Indianapolis was the NFL’s punching bag of the week, but successfully
handed that title over to Las Vegas.
We arrived at Sunday’s Raiders-Colts game in search of comedy.
Indianapolis hired Jeff Saturday off television on Tuesday. At a time in
the week when most teams were putting the finishing touches on their game
plans, the Colts were being turned down for the play-caller role by their
first in-house candidate because they wouldn’t pay him for the privilege.
They decided at the last minute to change quarterbacks and still managed
to show up in Las Vegas on Sunday prepared enough to eke out their fourth
win of the season.
We didn’t know it at the time, but it turns out all the laughs were about
to come at Josh McDaniels’s expense.
First, some disclaimers, a kind of legal attempt at fairness: The Raiders
are dealing with some injury issues. Hunter Renfrow is now done for the
season. So is Darren Waller. The linebacking corps and the defensive line
have seen better days.
Next, an admission of sorts: I have absolutely no idea how to feel about
Jeff Saturday winning his first game as a head coach. The range of
possibilities in my head right now is too vast: Maybe Colts owner Jim
Irsay is a genius and Saturday is a really good football coach? Maybe
Saturday’s headset was actually just a doctored up Fisher-Price Chatter
Telephone connected to nothing, and John Fox was running the whole deal?
Maybe it’s not super hard to coach an NFL football game and we should all
try it sometime? We need a bigger sample size.
Now, onto the part where we say what everyone else must be thinking:
McDaniels lost a game to a person who has never coached at any level in
the NFL before and, in terms of optics, this is about as bad as it gets.
Unless Saturday was secretly corralling support among the coaching staff
behind the scenes like a Senate whip, he had to win over an entire
building, earn the trust of the players, don a live headset for the first
time in his life (high school doesn’t count) and figure out how to manage
an on-field performance that moves faster than an illegally weighted
Formula One vehicle. McDaniels built his reputation on the strength of a
Patriots organization that wins games by compiling one small advantage on
top of another. If Sunday had been a game of Monopoly, it was as if the
Raiders began with hotels across the board. The Colts won it with Baltic
This was flat-out inexcusable. The Raiders are better in almost every way
than they were a year ago, when a combination of Jon Gruden and Rich
Bisaccia coached the team to the playoffs and within a few plays of
beating the eventual AFC champion Bengals (this, while dealing with the
fallout of Gruden’s racist and anti-LGBTQ emails being released and Gruden
being fired; on top of the fallout from a horrific car accident, in which
wide receiver Henry Ruggs III was speeding and intoxicated, which caused
the death of a 23-year-old woman; and the everyday life of a reportedly
toxic work environment). They spent money this offseason, acquired the
best receiver in football (Davante Adams) and somehow rendered themselves
completely incapable of winning games in a division where having a
wristband-less Russell Wilson still qualifies you as competitive.
While it would seem the Raiders’ current predicament leaves them almost
incapable of making a coaching change (how many former employees can Mark
Davis afford to pay at once?), one has to wonder how McDaniels can face
this team and inspire any modicum of confidence. As hard as we imagined it
would be for Saturday to go in and convince a guy to run through the
proverbial brick wall for him, it will be even harder for McDaniels to
maintain an aura of preparedness or mental superiority. We will now see
how long Davis can tolerate the idea that his franchise is swallowing
That aura was the reason McDaniels was widely considered a top candidate
for so many jobs over the years. The Patriots simply knew more about
football than the rest of the world. McDaniels and Tom Brady were deeper
into the machinations of football than we could ever comprehend. I’ve
spoken to coaches who planned for everything they could have possibly
imagined when it came to facing the Patriots, and still, on game day, had
shivers knowing the coaching staff there was going to cook up something
Whatever was left of that reputation, at least as it pertains to
McDaniels, is gone. His Raiders came into this game as a middling offense
and a bottom-of-the-barrel defense that had some time to turn the corner.
They were 0–5 in one-score games this season and we could all see a world
where luck and fortuitous ball bounces began to populate in their favor,
helping them climb back toward .500. Instead, McDaniels left 0–6 in games
decided by a touchdown or less and something of a scaled-down Viktor
Tikhonov character in NFL history; a person who will forever carry the
distinction of losing a game he had absolutely no business losing. (You
can read more about Tikhonov’s very famous hockey game in SI’s vault.)
During the game, the network sideline reporter noted shouting and
frustrated utterances followed by complete silence in between offensive
series. After the game, Derek Carr almost cried at the podium.
McDaniels’s most ardent defenders may point out that it’s always a grab
bag when facing interim coaches. In many situations, though, interims are
replacing someone who was despised, or at least merely tolerated by the
organization. Saturday was replacing Frank Reich, one of the most beloved
figures in football. To say the Colts came into this week emotionally
wrecked would be the understatement of the year.
We don’t know what will come next for McDaniels, but it’s far from funny
now. Before this weekend, the Raiders could at least point to the Midwest
and tell themselves that, at the very least, they weren’t the Colts. Now,
everyone else will be saying as much about Las Vegas. Everyone will tune
in next week just to watch the chaos.