Griffith’s Got Stats: The (Hopeful) Future Rise of the Oakland Raiders
I admittedly am a bit angry writing this column.
I was planning on writing an NFL column for this upcoming Sunday and throwing in some information on the matchups I thought were interesting, with possibly a bit of fantasy advice. However, I’ll be writing something that hits closer to home than in the past, more so than Syracuse losing to Clemson a few Saturdays ago.
The Oakland Raiders are a bad football team this year, but not for the reasons fans and the media are telling you.
I, as one of the approximately two Raiders fans who hail from upstate New York, feel compelled to spread some truth about this team for which I have a love-hate relationship; some truth that the media feels compelled to avoid for the sake of narrative. There’s always been some anti-Raider bias in the sports media. The great teams from the 1970s were filled with hard hitters and castoffs from other teams, and Al Davis was an owner who didn’t come from money. He worked his way up from head coach to general manager to principal owner, all while breaking through diversity barriers. In 1963, in protest of Alabama’s segregation laws, Davis refused to allow a preseason game to be played in Alabama and demanded the game be moved to Oakland, while refusing to allow his players to travel to other cities for games where black and white players were required to stay in separate hotels. Davis also was the first NFL owner to hire an African American head coach and a female chief executive, and the second to hire a Latino head coach. The Raiders were different, and that’s what drew me to them.
Fast forward to 2018 and things are looking bleak. Mark Davis, Al’s son, has hired former Raiders coach and longtime Monday Night Football color commentator Jon Gruden to revitalize the team after a 6-10 2017 season with a 10-year contract. What was Gruden’s first major move to provide some energy? Trading two-time All-Pro and former Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack to the Chicago Bears for two first-round draft picks.
Fans were upset. I was confused. The media was all over the story. Chicago signed Mack to a six-year, $141 million contract, making him the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history. People didn’t know what to think. Now, with the Raiders at 1-5 (!) and the team losing their last two games by a combined score of 13-53, things are already starting to look dire. The team made the playoffs two years ago — how could they fall so far so quickly?
It’s easier to explain than it seems, and it offers some hope for the future. After Al Davis died in 2011, former Green Bay Packers director of football operations Reggie McKenzie was hired as the Raiders’ first General Manager since Al, who held the position at the same time as he was the owner. The Raiders were in cap hell at the time and were paying too much money to older players. McKenzie’s strength with the Raiders was fixing this cap trouble. He promptly cut or traded the players whose performance didn’t match the contract they were given and began building through the draft and through free agents on one-year “prove it” deals. After some disappointing seasons, by 2015 the team started to show improvement. Draftees Mack, quarterback Derek Carr and receiver Amari Cooper all showed improvement, and with fantastic free agent signings like offensive lineman Rodney Hudson and receiver Michael Crabtree, Oakland went 7-9 in 2015 and made the playoffs in 2016, losing in the first round after Carr broke his leg in Week 16 of that season. In 2017, expectations were higher than ever for the Raiders. However, this is where things started to go downhill. The team would finish 6-10 and people started to question head coach Jack Del Rio’s ability to coach. He was fired after the last game of the season.
So why has Gruden’s tenure been so poor so far? It’s not because of the coaching, as some media personalities want you to think, and trading Mack may have been a good move looking forward. First, Oakland’s roster going into 2018 stunk. Even in 2016, when the team had Mack and Irvin on the edge, the defense had a noticeable lack of talent. Even with Mack, the Raiders defense ranked 32nd, 22nd, 20th and 20th in points allowed the seasons Mack was with the team. (This year they rank 28th.) And on the offensive line, the team’s tackles were miles behind the interior. Going into 2018, left tackle Donald Penn was hurt, going on 35 years old and never quite as good as he was made out to be. Because of this deficiency in the line, Carr’s offensive scheme over the past few years was designed to throw quick strikes from spread sets to get the ball out before the tackles could get beat. This was a good strategy by offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, which led the team to the playoffs and obviously led to him getting fired at the end of 2016. It’s just as confusing to read as it is to comprehend.
Gruden, unlike Del Rio, knew that Carr needed a competent offensive line to play as well as he did in 2018, so he spent his first and third-round draft pick on offensive linemen. Part of the team’s struggles can be attributed to these two picks playing earlier than they should be and forcing Carr under too much pressure. When Carr gets uncomfortable, he tends to get jittery in the pocket and hasty in his progression reads, which makes sense because of his leg injury. First-round pick Kolton Miller shut down Von Miller and the Denver Broncos’ pass rush in Week 2, but his play has suffered as he’s been playing through a knee injury. Third-rounder Brandon Parker wasn’t supposed to start, but he is with Donald Penn being sent to IR and the team lacks a competent backup.
So, with Gruden “taking control” of the team’s personnel decisions from McKenzie by drafting who he thinks will help the team — another media narrative — how will this affect the team going forward? Another case where this happened was with Bill Belichick. Robert Kraft essentially gave him control of personnel decisions when he was named head coach. He went 5-11 his first season and we all know what happened next. With four first round picks in the next two years, a coaching staff with some continuity for the next 10 years and a fresh start in Las Vegas coming up soon, I’ll be looking to the future. Just win baby.