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Too Legit to Quit

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It's the 8th week of the Oakland Raiders 2012 season and the piper hasn't been paid, the chicken's outside the door and there's no joy in Knappville tonight. As intoxicating as it may have been to change everything since the last season, it's a little too late to wish we had taken the blue pill. If it's any consolation, Head Coach Dennis Allen was aware of that fact as well. This was a pivotal game for Allen and his coaching staff. There's a lot more at stake than avoiding a sweep by divisional rivals. The credibility of the decision to implement ZBS and the hiring of the offensive coordinator, Greg Knapp, are literally on the line.

Thus far, things have not gone as smoothly as one might hope (for no one really expected it to). As Allen, himself, puts it, ""I think there was obviously a sense of urgency with the offensive line,". The frustration, implied in Allen's comments, are related to the performance of the offensive line in the ZBS. In the eyes of many fans, the ZBS is the number one reason for the paucity of rushing yardage this season. So the sense of urgency that Allen speaks of extends beyond the offensive line.

All of this has overshadowed the outstanding work Allen has done with the defense. Since the bye, there has been marked improvement in the Raiders defense. They did surprisingly well against the undefeated Falcons, keeping the Raiders in the game to the very end. The defense performance against the Jags went largely unnoticed due to the fact the Jags lost their starting QB and RB early in the game and led 20-6 at the half. However, upon closer examination, the defense did much better than it would appear. The high score at the half was due to the non-existent offense. The Jaguars offense had 9 possessions and scored on only 3. In the second half, they managed only 2 scoring drives and no TDS. Lamarr Houston went on to win top AFC defensive player of the week honors.

Hence the sense of urgency with the offensive line. In addition to the anemic first half of the Jags game, the offense managed to create another controversy regarding its use of the no huddle. A statement by Allen, which emphasized that Palmer called the plays towards the end of the Jags game, led to calls for increased no huddle.

This was the backdrop for the matchup against the Chiefs. The game was won by the Raiders 26-16 but it would be premature to think all of the problems have been solved. First off, Allen has done a fantastic job on defense since the bye week. He has solved the pass rush which has addressed the vulnerability of our corners. Much can be made of the last 4 QBs faced (Gabbert, Henne, Quinn and Cassel) but it must be remembered that the unveiling came against Matt Ryan, QB of the undefeated Falcons. It should also be noted that the Raiders have gone from being shredded by no name QBs to knocking them out of the game. That counts as improvement in my book. Two of the three QBs faced, since the bye, have gone out of the game in non-penalty fashion. At the bye, we had no interceptions. We have had 5 interceptions since the bye with most of the interceptions coming from the aforementioned Ryan, not just the scrubs. There should be no question that DA has turned the defense around. Even if there are struggles down the stretch, we are solid for the future. The turn in defense came from the coach and not from the acquisition which is the way you really want to solve problems (Attention, "trade DMC" fanatics!).

There hasn't been much controversy surrounding the defense. With the exceptions of the poor play of certain high contract stars and the lack of corners, there was really nothing to point a finger at. In fact, Routt's performance as a Chief reminded us there are worse things than no corners. As a result of the lack of controversy, DA has been free to make changes in the defense with minimal regard for perception. The "demotion" of the star MLB for two rising stars did not erupt into a locker room spat. The response of the defense has improved and it is clear that everyone is playing at an elevated level. As happens on most teams with a mixture of talent, the team is getting it's playmakers in a position to make plays.

If only this were true for the offense. The problems with ZBS, offensive line, rushing and play calling have been well documented. Unlike the defense, all of these come with controversies of their own. Much of the controversy centers around the success of the prior system and the belief that Palmer and DMC would benefit from a healthy camp. While both Palmer and DMC have shown flashes of brilliance, the play calling and offensive line problems have often created insurmountable problems.

