“The best ability, is availability.” — Anonymous
HENDERSON, Nev. — Go ahead, then, add another maxim, albeit a cautionary one, to the Las Vegas Raiders‘ already-full wall of slogans and affirmations. Slide it in somewhere between Commitment to Excellence, Pride and Poise and Just win, baby!
Because when it came to the head-scratching season that was the Raiders’ 2022 campaign — three-first-team All-Pro selections on a team that was only 6-11? — a major storyline was the inability of a couple of Pro Bowl pass-catchers to remain, well, available.
Consider: a year after catching 103 passes for 1,038 yards and nine touchdowns in 17 games, wide receiver Hunter Renfrow played in 10 games, finishing with 36 catches for 330 yards, two TDs and one costly Week 2 fumble.
Tight end Darren Waller? He played in just nine games this past season and had 28 catches for 388 yards and three TDs, two years after setting a franchise record with 107 catches, for 1,196 yards and nine scores.
Sure, they missed a combined 15 games due to a malady of injuries, ranging from concussions to strained hamstrings, but that’s a precipitous drop-off in production from a pair of Pro Bowlers rarely seen. A decline that not even receiver Davante Adams (one of the Raiders’ first-team All-Pro thanks to his NFL-leading 14 touchdown receptions), running back Josh Jacobs (another All-Pro who was the league’s leading rusher with 1,653 yards) or even placekicker Daniel Carlson (Las Vegas’ third All-Pro, who kicked an NFL-record 11 field goals from 50 yards or further) could help the Raiders overcome.
Per ESPN Stats & Information, Brandon Marshall went from 1,502 receiving yards, a Pro Bowl nod and a second-team All-Pro selection for the Jets in 2015 to 788 receiving yards the next year, while Eric Decker went from 1,027 receiving yards in 2015 to 194 yards (in just three games) for the 2016 Jets.
And Roddy White went from 1,351 receiving yards for Atlanta in 2012 to 711 in 2013, with Julio Jones going from 1,198 yards in 2012 to 580 in 2013.
Perhaps hardest for the Raiders’ duo to digest was the fact that they each signed contract extensions in the offseason — Renfrow inking a two-year, $32 million deal and Waller getting a three-year, $51 million contract to team with Adams, Jacobs and quarterback Derek Carr to create a next-to-impossible-to-stop offense under first-year coach Josh McDaniels.
“When the offense as a whole executes just the finest of details, it’s a really, really, really impressive group,” Waller said with four games to go in the season. “Football is different, you know, because you’ve got 10 guys doing the right thing and if one person misses a minor detail, it could be a 2-yard play as opposed to a 20-yard play.”
Renfrow, meanwhile, said it was “fun” to watch the Raiders go on a three-game winning streak when he and Waller were on injured reserve together (Waller from Weeks 6-14 and Renfrow from Weeks 10-14), and expected to contribute to more success upon their return.
Alas … it didn’t matter. Not with the Raiders losing four of their last five and Carr being benched the final two games, leaving the team and setting up shop on the trade market, if he doesn’t get his outright release by Feb. 15.
Still, Waller and Renfrow did give a glimpse of what the offense might look like with them being available and, thus, contributing.
And Waller had 12 of his 28 catches and two TDs — including a mocking wave to the “haters”, who questioned why the erstwhile rapper would “drop a record” during the season, after his score — in the last four games.
By comparison, Adams had a combined 18 catches and two TDs in the last two games.
Whoever is the Raiders quarterback next season should have an ample set of targets at his disposal.
“I think we still believe in each other and we still believe in, obviously, the coaches and everybody,” Renfrow said with two games to go. “It’s just about going out and getting better and getting better every day.”
And being available.