A front office working with a shoestring salary cap brought in a group of ragtag veteran castoffs hoping to compete in the AFC West, and that's just what the Oakland Raiders have done through five weeks. In fact, the 2-3 Raiders are about a play and an injury to quarterback Terrelle Pryor away from 4-1.
On Sunday night, the Raiders mostly dominated the San Diego Chargers in a 27-17 win and had a respectable showing on a national stage. For a team looking to rebound from a bad loss at home last week, that alone could be considered a huge development. However, more important than the win was the continued improvement of Pryor, who returned after missing last week's game with a concussion.
In the span of about two months Pryor has gone from likely backup to Matt Flynn to starter to unquestioned starter. On Sunday night, Pryor may have gone from unquestioned starter to the long-term answer for the Raiders at quarterback as well.
The Raiders have been desperate for a franchise quarterback since Rich Gannon's career ended in 2004. Before Gannon was another long drought at the position and because he came to the Raiders at age 34 and his career ended abruptly, it never quite felt like the Raiders got the full benefit of having a franchise quarterback.
Pryor completed 18 of 23 passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns and added 31 yards on the ground Sunday night and looked like he could be the answer for the Raiders at the most important position in football long term. The Raider Nation can't help but rejoice with the possibility.
Although the Raiders probably won't be competing for a playoff spot in 2013, Pryor gives them a chance to win every week. There are few quarterbacks that can match Pryor's pure athleticism, but his improvement as a passer is what should really excite the Raider Nation.
Sure, Pryor's best performance as a professional came against a suspect defense, but you also have to consider that the Raiders also came into the game with a makeshift offensive line, no elite receiving threat and without running back Darren McFadden.
There was no left tackle Jared Veldheer to protect Pryor's blind side, no Menelik Watson to give him an escape route to his right or center Stefan Wisniewski to prevent rushers from forcing him from the pocket. There wasn't even a veteran like Tony Pashos at right tackle, but Pryor still got the job done and made big plays when the Raiders needed them the most.
Pryor didn't have much to work with, but he managed to toss two touchdowns and had another taken away when Denarius Moore stepped out of bounds before coming back in bounds to catch the would-be touchdown.
When the Raiders normally would turn and hand the ball to McFadden to run out the clock after jumping out to an early lead, they had to lean on fullback Marcel Reece because backup running back Rashad Jennings injured his hamstring in the first half. Pryor was handicapped but still managed to have the best game of his young career.
The Chargers battled back into the game, but when the Raiders needed a big play Pryor was there to make it. Up by just a single score after nursing an early two-score lead, the Raiders were facing a 3rd-and-14 from their own 41 after tight end Mychal Rivera was called for a questionable offensive pass interference penalty. Convert and the Raiders would be nearly in Sebastian Janikowski's field-goal range and could burn more of the clock, but fail and the Chargers would get the ball back down one score with about seven minutes left.
Pryor rolled right and found rookie Brice Butler for a 20-yard gain, and a few plays later Janikowski hit a 50-yard field goal from the dirt—routine for him—to put the Raiders up 10 with about four minutes to play. Pryor made a play that is the kind of play franchise quarterbacks—the good quarterbacks—make on a consistent basis.
Pryor's play put the Chargers on the ropes, and the defense finished them off. The pressure was on the Chargers to get quick scores, and the Raiders went into a soft defense, content allowing completions in the middle of the field so long as the clock continued to run.
An interception for rookie cornerback D.J. Hayden off Philip Rivers in the end zone and another by safety Charles Woodson sealed the game for the Raiders, who made the plays they needed to defensively, and it was the offense, with Pryor, that put them in that position.
It wasn't a perfect team performance by any means, but you could hardly expect Pryor to have been any better. There were a few stalled drives in the second half, but without a running threat Pryor did the smart thing by holding the ball and not forcing it into coverage.
Pryor seems to be getting better and better with more experience, but he faces a tough road test in Kansas City next week against one of the best defenses in football. Except Pryor seems immune to tough tests, rising to the occasion and playing his best whenever anyone doubts him.
Hours before Pryor's performance against the Chargers, it was reported by Mike Silver of NFL.com that if former Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman signed in Oakland, he would be the starter over Pryor. Hours later, no one in their right mind would consider that a good move.
Perhaps Freeman feared that could be the case and decided his best chance to start came in Minnesota, but it wouldn't have mattered after Pryor's performance. Pryor has handled every obstacle, navigated every narrow channel and silenced every doubter thus far, and that's what franchise quarterbacks do.
Franchise quarterbacks think they are the best and go out there and play like it. On Sunday night, Pryor played like a franchise quarterback, and he only seems to be getting better.