LAS VEGAS -- Nothing was coming easily to the Raiders. They had opened the season with three consecutive losses under new coach Josh McDaniels, and now they were in a back-and-forth with the also-struggling Broncos.
The Raiders were ahead, then tied. Ahead, then tied. Even after creating breathing room with a nine-point lead early in the fourth quarter, they couldn't coast to the finish as the Broncos went on a 75-yard, six-play touchdown drive, sending a wave of anxiousness through Allegiant Stadium.
Only two weeks earlier, the Raiders had squandered a late lead at home and lost in overtime to the Cardinals, so it was hard not to wonder if history was about to repeat itself. Then running back Josh Jacobs locked eyes with McDaniels.
Largely an afterthought in the first three games, when he averaged only 64 yards on 14 carries, Jacobs was rolling. He had 58 yards at the half and 109 through three quarters. Now with the outcome in doubt, he asked McDaniels to keep feeding him.
"I'll produce. I'll produce," he said.
"I'm going to ride you," McDaniels responded.
The result was a 75-yard, 10-play drive that concluded with a 7-yard touchdown run by Jacobs, whose number was called six times on the possession. McDaniels again turned to his fourth-year back to close out the game, and he responded with three consecutive carries in the final 1:38 to pick up the first down that allowed Las Vegas to run out the clock.
Jacobs finished the game with a career-high 144 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries, and has not stopped running into the end zone or the record book since. He gained 154 yards the following week against the Chiefs, then added 143 against the Texans to become the first player in franchise history to rush for at least 140 yards in three consecutive games and the only player in Raiders lore to run for more than 3,700 yards in his first 50 games. Jacobs has 3,720, which moved him past Marcus Allen's previous record of 3,688.
"He's been excellent," said McDaniels last week. "He's a really good player -- tough, durable, gets better with more carries, doesn't ever do this ..."
McDaniels tapped the top of his head, simulating the gesture players make for a breather.
"You get backs who carry it two or three times and want to do this," the coach said. "But he just gets back in the huddle and keeps going."
It's not a stretch to say the primary reason the Raiders (2-4) are still included in any relevancy discussion is the play of Jacobs. He has provided an identity to an offense that lacked one, giving it something it can lean on in times of duress.
The expectation coming into the season was that the offense would revolve around the passing game and veteran quarterback Derek Carr, whose stable of receivers is as deep as it is talented. Tight end Darren Waller is one of the game's best, slot receiver Hunter Renfrow is a former Pro Bowler, and Davante Adams, acquired in an offseason trade with Green Bay, is widely considered the league's premier wideout. Even Jacobs understood if that were the focus.
"If you were to create a Madden team now, and you had the guys that we have, all these weapons, it gets hard to do the little things, like the grind plays, because at any given moment, you could have a crazy play because you have all of these receivers," he said. "Sometimes I feel like you can get caught up in that. I know sometimes I do, when I'm in the game I catch myself watching (Adams) do a route."
However injuries to Waller and Renfrow, inconsistent pass protection from a rebuilt offensive line, and an overall adjustment period to a new system have not allowed the aerial game to take flight. Enter, Jacobs, who has been everything McDaniels could have hoped for -- and more.
He has surpassed 100 yards rushing in three consecutive games for the first time as a pro. He previously had reached the century mark in back-to-back games only once in his career, and that was the fifth and sixth games of his rookie season in 2019.
His top three career rushing performances have come in his last three outings, and his three rushing touchdowns Sunday marked only the second time in his career that he achieved the feat. He has had five receptions in three games this season after previously reaching that mark a total of five times in the previous three seasons.
Bottom line: Jacobs ranks third in rushing yards (633) and is tied for second in rushing touchdowns (six) for the season, and is averaging 174 yards from scrimmage the past three games.
"If you look at the years I've been in the league since my rookie year," he said, "this is the first time I've had lanes where I'm not getting touched for 3 yards. I'm not having to make people miss in the backfield. I don't think the O-line gets enough credit. You only see when they mess up. You don't ever see how good they've really been. Obviously we've found an identity running the ball, and that's a testament to them. I just put my spin on it after they have already laid the groundwork."
There is a narrative that Jacobs, a former first-round pick of the previous front office and coaching staff, is running with a chip on his shoulder because the Raiders did not exercise the fifth-year option on his contract. Nothing could be further from the truth, he says. In fact, he views it as a positive.
"If you want me to be honest," Jacobs said, "I was thinking, OK, I'm 24 years old. I'm about to get to the bag (free agency dollars) faster now. I'm one year closer to doing what I've been working for all these years. To me, I didn't look at it negatively. I'm going to be 25, getting a deal, and can still play five years or whatever, and can retire before 31 having played 10 years in the league.
"I'm one of those guys who can't look at things too negatively because it will affect me. It will affect the way I go about my work and my business. I'm one of those guys who has to talk to himself, like, 'This can happen, and this can happen. Focus on the bright side of everything and then go from there.' "
It would have been easy for Jacobs to get caught up in the outside noise, all of which raised speculation that the new regime was not sold on him. First, it declined to pick up his option. Then it drafted running back Zamir White in the fourth round. To some, the writing was on the wall, though Jacobs never read it. His focus was on getting better and earning whatever role he would have.
"My initial thought was, 'I'm proven in this league. What more do I have to prove?' " He said. "But when I sat back and really thought about it, 60 percent of this team is new. It's new coaches, new guys. It's guys who might have played against me but don't know how I am on a day-in and day-out basis. So, when I changed the way I was thinking about it, it was like, OK, just let me go put on a show. Whether it was in practice or whatever, just execute all my assignments and gain the trust of the team and the guys, and with that, it will come from the coaches as well. Whenever I get my opportunities in the games, let me prove a point and let me set the tone, let me do what I think I'm capable of doing, and hopefully they see it."
"I love the kid, love him," said McDaniels. "He wants to win. If I say to him, 'We're going to throw it 70 times this week and we're not going to run it much,' he'd say, 'OK, tell me what I've got to do.' That's the type of guy he is.
"The first few games of the season we lost control of the score, so I couldn't keep handing the ball off because we were behind by so much. The Arizona game was a different story, but we were behind by two touchdowns in the L.A. game, and two or three touchdowns at Tennessee. As much as I try to catch up staying balanced, it's sometimes difficult. It's not an excuse. The fact is, he's got to be a part of the plan. He's one of our best players, clearly. The Denver game, I felt like he was in a great rhythm. He felt like he was in a great rhythm. It was kind of like getting tight there, and he looked at me, and I looked at him, and he said, 'Just keep feeding me.' I said, 'No problem.' "