What a truly wild Wild Card weekend NFL fans just witnessed. All four games were one score games, assuming that eight points fits that description.
Two games went to overtime. Three road teams won.
And two first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterbacks looked like the end is near, if that wasn’t the end altogether.
From a Raiders perspective, you hope Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock were watching and taking notes. A lot happened that signals where football is going in the 2020s.
Perhaps nothing stood out more than the juxtaposition between the old guard, if you will, and the new school type of player at quarterback. And because the game revolves around that position, every other form of strategy and evolution in the game flows from it.
Here’s what I mean: We saw two mobile, exciting quarterbacks in the first game of the weekend—Josh Allen and Deshaun Watson. The play from this weekend that will likely stand out for years to come is Watson’s incredible spin-o-rama to avoid a sack and get the ball out for the gain that essentially sealed the Texans’ victory in overtime.
Meanwhile, Tom Brady was essentially a sitting duck in the pocket, and Brees showed his age on a number of plays. If he had been able to scramble and avoid pressure, perhaps the result would have been different.
The takeaway is that in 2020 you cannot have immobile quarterbacks. The game is too fast. And though offense still rules the day, there is so much speed coming off the edge, and now from the interior, that the offensive line almost doesn’t matter. It’s up to the quarterback to handle the rush. Analytics suggest sacks are more of a quarterback statistic than an offensive line statistic. And that is only becoming more pronounced.
Offensive line still matters though. The Saints had one of the best offensive lines this season, but they couldn’t handle the Vikings’ defensive line. Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter were too fast, particularly for guards Andrus Peat and Larry Warford. If defenses continue to move speed guys inside on passing downs, the guard position is going to grow ever more important.
As it pertains to the Raiders, this development actually sits well. The Raiders have done a good job of addressing the offensive line and making it a strength. But they haven’t invested so many resources into the unit that they cannot spend elsewhere—oddly the mistake the Saints have made. And they also haven’t gone to the opposite extreme that the Seahawks went a couple years ago where, being an analytics-minded franchise (which it seems they’ve since pulled back on), they eschewed the offensive line entirely and just put five scrubs out there, essentially.
In other words, in 2020, you want a good offensive line, one that is balanced between being able to open running lanes for your running back—something Tennessee’s unit does a good job of—and at least getting in the way of a pass rush. It doesn’t have to be an All-Pro pass protection unit (I know All-Pro doesn’t differentiate between pass pro and run blocking, but for the sake of argument, imagine it did), but it also can’t get your quarterback killed.
Coincidentally, the Raiders have some of the personnel to do what the Vikings did against the Saints. In obvious passing situations, the Raiders can put Clelin Ferrell and Dion Jordan (should he remain with the team) inside and make life difficult for the quarterback, particularly if he’s more of a pocket passer.
But therein lies the issue, as football is a constantly evolving game of chess. The quick interior pass rushers work against sitting ducks, but if the opposing quarterback is mobile, he can just escape out the backside. That’s why you have to have at least four guys—two inside, two outside—who play with proper leverage and form a wall he cannot escape from.
And as the chess pieces continue to get moved on the board, more changes arise. But where is this all going? Is this just a mobile quarterback fad, and as defenses and defensive personnel catches up, we’ll go back to pocket passers?
My guess is no, at least for a long while. One reason: just about every player who will be drafted high as a skill guy this year comes from an offense where the quarterback is mobile and runs around and makes plays. Every quarterback being talked about as a potential first round pick is so because he can give defenses headaches with his ability to scramble and make plays.
And two, the game is heading towards less specialization, not more. Here’s what I mean. Taysom Hill, as I already mentioned, was the Saints’ best offensive player on Sunday. All he did was become the first player ever with 50-plus yards passing, 20-plus yards rushing, 20-plus yards receiving, a touchdown, and at least one tackle. Stefon Diggs had a pass play called for him. John Brown threw a touchdown to Josh Allen.
Some Saints fans want Taysom Hill to become the Saints quarterback whenever Drew Brees moves on. I disagree. Taysom Hill needs to keep doing exactly what he’s doing. He’s maximized his value. A guy who can do everything, surrounded by a great quarterback, is the ultimate weapon. Limiting him to playing quarterback makes him a less effective and less valuable player. This is where I disagree with many analytics folks. Hill is valuable as the proverbial Swiss Army knife.
Hill basically did what Josh Allen did the day before, but at eighteen extra positions. You could make an argument either way, about which is more valuable.
A Philadelphia Eagles assistant coach said two offseasons ago that the game is progressing to the point where there will be two quarterbacks on the field for most plays. That day is not far off. The Saints are doing it, probably a little differently than that coach meant it, but they are doing it. Other teams will follow suit.
The Raiders are building the pieces for this kind of offense, where everyone can do a little bit of everything. Josh Jacobs was a high school quarterback, who reportedly in his first preseason training camp took snaps as a “wildcat” quarterback. They have the tight ends and a do-it-all receiver in Hunter Renfrow. They have the solid offensive line to block just long enough so that it isn’t chaos when the ball is snapped, but that will allow chaos to develop at a pace that is advantageous to the offense.
The jury remains out on whether Derek Carr is that kind of quarterback. The evidence could lead to a conclusion going either way. It’s also questionable if Jon Gruden envisions his offense ever becoming that kind of offense, though we know he values quarterbacks who can make plays when the called play breaks down.
Offense, and specifically quarterback play, drives the evolution of football. The question is, will the Raiders drive the evolution, follow in rapid succession, or allow the trends to envelop them and fall further behind in the race to becoming a sustainable, winning franchise?