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Raiders offensive coordinator Todd Downing at crossroads in young coaching career

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Downing has bye week to attempt to overcome early season struggles

NFL: Oakland Raiders at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

This past offseason Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio opted to allow offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave’s contract to expire and promote quarterbacks coach Todd Downing to the offensive coordinator position. Based on the success the offense had in the 2016 season, Downing’s name was going to come up quite often for teams looking for a coordinator. Del Rio did not want him leaving mostly based on his relationship with quarterback Derek Carr.

Now nine weeks into his tenure are OC, the Raiders are sitting at 4-5 going into their bye week before facing a tough challenge when they ‘host’ the New England Patriots in Mexico City. The outcome of this contest will foreshadow the rest of the Raiders season not just because of the effect on their win/loss record.

“Diving into a really, really extensive self-scout and looking for efficiency,” Downing said Wednesday. “What we’re good at. What we’re not good at. See if we need to tweak some things we’re doing schematically. Also, gives us an opportunity to emphasize some of the things we’re doing well or possibly even eliminate some stuff that we’re not doing so well. We’re definitely looking forward to diving into that and being able to come out of the week with some hard information that we can use.”

NFL teams often use their bye week to fine tune their systems as well as get additional time to game plan for their next opponent. This is going to be Downing’s opportunity to either prove he has the creativity required to be an offensive coordinator or give more ammunition to those who felt like letting Musgrave leave was a mistake.

In the Raiders win over the Miami Dolphins the offense highlighted areas they still need work but also showed signs Downing may be growing in his new position. First we will take a look at the obvious signs of youth in the offense.

While it’s a positive that Downing utilized play action on this play, the problem is the route spacing. This shows up in plays every week. The Raiders have four possible receiving targets but they are all within about 10 yards of each other. The defensive coverage is not challenged at all.

This is either very poor play design or players who have not practiced this play enough to run their routes with the proper depth and spacing. It really seems at times that the playbook may have more content than the team can adequately perform. Limited practice time can also limit how many different plays a team can perfect, Downing may need to shrink his playbook.

Former San Francisco 49ers head coach Bill Walsh was well known to limit his teams preparation to only a few concepts especially during the post season. His belief was it is better to do a few things perfect than several things decently. The Raiders could benefit from this perspective.

It was refreshing to see Downing adjust play calling in this game. Tight end Jared Cook had his best game as a Raider with 8 receptions for 126 yards. It was the second time in three weeks he has posted over 100 receiving yards, having had 107 yards on 8 receptions in the week 7 win over the Chiefs.

Downing also found ways to move wide receiver Amari Cooper around and get the ball in his hands.

Here Downing circumvented any coverage possibilities by simply lining Amari up at the ‘H’ and had him run a wheel out of the back field. This may not seem like a big deal but it is showing schematic growth. Some coaches are unable to see past their scheme and how they want things run, to make even this simplest adjustment. While it doesn’t label Downing as the next offensive mastermind, it shows he is working to improve and having success doing so.

Lately Downing has used Cooper in a role for which he is perfectly suited.

Getting Cooper moving across the field in space and just letting him outrun the secondary is going to happen at a far more reliable percentage than asking him to win 50/50 jump balls. We have all seen what Amari can do to would-be tacklers in the open field.

As we touched on before, the play action passing plays were nearly non-existent over the first half of the season, but they showed up in Miami.

Downing dialed up this gem to Johnny Holton late in the second quarter to take a 10-6 lead that they would not relinquish. What you may not notice is the difference between this touchdown pass and Derek Carr dumping the ball down was the play action holding the safety.

“We get the next play and then they play a two-high coverage, but with the safety going to match Johnny,” Carr said Wednesday. “We had the opportunity. If that safety was 10 yards deeper, we wouldn’t have been able to throw that ball. But the fact that he was down there, possibly run, my eyes went run to him. I’m making my fake and my eyes are right on him. As long as he stayed at a certain level, we were going to have a chance. It definitely goes together.”

A major problem with taking over a coaching position on a team built to ‘win now’ is everyone expects them to win now. Having a rookie play caller is going to have its stumbles, even for the league’s 6th ranked offense. Couple that with a defense that is having struggles of their own and you have the recipe for a 4-5 record.

This is Downing’s opportunity to prove Del Rio was right to trust him with the offense. Head coaches are judged by their staff decisions as well as the overall team performance. Not meeting the lofty expectations the team had of this season could get some coaching change rumors swirling.

Del Rio just signed a four-year extension this offseason and should be considered safe if the team fails to make the playoffs this year. How he judges his rookie play caller is another story. If Downing continues his current trend of changing what is not working and getting his play makers the ball he will be fine and the offense will continue to improve. Maybe that improvement will shift Del Rio’s focus to the other faltering coordinator.


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