Skip to main content

Las Vegas Raiders: Antonio Pierce needs to clear one hurdle for strong case to be head coach

Las Vegas Raiders
Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

At 6-8, some Las Vegas Raiders players may feel like they’re playing for something as important as a playoff spot, and that’s team stability.

According to Next Gen Stats, the Raiders have a two percent chance to earn a postseason berth, which would go up to seven percent if they beat the Kansas City Chiefs on Christmas.

But don’t suggest that the players shut it down for a high draft pick. Nope. Maxx Crosby doesn’t want to hear that nonsense:

Several players have voiced the significance of these final few games in regards to Antonio Pierce’s head-coaching candidacy.

Based on the postgame comments out of the locker room, Pierce clearly has the pulse of the team.

Antonio Pierce has player buy-in

las vegas raiders
Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

After the Raiders molly-whopped the Los Angeles Chargers 63-21, players were vocal about how the results of these games can impact Pierce’s future.

“We are playing for AP and Champ, because we love both of them,” Jermaine Eluemunor said via The Athletic’s Vic Tafur. “It’s up to us if they’re going to be the coach and GM. They embody the Raider way, and this is the first time since (Jon) Gruden was here (in 2021) that I really feel like I was playing for the Raiders.”

Cornerback Jack Jones, who said Pierce is “like a father figure” to him, had a similar sentiment about leaving it all out on the field for his interim head coach.

“It was a big turnaround from last week, but we believe in one another, the coaches and the process,” Jones said. “We’re all out, balls to the wall for coach AP.”

Wideout Davante Adams spoke about how the team has rallied around Pierce.

“He understands the mindset,” Adams said to reporters. “He understands the goal we have as a team, and I think everybody has rallied around him real tight to make sure he knows that we’ve got his back.”

During an interview with the NFL Network, Crosby has talked about what he’s done or could do on and off the field to help interim general manager Champ Kelly and Pierce keep their jobs.

“I’ve been very honest and very open about it because I love those guys,” Crosby said. “AP [Antonio Pierce] and Champ [Kelly], I’ve been close with them ever since they’ve been here before they got those jobs.

“Selfishly, I want them to continue to be the head coach and GM. I’ve been very honest with them. I told Mark [Davis] the same thing. For me, I take it as extra motivation to help this team win, so they can be in the position they are in now for the long term.”

Clearly, the players understand the results of these games matter for Pierce and perhaps the long-term future of the franchise.

Pierce is getting steady player development

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Las Vegas Raiders
Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most reasonable arguments in favor of Pierce is the Raiders’ need for stability. They’ve had a revolving door of players, coaches, and front-office executives for two decades.

Of course, you don’t want to keep people around for the sake of continuity because that would mean the Raiders would’ve endured a longer struggle under head coach Josh McDaniels.

But in Pierce’s case, he has the Raiders currently trending in the right direction. He took over a 3-5 team that played uninspired football and turned it into a respectable squad while going 3-3 in an interim position.

Keep in mind that Pierce has turned around an operation that’s inexperienced at key positions, particularly at offensive coordinator and quarterback.

First-year offensive play-caller Bo Hardegree and rookie quarterback Aidan O’Connell have the most impact on the production on their side of the ball, but as a CEO-type head coach, Pierce can certainly make suggestions and set the direction of the offensive philosophy.

Though Pierce doesn’t call offensive or defensive plays, his team’s results are somewhat of a reflection of how he prepares the club for game day.

By the way, Pierce is working with mostly the same players McDaniels had before his dismissal, but he’s getting better results than his predecessor and made the necessary switch from quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to O’Connell.

Collectively, the Raiders’ 2023 draft class had its best overall performance last week in a win over the Chargers. O’Connell threw for 248 yards and a career-high four touchdowns. Tre Tucker scored two touchdowns, and Michael Mayer also reached paydirt.

Las Vegas also saw young guys from recent draft classes shine as well.

Running back Zamir White recorded 17 carries for a career-high 69 rushing yards and a touchdown in his first NFL start. Edge-rusher Malcolm Koonce has quietly made some strides in his third term with 32 tackles, three for loss, four sacks and 16 pressures. Tyree Wilson had arguably his best game in Week 14 against the Minnesota Vikings, recording four tackles, one for loss, and a sack in a hybrid defensive end-tackle role.

Jones, who played under Pierce at Long Beach Polytechnic High School, looks like a potential keeper at cornerback, allowing a 72.9 passer rating in coverage since the Raiders claimed him off waivers.

Under McDaniels, the Raiders didn’t see much growth out of their young players across the roster. Lately, the youngsters have shown the ability to contribute in key situations.

Related: Top 10 running backs in Las Vegas Raiders history: Where Josh Jacobs stands

Pierce’s linebacker unit and defense have exceeded expectations

NFL: New York Jets at Las Vegas Raiders
Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Speaking of development, Pierce doesn’t get enough credit for his work with the linebacker unit. Once looked at as the weak links, Robert Spillane and Divine Deablo have played significant roles in the middle of the Raiders’ ninth-ranked scoring defense, particularly the former.

While Deablo has been decent, Spillane is having his best pro season with career highs in tackles (119), tackles for loss (six) and sacks (3.5). He’s also far better in coverage than most expected, logging three interceptions and four pass breakups while allowing a 74.7 passer rating.

In a pinch, Luke Masterson has been a serviceable rotational linebacker, registering 24 tackles, two forced fumbles, and a pass breakup.

Though Pierce doesn’t get much praise for the Raiders’ top-10 scoring defense with Patrick Graham calling the plays, he’s also the linebackers coach with some background on the defensive side of the ball from his coordinator years (2020-21) at Arizona State. In all likelihood, he has some input on the defensive game plan.

Related: Evaluating, ranking the best NFL head-coaching vacancies in 2024, including the Las Vegas Raiders

Pierce needs quality wins

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Las Vegas Raiders
Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

So, why isn’t Pierce a slam-dunk candidate for the head coaching job? He’s missing one element that would vault him over other potential applicants for the position.

The Raiders need to add a quality win to their 2023 resume on Pierce’s watch to strengthen his candidacy.

Under Pierce, Las Vegas has beaten three five-win clubs: the New York Giants, New York Jets, and Los Angeles Chargers. On the flip side, the team has lost to opponents with playoff or Super Bowl aspirations, the Miami Dolphins, Minnesota Vikings and Kansas City Chiefs.

While one can understand that Pierce has a difficult task in stringing together wins against playoff-caliber squads with so much inexperience on the offensive side of the ball, the team needs to finish the campaign on a strong note to show that it can compete with quality opponents.

Fortunately, the Raiders will find out how they measure up against teams with playoff ambitions in the next three weeks. The Chiefs, Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos are all in the thick of the AFC playoff race for seeding or wild-card spots.

Though Pierce’s Raiders haven’t beaten a formidable opponent with a high-level starting quarterback, their test is right in front of them, starting with the Chiefs on Christmas Day.

With an upset victory over Kansas City or wins against Indianapolis and Denver, Pierce may have a strong enough resume that satisfies owner Mark Davis and makes him feel comfortable with the growth of the team under its current direction.

Maurice Moton covers the Las Vegas Raiders for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @MoeMoton.

Mentioned in this article:

More About: