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Oakland Raiders Takes: The Problem Starts at the Top

First off, let me tell you what I'm not here to do:

1) Defend JaMarcus Russell.  His performance the last two weeks has been indefensible. 

2) Attack Darrius Heyward-Bey.  It's his third game as a pro and he was never intended to be a Calvin Johnson-esque prospect who was ready to go from day 1.  Relax and ease up off the kid a bit.  If he still only has one catch after three games next season, then we'll talk.

3) Berate Darren McFadden.  If someone can teach him to hold onto the damn ball, he'll be an effective player.  Fumbleitis is one disease that's curable.

No, what I'm here to do is lay out an argument why I believe the real problem with the Raider franchise is the direction coming from above.  The man who coined the phrase "Just win, baby" is now the primary reason the Raiders aren't doing very much winning.  I know many of you will say, "Al Davis doesn't suit up and play."  True.  But, it's also beyond question that the coaching staff are basically marionettes who dance according to Davis' commands.  Inhibiting them inhibits the players which inhibits winning on the field.   

 

 Past is Prologue

Al Davis was long known as a football genius.  He was innovative, a gambler and had a progressive mind.  He is the ultimate players owner.  In the 19 seasons spanning the years 1967-1985, the Raiders were one of the most dominant teams in professional football.  In that time period, the organization had one--count it, one--losing season, a 7-9 campaign in 1981.  During that stretch, the team appeared in four Super Bowls and won three of them.  Four Raiders were named the overall league MVP.  Starting with "The Mad Bomber" Daryl Lamonica, the Raiders were known as a team who would relentlessly attack downfield with the deep ball thrown to guys with such legendary names as Biletnikoff, Wells, Branch and Casper.  The team became famous for being a haven where the misfits and castoffs from other teams could come and rehabilitate their career.  Most famously, Jim Plunkett and Lyle Alzado each won the NFL Comeback Player of the Year Award.  Playing the Raiders was always a nightmare.  They were faster than you, cockier than you and worst of all, tougher than you.  Even if you beat them, you were going to be sore and exhausted the next day.

Starting in 1986, things began to change.  With the exception of a few flashes during Art Shell's first tenure and the Gruden Era, the Raiders have been mired in mediocrity ever since. 

Ever since the spectacular success of Jim Plunkett, Al has been desperately trying to recapture lightning in a bottle with a serious of journeymen quarterbacks.  You know the names:  Schroeder, Hostetler, George, Gannon, Collins, Culpepper.  Of that list, only Gannon can be counted a true success. 

This rule can actually be extended over the team as a whole.  Davis is constantly trying find the quick fix, the one player that will infuse the team with its former glory. This can be seen in his constant targeting of Super Bowl MVPs (Desmond Howard, Larry Brown...hell, throw Dominic Rhodes in there too since many think he should've won the award instead of Manning) and former first round draft choices of other teams (Eric Dickerson, Harvey Williams, Jeff George, Tyrone Wheatley, Kerry Collins, Warren Sapp, Gerard Warren, DeAngelo Hall, Javon Walker, William Joseph).

The same philosophy applies with coaching.  Most recently, look at the disastrous attempt to bring back Art Shell.  That was a crazy, frantic attempt to reconjure past magic if there ever was one.  Since 1988, if you count Art Shell twice, the Raiders have had 10 head coaches.  10 of those years are taken up by the first Shell tenure and Gruden.  Think about that.  Of the eight remaining, not one of them has been given more than two full seasons.

By contrast, the Pittsburgh Steelers have had a grand total of three head coaches in forty years.

I understand wanting to win now.  Let's face it:  Al Davis is 80 and though he can afford the best medical care possible, he probably doesn't have too many years left.  We all know his fondest desire is to hoist the Lombardi Trophy one more time.  But these desperate actions have hurt his chances more than they've helped him.  The team is now forced into a rebuilding phase under the direction of a guy who doesn't know how to truly rebuild a franchise from the ground up.  And he refuses to hire a GM who does know.  Then again, what good would it do?  Al would not give up total control, and no competent GM in his right mind would accept being a figurehead.

The Song Remains the Same

Al Davis is known as a man with a strong sense of history and a streak of stubborn independence.  These qualities used to be his greatest assets.  Unfortunately, these are now perhaps the primary anchors dragging down the team.

Starting in the 1990's the game began to change on both sides of the ball.  Developments in offense such as the "run and shoot" and "West Coast" styles began to make the old styles of offense emphasizing a seven step QB drop designed to give receivers time to get far downfield obsolete.  Similarly, on defense, the rise of the 3-4 system and such innovations as Cover 2 schemes and zone blitizing made the base 4-3 model all but obsolete. 

Davis has shown a willingness to allow some modern offensive schemes.  Gruden and Norv Turner both implemented West Coast styles of offense, though Davis grew disenchanted with the scheme once he grew disenchanted with those coaches.  Upon re-hiring Art Shell in 2006, he gave his blessing to the reinstalling of the old system, co-ordinated by Tom Walsh, who had been out of football for years running a hotel.  The so called "bed and breakfast" offense was a disaster, akin to trying to fight an F-16 with a Sopwith Camel.  By the time Andrew Walter and Aaron Brooks had completed their long drop backs, linebackers and defensive ends were already in their faces.

With Lane Kiffin's hiring, another West Coast style system emphasizing quick, short passes was brought in. However, Davis then refused Kiffin's request to draft Brady Quinn, who's weaker arm and greater accuracy made him a better fit in the new scheme than JaMarcus Russell.  I'm not going to sit here and say Brady Quinn would've been any better than Russell.  But Davis' insistence on drafting Russell shows that he still was unable to abandon his vision of what a quarterback should be.   When Kiffin's monumental ego inevitably clashed with Davis', Lane was on his way to the University of Tennessee and Tom Cable was hired as replacement.

 

Back to the Future

Cable has many of the attributes of a good coach.  What I believe makes him most attractive to Davis, however, is the fact that Cable has no pretensions of being a great offensive mind (Gruden, Turner) or any gargantuan sense of self-importance (Kiffin).  Cable is merely content to attempt to translate Davis' wishes into a win on gameday.  Unfortunately for the team and the fans, that vision contains within it the seeds of its own defeat in the modern NFL.

Though not as egregiously outdated as the bed and breakfast offense, the 2009 Raiders offensive system has many of the same flaws.  A better offensive line than in 2006 helps to give Russell more time for his many seven step drops and he does occasionally make shorter ones.  However, the routes the receivers are running don't give him any help at all.  Mostly, they are straight go routes and very basic routes like posts (always medium or deep).  Zach Miller is the only target who goes consistently over the middle.  Quick slants are unheard of.  The running back is almost always just a checkdown....deliberate screen passes are rare.  Darrius Heyward-Bey is being utterly wasted by simply being told to run down the field on every down.  No attempt is made to take other advantage of his speed with things like bubble screens or quick outs designed to net 5-7 yards before the opposing cornerback can really react.  Four wide receiver sets on second and 5, say?  Forget about it.  Only in emergencies.

Tom Cable is a bad play caller.  His underusing of Michael Bush is borderline criminal.  But anyone who says that the overall offensive vision isn't 100 percent Al Davis is fooling themselves.  This is the system he had success with 30 years ago and by God he is determined to prove he's still got what it takes.  Notice how many pass plays are "home run" attempts?  This offense doesn't have enough variety to patiently put together the pieces of a good, long sustained drive.  It's all about now now now.  Unfortunately, it's really just "then then then"....just like Davis.

People say the offense is too basic because it is being dumbed down for JaMarcus Russell.  Maybe that's true....I don't know.  What I can confidently say is that the reason the offense looks basic is that it is, at least by modern standards.  None of the innovations and changes and tweaks that have sprung up over the past twenty years are apparent at all.  Notice how we don't have a true offensive co-ordinator?  No OC would want to step in and take charge of this.  Any changes he'd try to make would be rebuffed.  "Back to the Future" should replace "Commitment to Excellence" as Raiders' team motto.

Defending the Past

Not even Davis' most partisan defenders will claim that the defense isn't 100 percent Al's baby.  However that baby is, well....retarded.  (Okay, "developmentally disabled" if you want to be PC about it)

I'm a fan of the 3-4 defensive formation.  However, there's nothing inherently wrong with the 4-3.  Many very successful teams use it.  But the style the Raiders use has no business appearing in the NFL in 2009.  It's straight out of 1989.  Hell, maybe even 1979.  It re-defines the term "vanilla."  I remember Steve Young making the comment during the Monday Night Football game against the Chargers that the Raiders defense looked like the base formation used in the first week of training camp, before the defense starts to work on the more complex stuff.  Our problem is that there is not other complex stuff.  What you see is what you get.  That is death, pure and simple.

