Football has been my favorite sport since my dad first diagrammed a pass pattern with four wide recievers for me to show me what the “Run & Shoot” offense was about. When pops was in the Bay Area in the ’50s, after the Korean War and before he went to the “Sweet Land of Liberty (Liberia), he was a Niner season ticket holder at Kezar Stadium and friends with 49er players like the great alley oop master, R.C Owens. I came into my football fandom right in the late run of 49ers coach Bill Walsh, and the Bo Jackson years of the Raiders. I became a Raider season ticket holder in 2011, and doing so was a great adventure after my dad’s death in ’09. I must admit, I actually prefer watching football games on T.V, with their multi angle shots and full views of the offfensive and defensive formations, but the level of energy at an Oakland Raider game is simply unmatched. And that energy level does not flag during a season as pitiful as the one we endured last year.
Part of my excitement surrounding the Raiders in 2011 was coach Hue Jackson. Al Davis entrusted Hue with a greater level of offensive control than he’d done any coach in years and the Raiders exploded in 2010 to the tune of 410 points and a #6 ranking in scoring offense in the league. One of the main factors in this was the switch from a zone blocking scheme used under coach Tom Cable, to a man blocking scheme that was more suited to the long stride, open field running ability of Darren McFadden. To see the Raiders with an imaginative offense and use of varied formations was exciting for me, because one thing that I’ve always disliked about the Raiders is the schematic ruts the team fell in from time to time under Al Davis. On NFL Films America’s Game about the 1983 Raiders, Howie Long is heard lamenting the Raiders offensive conservatism.
But Hue infused a new energy in the offense. Of course, I was upset when Hue was let go after the 2011 season. I felt the Raiders had something very special in Hue. Namely, they had a Black head coach who had a very keen offensive mind and who was very gregarious, high spirited, and well spoken. Also, Hue was very visible in the community. I thought it was the something the Raiders had not quite had before and that would be very vital to the rennesaince going on in the city of Oakland. For the city of Oakland, which has a large percentage of black people and a strong black history, to have a gregarious, talented, winning black coach, who is frequently seen in Oakland schools, Oakland resturants like Everett & Jones, and Oakland events like Andre Ward fights, would do nothing but good for the city’s sense of itself. I know the bottom line in football is winning, and Hue did some of that, finnishing 8-8 in his lone season as Raider head coach. Hue’s season as head coach was also notable for the uptick in ticket sales, with the Raiders avoiding blackouts for the first time in years.
Hue’s enthusiasm, exciting play calling, and desire to be the face of the franchise brought the Raiders to a new level of respect and relevance around the league. In the end, his verbosity probably helped do him in, such as when he proclaimed the Carson Palmer trade, “the greatest trade in the history of football”, or when he declared he was “pissed at his team”, and “ready to take a bigger hand in everything around this place” after the Raiders lost a win or go home season finale at home against the San Diego SuperChargers. Such hubris is acceptable from Rex Ryan it seems, but not Hue Jackson.
Ultimately what did Hue Jackson in was Al Davis. Davis was somewhat like a father who does not leave a will, leaving his heirs to fight for his possesions in probate. Since he never had a GM, except Al Davis, it made sense that the incoming GM, Reggie McKenzie, would want to get his own head coach in the building, if his job would depend on him. The lack of continuity probably cost Hue his job, in addition to his own high profile and the fact he didn’t win the Super Bowl in his turn at the helm.
The Raiders GM who fired Hue, Reggie McKenzie, is somewhat ironically, the reason I’m most excited for the Raiders long term prospects, and that in the short term, namely the 2013 football season, they will be a competitive team, full of heart, with lots of effort and hustle on the defensive side of the ball. I think that under the circumstances, McKenzie just had an excellent off season that addressed most of the most pressing problems the Raiders have faced over the last decade.
Quarterback Carson Palmer was traded for a low round draft pick. Palmer was one of the main points of contention for both Raider fans and NFL analysts. Most fans and analysts felt Jackson gave up too much for a Quarterback they considered washed up. Many even felt Al Davis would never have made such a trade if he were living, overlooking the first round pick Mr. Davis gave up to the Patriots for Richard Seymour. Palmer had a rough year last year in Coach Greg Knapps dink and dunk version of a West Coast offense. Although Palmer racked up a huge yardage total of over 4,000 yards, he was not allowed or called upon to be a game breaking deep passer, which is his greatest skill. Palmer unfairly took a lot of heat for the Raiders offensive woes, but on a team built around the run and play action passing who’s main star, Darren McFadden was rendered less effective both by the zone blocking scheme and by health concerns, and without a reliable wide reciever in terms of the short and intermediate game, the type of WR who helps the QB out, Palmer really didn’t have much to work with.
