Jon Gruden’s return to the sideline in Oakland and the prospect of a full season of Jimmy Garoppolo in San Francisco put optimism at a peak in the Bay Area heading into this NFL season.
That feeling went far beyond the partisan backers of the Raiders and 49ers and extended to the league and television network bosses who decided to put the final Battle of the Bay before the Raiders leave town for Las Vegas in 2020 on Thursday night football.
That battle has quickly turned into a Bay Area Bummer.
The game between the Raiders (1-6) and the 49ers (1-7) this week could be the worst prime-time matchup in NFL history. There have been 784 prime-time games played in the NFL on Nov. 1 or later and the .133 combined winning percentage for Oakland and San Francisco is the worst of all of them, lowering the bar set Dec. 18, 2014, when Tennessee visited Jacksonville in a battle of 2-12 teams.
“I wish the game had two 8-1 or 7-1 teams playing in it,” Gruden said. “Hopefully someday soon you’ll see a game like that, but this is still going to be fun for the fans and both teams.”
Fun is not the word either team would use to describe this season, which has seen both the Raiders and 49ers blow three fourth-quarter leads, deal with several debilitating injuries, and pile up losses.
While few considered either team to be Super Bowl caliber heading into the year, there was hope both could compete for the playoffs. Now the only competition is to determine which team is worse and has the inside track at the No. 1 overall draft pick.
The Raiders’ season turned sour before it even started with the decision to trade holdout star pass rusher Khalil Mack to Chicago just one week before the start of the regular season for a package of draft picks. A defense that came into the season with enough question marks if Mack did play has generated no pressure and offered little resistance to opposing offenses.
Oakland lost the first three games despite never trailing for a second of the first three quarters as quarterback Derek Carr struggled to adjust to Gruden’s offense and the older players Gruden signed in the offseason failed to deliver.
An overtime win in Week 4 over Cleveland provided a brief respite but the Raiders have lost three straight since, getting outscored by 54 points during that span as the season is deteriorating quickly.
Adding to the drama were reports questioning the toughness and leadership of Carr, public complaints from players about how they’re being used and the trade of No. 1 receiver Amari Cooper to Dallas for a first-round pick.
Now a team that won 12 games just two years ago behind a young core of Carr, Cooper and Mack, has regressed back to where the franchise was in 2014 when the Raiders lost the first 10 games of Carr’s career.
“I’ve been here before,” Carr said. “I know how to get out of it and it’s not by pointing fingers. It’s not by getting with your buddy and taking trash. It’s about getting together with your buddies and figuring things out, asking your teammates what can I do better, what should I do. That’s how we fix it. I believe that we have guys like that.”
The Niners have lacked the drama of their neighbors but the results have been no better. San Francisco overcame a 1-10 start last year under first-year coach Kyle Shanahan to win five straight to end the season after Garoppolo was inserted into the lineup following a midseason trade from New England.
Garoppolo was rewarded with a $137.5 million contract in the offseason and the 49ers were considered an up-and-coming team worthy of five prime-time matchups.
The team was dealt a setback a week before the season when running back Jerick McKinnon, the team’s top free-agent acquisition in the offseason, blew out his knee in practice.
Garoppolo then went down with a season-ending knee injury in Week 3 and the Niners haven’t won since, taking a six-game losing streak into this week’s contest.
“Yeah, we’ve been dealt a tough hand with some of the injuries we have and some of the things that we’ve been going through, but that doesn’t mean we should be 1-7,” Shanahan said. “Those games, we make a few different plays, and I’m talking one to three plays, still wouldn’t feel great about our record but I’d feel better than I do now.”
San Francisco blew late leads in losses to Green Bay and Arizona and also had a chance at a comeback against the Chargers thwarted by a late interception by backup C.J. Beathard.
Perhaps the most concerning part is the regression by several young players who were expected to be foundation pieces with defensive tackle Solomon Thomas, linebacker Reuben Foster, cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon and safety Adrian Colbert all struggling with their play and health.
Now San Francisco is just trying to salvage any positives in the second half of the season.
“We’re fighting. Unfortunately, we’re not getting the results,” cornerback Richard Sherman said. “These have been some of the toughest losses I’ve seen.”
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