Zone coverage is largely the norm these days, but I'm not going to fault Davis for insisting on tight, man-press coverage from his corners.  This is because he has managed to obtain two superb cornerbacks who excel at doing just that.  But in Davis' system, they get no help from anyone else.  The safeties play absurdly deep.  Nothing innovative is done with the front seven.  Blitzing is rare and when it is done, nothing is done to attempt to disguise the fact that the heat is coming.  Forget about ever seeing a safety come with pressure.

I was absolutely delighted to see the things that were being done with Richard Seymour in the season opener.  First he was on the right side, then he was at defensive tackle, then suddenly on the left side, then to the other tackle spot, then back at right end.  The Charger offensive line was visibly confused and Seymour had a dominating game.  "Finally," I remember thinking, "some inventiveness and new looks!"  So what the hell happened?  Since then, none of that flexibility has been on display.  The only thing Seymour has done is slide inside on passing downs to let Trevor Scott come in.  Nothing surprising or unexpected there. 

Think of Dick LeBeau's defenses in Pittsburgh.  First, he blitzes a lot. Secondly, when he does, the linebackers do things like cross each other's paths on the rush to confuse the offensive line.  He takes advantage of Troy Polamalu's speed and explosiveness by sending him on a rush when he hasn't crept up far enough to make it look like an obvious blitz is coming.  I'll bet you Tyvon Branch could be used in much the same way.

Look at what Rex Ryan is doing in New York.  His may be the most exciting defense I've seen in a while.  His lineman will stand up and switch spots with each other at the line of scrimmage.  Sometimes he puts in SEVEN defensive backs.  Other times, he'll have two down linemen and five linebackers!  To say this stuff is hard as hell for an opposing quarterback to read is an understatement.  But with the Raider defense?  Forget elite franchise quarterbacks, even backups and career journeymen (hello Kyle Orton!) have no trouble reading the defense and picking us apart.  It's the kind of thing a competent junior QB in the SEC or Big 12 could do just fine against. 

If I could wave a wand and make myself defensive co-ordinator, I'd switch to a 3-4 immediately.  I think we have the personnel to do it:  Move Ellis to OLB where he can both rush the passer and hold the edge against the run, keep Morrison and Howard inside so they can patrol the middle passing lanes, make Warren a NT, and put Seymour and Kelly on the ends......that has possibilities.  At this point, though, I'd take anything beyond what we've currently got, which is basically a teaching aid for young quarterbacks.

Looking ahead

You can't pin this all on Davis, obviously.  However flawed his ideas might be, the players aren't executing very well right now.  Russell has no touch.  McFadden apparently greases his hands before every carry.  I guess Michael Bush stole Tom Cable's lunch money and now he's pissed, because I can't think of any other reason why our big, bad running back is not getting 20-25 carries a game.  I think Richard Seymour has to reach over and shake Tommy Kelly awake from time to time.  I'm pretty convinced Stanford Routt is just a mirage.

But you have to wonder.....what if?

What if...Davis had never ditched Gruden?

What if...Davis had decided earlier to groom a homegrown quarterback rather than going with another reclamation project and drafted Philip Rivers or Ben Roethlisberger rather than signing Kerry Collins?

What if...Davis had been willing to surrender absolute control at some point?  We could've had Sean Payton as our coach.  Davis wanted him, but Payton wanted no part of it if he couldn't run things as he saw fit.

What if...Davis had taken Brady Quinn or Adrian Peterson instead of JaMarcus Russell?

What if...Davis had just been the bigger man and ignored Kiffin's arrogance? 

What if...Davis had offered Brian Bilick or Mike Martz a boatload of money this spring to be offensive co-ordinator instead of stubbornly insisting things be done this way?

What if...Davis had brought in a defensive co-ordinator with fresh ideas any time over the past 10 years and let him see what he could do?

What if...Davis had brought in a personnel expert to be GM and draft football players and not just athletes?

Finally, the biggest one of all....

What if the Oakland Raiders organization had been allowed to grow and change with the times?

Looking ahead, this team is balanced on a knife blade.  One touch and it'll go in the right or wrong direction.  We've got talent on both sides of the ball.  Some of our holes are easily identifiable and fixable.  Maybe JaMarcus Russell will finally blossom.  We can leap into the future if Davis can just acknowledge that his way of doing things are old, outmoded and detrimental.

Maybe that'll happen.....in the same perfect universe where Tom Brady fumbled and didn't tuck, where Ben Roethlisberger or Adrian Peterson wear the silver and black and where Al Davis will get his chance to savor that last, lovely Super Bowl championship.

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