LAS VEGAS - When Derek Carr and Khalil Mack joined the Raiders together seven years ago, they vowed to do their best to turn the struggling franchise around.
It all seemed to be on the right track when the two helped the Raiders end a 13-year playoff drought in 2016, but that was followed by a disappointing season the following year and then a trade that sent Mack packing to Chicago for a haul of draft picks.
Now as Mack is set to visit Las Vegas on Sunday with the Bears (2-2), Carr still missed the player he calls "one of my best friends in the whole world" even as the Raiders (3-1) show signs of returning to contention.
"I love him to death," Carr said. "He knows that. It’s no secret, everyone knows how close we are. That’s not hidden any way. Not only is he one of the best players living in the world today. He’s one of the best people and when that trade happened it broke my heart."
It took the Raiders time to get over that deal as Mack’s absence contributed to the Raiders having one of the league’s worst defenses the past three years as they struggled to a 19-29 record.
But with an improved pass rush led by Maxx Crosby and Yannick Ngakoue, the Raiders have gotten off to a strong start this season despite losing 28-14 to the Chargers last week.
"It’s not always going to be perfect," Carr said. "But I think we’ve seen a team with a desire and hunger and an ability to win, and I think that’s been an impressive thing."
The Bears had a game that was far from perfect two weeks ago when they were held to 47 yards in rookie quarterback Justin Fields’ first start and lost 26-6 to Cleveland.
Chicago fared much better last week when Fields threw for 209 yards in a 24-14 win over Detroit, earning him the starting job for good.
"I feel like I’ve grown in pretty much every area," Fields said. "Usually like when I make a mistake in a game or make a mistake in practice, I just try to focus on those things each and every day and just get better."
Bears coach Matt Nagy reversed course Wednesday and declared the former Ohio State star the team’s No. 1 quarterback after insisting two days earlier that spot still belonged to veteran Andy Dalton.
Fields got the news Tuesday, but wasn’t in the mood to celebrate.
"My parents were actually at my house," he said. "They wanted to go out to celebrate and I just told them, ‘Nah. I’m cool.’ Because I’m trying to win this weekend. Of course there’s some reason to celebrate, but I’m not just going to be complacent with where I’m at."
His parents wound up going out to eat, while Fields stayed home.
The Raiders overhauled their offensive line in the offseason, trading away Rodney Hudson, Gabe Jackson and Trent Brown in order to get younger and cheaper. The early results haven’t been promising as rookie Alex Leatherwood has struggled at right tackle and center Andre James has been overpowered in his first year as a starter.
Las Vegas ranks 31st in the league in rushing, averaging 3.25 yards per carry, and has allowed 12 sacks, fifth most in the NFL.
"There is no panic," Carr said. "There are definitely things we have to do better from a communication standpoint that would solve a lot of problems. There’s been spurts where we’ve done really well and there is spurts where we haven’t all been on the same page."
The Bears could be missing two key players, with running back David Montgomery (knee) out indefinitely and defensive tackle Akiem Hicks’ status in question because of a groin injury. Both players were hurt in the win over Detroit.
Montgomery was injured on a run in the fourth quarter and left the game with 106 yards and two touchdowns. The third-year pro ranks fifth in the NFL in rushing with 309 yards.
Super Bowl 54 star Damien Williams figures to play a bigger role with Montgomery hurt, though he’s dealing with a quad issue.
Hicks’ injury could leave the Bears without a disruptive force on the line, after he went out on the defense’s first play last week. Though Chicago gave up 90 yards rushing, most came before Detroit fell behind by three TDs and turned more to the pass.
The Raiders have been plagued by slow starts this season, having scored just three points in the first quarter on offense this season, ahead of only the Jets. They went three-and-out on their first three possessions before being stopped on fourth down in the next drive in the loss last week to the Chargers. The Raiders had 51 yards of offense in the first half, the lowest ever for a Jon Gruden-coached team.