What’s next for the Las Vegas Raiders after finding an unlikely face of the franchise in interim coach Antonio Pierce?

Black Monday is here. The NFL regular season is officially over, which designates the start of the offseason for more than half of the league and the beginning of the coaching carousel, in which five downtrodden teams (so far) are playing matchmaker to try to find their new head man.

The Panthers, Chargers, Falcons and Commanders are hitting the streets, needing an upgrade on the situation they just left. Then there is an unusual situation with the fifth team that technically has a vacancy at head coach.

The Raiders probably didn’t expect to find themselves in this scenario when they fired Josh McDaniels after a lifeless 3-5 start to the season, but the Silver and Black might have found an unlikely face of the franchise in interim coach Antonio Pierce. Now they have to decide if Pierce did well enough for them to pass up on this year’s crop of coaching talent.

Pierce’s case for becoming the Raiders’ full-time head coach absolutely has merit. The Raiders went 5-4 in the nine games in which he ran the show in place of McDaniels. And it’s not just an improved final product on the field that has people buzzing about Pierce; it’s also how the team felt under his command.

The Raiders got their swagger back under Pierce — or as much swagger as a team can have while starting Aidan O’Connell. The defense was one of the elite units in the league, ranking second in expected points added per play (-0.141) on defense in the nine games Pierce was head coach, according to RBSDM.com. They ranked 26th in expected points added per play (0.038) in the eight weeks McDaniels was running the show. The Raiders played the Dolphins’ offense tough, made life hell for Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in an upset win on Christmas and scored 63 points against the Chargers on national television (a victory that ran the Chargers’ Brandon Staley out of town).

The Raiders showed significant improvement under Antonio Pierce, and now the team must make a difficult decision about its next head coach. (AP Photo/John Locher)

The Raiders showed significant improvement under Antonio Pierce, and now the team must make a difficult decision about its next head coach. (AP Photo/John Locher)

It’s hard to overstate the degree of improvement the Raiders displayed with Pierce, and that includes the culture of the team. They had a successful reclamation project over the back half of the season, acquiring former Patriots cornerback Jack Jones and quickly transforming him back into a weapon for the secondary. There’s proof of the buy-in here on a multitude of levels that turned into on-field success, and that’s the difficult part to weigh in deciding whether to promote Pierce. There’s already a connection and some form of success here, which isn’t guaranteed with another coach, but that’s also not a good enough reason to stand pat and not see what’s out there.

Besides Pierce, the Raiders have a handful of quality candidates to consider. Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson and others are options the Raiders will likely explore at some point while they whittle down their candidates over the next few weeks. There’s also the risk that this stint with Pierce isn’t replicable for the Raiders moving forward, so they need to take the traditional path and interview highly sought after candidates.

This is a rare, good situation for a team that hasn’t had a lot of recent success. There are worse problems to have than an interim coach proving himself as a legitimate candidate for the full-time job. The Raiders have a base to build upon that appears far more promising now than it did when McDaniels was fired on Halloween. They have a defense that can hold its own, an improving offensive line and enough pieces that a functional offense can be in place even if they do trade Davante Adams this offseason. Things are finally looking up for the Raiders, especially if they can make some progress over the coming months toward figuring out who their quarterback of the future is.

That the Raiders are here and Pierce has a real shot at the job is a testament to the work the interim coach and the rest of the team put in. He’s qualified. Now he just has to wait and play the game on one of the most interesting head-coaching vacancies in the league.

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