a lot of players play critical roles that maybe we didn’t think would play this substantial of a role this soon,” Gruden said. “I’m really proud of the development of some young players. Really pleased with our coaching staff, the job that they’ve done.

“But I’m proud of our team. We have a lot of respect for how far we have to go, but we’re making some progress.”

[RELATED: Why Gruden credits Carr for helping Raiders run game thrive]

There’s no telling how the rest of this season will go. They have two more legs left on this crazy five-game stretch played away from home, against Green Bay and Houston. Detroit visits the Oakland Coliseum after that, with several other top teams remaining. But the schedule does ease up a bit as a whole down the stretch.

We have no idea if the Raiders will remain competitive beyond this point, or whether more setbacks push the team over the edge.

We do know this group is better built to handle whatever comes next.

“We’re a better football team this year than we were last year. Coach Gruden built a solid foundation,” quarterback Derek Carr said. “I just want to win. But the cool thing about it now is I could see this last year. We’re going to be awesome; I know it. I know we’ll be able to play in big games and beat people. That said, no one else believed him except the people in our building, and that’s all that matters. I think it has carried over since last year. I think it will continue to grow.”

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