Quarterbacks return for Raiders, Titans
When the Oakland Raiders and Tennessee Titans open the season Sunday at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, it will be more than a game matching teams with high expectations.
It will also be a matchup of quarterbacks playing their first meaningful game since sustaining similar season-ending injuries on Christmas Eve.
In the third quarter of a stunning loss at Jacksonville that eliminated Tennessee from playoff contention, the Titans' Marcus Mariota fractured his fibula. Hours later, in the fourth quarter of a win over Indianapolis, Raiders quarterback David Carr crumpled to the turf in Oakland, his season done with a broken leg.
The Raiders' season was done as well. Although they clinched a playoff spot, they were anything but a playoff team after Carr's departure. The sight of third-string quarterback Connor Cook piloting a once-powerful offense in the wild-card round at Houston was enough to make one's eyes bleed.
But the return of Carr, who last year became only the fifth player in NFL history with 80 touchdown passes in his first three seasons, should make the Oakland offense explosive again.
"I think he's a great player, and it showed last season," Mariota said of Carr. "Guy is a great competitor. Makes all the throws, makes it look easy. I think he's one of the better throwers in the league."
The same could be said of Mariota. In 2016, Mariota became a more efficient passer, completing better than 61 percent of his attempts with a 26-9 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He also rushed for 349 yards and two scores.
While the Titans looked spotty for most of their preseason, Mariota fashioned a passer rating of 110.0, completing 20 of 32 attempts for 269 yards and a pair of touchdowns. His mobility did not appear compromised eight months after the injury.
"I've always followed his career, and I've always been a big fan of his," Carr said. "I was definitely praying for him and wishing him well."
Carr and Mariota have gotten pretty familiar with watching each other's work. This is the third straight season the teams will meet, all in Nashville. The Raiders will be going for the sweep after winning close games the past two years.
Oakland's 17-10 win in Week 3 last year was typical of its season: The Raiders didn't blow out a lot of opponents, but they were able to make key plays at the end of close games. They were 9-2 in games decided by one score and were 5-0 in games decided by three points or fewer.
Although there are concerns about the team's focus with a move to Las Vegas on the horizon, Raiders coach Jack Del Rio is eager to get the season going.
"I can't wait to watch our guys play," he said. "We've put a lot of time and effort into developing our guys. We recognize (the Titans) are a good football team, we're a good football team, and we need to go in there and battle."
Del Rio and Oakland might have to battle without their best defensive player. End Khalil Mack (knee) landed on the injury report Wednesday after not practicing. The Raiders listed 10 players on the report, including star wide receiver Amari Cooper (knee), who was limited at Wednesday's practice.
First-round draft pick Gareon Conley, a cornerback, was also limited in practice with a shin injury. The Raiders hope he will be able to play against a Tennessee receiving corps that appears to be beefed up by the addition of Eric Decker as well as rookies Taywan Taylor and Corey Davis.
However, the Titans' identity is their ground game. Using a philosophy that coach Mike Mularkey termed "extreme smashmouth" prior to last year, Tennessee pounded opponents with DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry and a huge offensive line.
Murray rushed for 1,287 yards and nine touchdowns last season in a return to the form from his Dallas Cowboy glory days, while Henry added 490 yards and five scores in a decent rookie season.
In contrast to the Raiders' lengthy injury list, the Titans put only two names on the injury report Wednesday. But one of them was left tackle Taylor Lewan, who twisted his ankle during practice. Mularkey said he believes Lewan will play on Sunday.
The emotional Lewan, the guy Tennessee often runs behind, will see his fill of Mack on pass plays if Mack plays.
"They'll be matched up at some point," Mularkey said. "I don't know how many reps it will be, but it'll happen in this game."
Updated September 7, 2017