Here’s a great thing for the Las Vegas Raiders: New head coach Josh McDaniels and defensive coordinator Patrick Graham loath predictability. Both the offensive and defensive play callers aren’t the stubborn “my way or the highway” types who try to fit square pegs into round holes.
It’s the common trait between McDaniels and Graham. A lesson learned and forged during the pair’s time with New England Patriots head honcho Bill Belichick. Flexibility is very much key. And that adaptability, steeped by Bill The Butcher, likely made Graham a must-pursue and must-hire for McDaniels.
Situational awareness, creativity and attention to detail were not a Raider trait before the arrival of McDaniels and Co. All you have to do is look at Las Vegas’ red zone performance on both offense and defense to determine that. 60 red zone trips, 31 red zone touchdowns (51.7 percent, good for 26th out of 32 teams) on offense and 43 red zone visits by opponents, 31 touchdowns yielded (81.4 percent, cellar dwelling 32nd in league) — even the most simpleton of NFL viewer knows that’s absolutely horrendous.
It was a performance the most important critic of the Raiders saw and knew couldn’t continue. Thus, new architects and play callers on both sides of the ball.
“I’ve just always seen the Patriots as a team that not only adapts from week to week or half to half, but maybe even series to series,” Raiders owner Mark Davis said during McDaniels’ introductory press conference. “I just believe in Josh’s ability to assess a situation and make the changes in real time, and that’s always been something that’s impressed me.”
McDaniels’ ability to adapt and overcome will be thoroughly tested, not only by being away from the shade of the Belichick tree, but also by a competitive AFC West that’s spearheaded by the division-dominating Kansas City Chiefs. As Davis alluded to, McDaniels did a tremendous job of guiding the Patriots offense to success with Mac Jones at the helm. The rookie quarterback, along with an assertive power-run game, allowed McDaniels to orchestrate the 11th best red zone offense this past season. Out of 63 red zone visits, the Pats offense scored touchdowns on 39 of them (61.9 percent).
Expect McDaniels to lean heavily on running back Josh Jacobs and quarterback Derek Carr in the money zone while putting tight ends Darren Waller and Foster Moreau and wide receivers like Hunter Renfrow and Bryan Edwards in motion. The controlled chaos of pre-snap movements and motions to make defender eyes and brains move a mile a minute — another Belichick lesson. Unlike in New England where he had to operate with a neophyte signal caller, McDaniels is slated to have veteran at his disposal in Carr. Both accurate and a quick-thinker at the line of scrimmage, the pair should mesh well with concepts and ideas.
Suffice it to say, the Raiders will need every bit of firepower it can muster against a high-octane Chiefs offense that scores points even against the best of defenses.
Equally as important, Davis’ assessment of McDaniels can be applied to Graham, too. The former New York Giants defensive coordinator isn’t keen on putting a conventional label on his defense. Ask him if he uses a 4-3, 3-4, nickel, dime, etc., and Graham’s answer will be “yes”.
“The scheme is based on the people,” Graham will say. He anticipates being multiple game days whether that’s 4-3, 3-4, 2-4, 3-3-5, or how ever his 11 defenders will line up, his answer will be forever “yes”.
The real-time adjustments allowed the Giants to sport the ninth-ranked defense in the red zone. Offenses visited the red zone 71 times against Graham’s Giants defense and came away with 37 touchdowns (52.1 percent).
During countless film breakdowns, practices, and games as an assistant on Belichick’s New England staff, Graham was a sponge who soaked in every lesson, no matter how big or small. And when time came for him to lead the G-Men’s defense, Graham showcased the versatility that Belichick, Matt Patricia, Brian Flores, Joe Judge, and others in the New England tree taught him. The most valuable Belichick trait Graham picked up is changing it up every week.
That’s going to be a welcome change for a Raiders defense that stubbornly stuck to the time-honored Cover 3 zone concepts deployed by former defensive boss Gus Bradley (now the Indianapolis Colts play caller). The almost-vanilla scheme was quite predictable and allowed opponents to slice through the Vegas’ defense like a hot knife through butter when it mattered most: Between the 20-yard-line and the goal line.
As the Giants defensive coordinator, Graham deployed the moveable pieces approach learned in New England. He moved Logan Ryan all over New York’s defensive backfield, be it at safety or nickel corner. Graham also had his versatile defensive back blitz to disrupt both the passing and running attacks of the opposition. The G-Men also lined up in 3-4 and 4-3 alignments, went from man to zone to a hybrid on any given play. That made offenses think more than they had to and it paid off. Graham’s defense adjusted to the various quarterback’s it faced and didn’t combat one exactly like it did another.
That plays right into McDaniels’ notion that you don’t beat teams the same way any given Sunday. Not only that, but the Raiders new player personnel man, general manager Dave Ziegler, is all about that method, too.
“The phrase ‘commitment to excellence’ resonates with many of my core beliefs and a lot of the foundational pieces that will be important to building a championship culture here,” Ziegler said during his introductory presser. “The fabric of our culture will be to evaluate and evolve, consistently and constantly, our processes and our people to make sure that we are always operating at a championship level. Being committed to the standard of excellence is going to occur from the top down, and it’s what it will take to build this organization into an organization that consistently competes for championships. … It is an honor to represent Raider Nation and this historic franchise, and it will be one focus from here going forward, and simply put, it will be to just win, baby.”
The Raiders have themselves one hell of a combo on offense in McDaniels and on defense in Graham. A pair that will put their players in the best possible position to succeed that adapts and evolves to opponents. Add in a general manager who buys into the same mantra when building a team, and on paper the Raiders are looking good. But, football games aren’t won on paper.
We’ll see if McDaniels and crew put to practice in Vegas what they’ve learned all those years in New England.