The most insurmountable problem seems to be the spin. The Raiders resorted to the no huddle after spending the week pointing out it isn't a panacea. The results were mixed but the increased production was once again more than enough to overcome the stagnancy. There was improved play from the offensive line which resulted in the second 100 yard game for DMC this season. All of this will do much to quell some of the criticism of the running game which is good because the real issue is reflected in the lack of red zone efficiency (1 for 6), third down efficiency (2 for 12) and the fact that 20% of the rushes (7) were for a loss. With those stats, the significance of the defensive play becomes more apparent. The coherence we see in the defense with the players and coaching is not reflected in the offense.

Palmer, Allen and Knapp are correct about the no huddle. It is not a panacea. It is not a substitution for a well-designed offense. If one views a no huddle as an opportunity for the QB to adjust the play to the defense based upon the read, the advantage gained through the use of no huddle (in situations not related to clock management) indicates play calling issues. As such, there are still limitations on the QB as a play caller. Which is what the Raiders spent a lot of time pointing out this week. The offense design still resides with the OC. The defensive reads by Palmer give the offense an advantage. But it is still limited by the offensive scheme which is reflected in the lack of consistency. Which means that DA has to decide how to address the problems on offense.

The improvement in rushing this week allows Allen to go after the play calling. He can't sit on the no huddle but he can't get rid of it and go back to 6 point at the half. It's tempting to go back to the "our run game will open our offense" but the run game will continue to be underachieving. The only thing we learned about the run game this week is that DMC is not the problem. We already knew that. The confidence we see on defense is not reflected in the offense. The no huddle was a desperate implementation coming after a drubbing by the Dolphins. The truth is that we can't trust the play calling enough to win without it. It was a game strategy in Pittsburg and KC; in the Jags game, it was desperation. In all 3 games, it was the difference between winning and losing. between 3-4 and 0-7. Any wonder it's a topic of discussion. We've pushed the limit in getting rid of things that work. We can't afford to get rid of no huddle without a solution.

On defense, DA's problem was Ro. On offense, DA's problem is Knapp. On defense, he could focus on the person problems. On offense, he's caught between a rock and a hard place. Any direct action, over or covert, will be seen as a sign of instability. Al Saunders, the OC from last year, is available but the question is how do you utilize him? One reason the Raiders organization likes to talk in absolutes (" You can't change an offensive scheme in the middle of the season.") is because absolutes are easier to defend. There are many changes a team can make to offensive schemes during the year. In fact, that's their job. To find ones that work. But there's a limitation to what you can change. Just like you can't change from ZBS to PBS during the year but can have more man blocking, you can make changes to offensive schemes. Saunders value as a consultant, if empowered, would go far in solving at least some of the playbook issues.

Play selection is another matter. Clearly, Knapp is still trapped in the illusion that his brilliant offensive schemes will begin to bear fruit with constant rushing. Won't happen. Yes, the talent is there. But the play calling is allowing defenses to key on the run. Hence the 20% loss of yardage on rushing plays this week. Pointing fingers at players doesn't work any better on the offense than it did to fix the problems on defense. Yes, the line is playing poor but there is the option of more man blocking which is more suitable for linemen who struggle in ZBS. Hopefully, everyone understands that DMC is not the problem with the rushing. That's the significance of DA stating there would be more man blocking. It was a recognition that things had reached a critical level. The no huddle is more difficult to overcome without bringing Saunders in. That's not going to be as easy as it sounds unless DA has been laying some groundwork. Knapp has been extremely defensive and rightfully so. He's taken over an offense that was expected to be explosive and turned it into a shell of itself.

Well, we didn't take the blue pill. Which means we get to follow the rabbit down the hole. Which explains why, in the mist of our insane 3-4 season, we find ourselves tied for second place in the AFC West. The sense of urgency surrounding the offensive line has been extended to the entire offense. It's obvious the defense can carry us far this season, if the offense improves. But the calls for patience must end. There are serious adjustments to be made. We're too legit to quit.

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