Palmer evidently indicated he was unwilling to restructure his contract to help the Raiders cap woes, particularly after he witnessed the exits of players such as Tight End Brandon Myers, the teams leading reciever in 2012. Palmer was traded for a low round draft pick and Matt Flynn was brought in from the Seattle Seahawks for the low price of a 2014 5th round pick and a conditional 2015 draft pick. Of course, Flynn was a highly regarded free agent Quarterback last year before Peyton Manning became avaliable, but he was beaten out by rookie sensation Russell Wilson.
Flynn gained his best chance to be a starter in the NFL with the trade to Oakland. Overall I was nonplussed by this move because I appreciated Palmer and was not too high on Flynn after he was beat out by Russell Wilson last year in Seattle. But on the overall, it was a positive move by Reggie Mack. The Raiders have drafted and developed relatively few ‘golden boy” QB’s in their history, their greatest success has been with QB’s who were cast offs in one way or another. From Plunkett, to Gannon, to Jason Campbell, the Raider organization seems better at dealing with experienced Quarterbacks than grooming fresh ones. Flynn should be humble and serious after his experience last year in Seattle, much like Alex Smith in KC. He has experience in one of the most advanced offenses in the NFL in Green Bay, and he got a chance to see one of the best operate in Aaron Rodgers. Flynn is not known for having a strong arm, but he seems to be an excellent prototype for a West Coast Offense type of Quarterback. He looked sharp in last Friday’s exhibition game against the Cowboys, going 4 for 5 for 37 yards, after recovering from an embarressing strip sack.
Flynn’s arrival did not excite many in Raider nation, as it was seen by some as Reggie Mack’s latest attempt to turn Oakland into “Green Bay West”. Many Raider fans hope that Al Davis last draft pick, the electrifiying athelete Terell Pryor, would get the nod at starting QB. I was happy TP was on the team, but I was not one who believed he should start now. Reports are coming out of training camp that Pryor has greately improved his throwing motion and grasp of the offense. I know he looked good Friday night. Despite one ill advised red zone interception, he moved the team very well and in a highly efficient manner. Also, the Raiders ran several plays out of the pistol formation, and Pryor did very well on his read option runs. Pryor is being given time to grow and develop and is most definitely an asset going forward.
The Raiders really didn’t add much to their offense over this off season. The offense carried the team during Hue Jackson’s years of involvement with the organization asd was a huge disappointment last season. In fact, the offense, with the exception of the addition of Matt Flynn, may be defined this year more by subtraction than addition, the two major losses being the firing of Greg Knapp and the departure of top pass catcher Brandon Myers to the New York Giants. The Knapp hiring was one that I knew would doom the Raiders to a terrible year. Knapp had been offensive coordinator before with the Raiders, and the offense struggled under him. Knapp was a proponent of an unimaginative brand of the West Coast Offense. It was he who brought in the zone blocking scheme, a mere two years after Run DMC’s career was thought to be invigorated by a move away from it. DMC struggled through a sub par year where he only avereged 3.3 yards a carry. Knapp was stubbornly insistent his offense would work given time.
McKenzie and Allen made boneheaded moves in bringing Knapp in, but they showed an ability to cut their losses quickly by bringing in Greg Olsen as Offensive Coordinator. I’m not overly familiar with Olsens work, but I did get excited when I heard he’d spent several years under Jon Gruden. The Raiders also brought in Tony Sporano as offensive line coach, and that seemed like a solid pick up. Not only is Sporano known as a good offensive line coach who’s teams have strong running games, he’s also been a head coach himself, which strengthens Allen’s coaching staff being that Allen is only in his second year.
The offense is going to need a strong running game. Hopefully McFadden thrives in a man/power blocking scheme similar to the one he had his breakout seasons under. Another concern for McFadden is his tendency to get injured frequently, so I’m always concerned with who the Raiders have behind him. The Raiders brought in Mike Goodsen last year and he had a nice year that led to him being signed by the New York JEts. They brought in Rashad Jennings from Jacksonville to back up McFadden last year, and I like the move because he’s a running back of a different build from McFadden, at 6’1″ and 235 lbs. He can come in and bruise along the lines of departed running back Michael Bush. The other move the Raiders made at running back that I really like is bringing in RB Latavius Murray in the draft, drafting him in the 6th round of UCF.
Murray is a big back, 6’3″, 230 lbs, who also ran a 4.38 at his pro day. That’s an exciting combination of size and speed. He ran pretty well at last Friday nights pre season game, gaining 29 yards on 8 carries for about a 3.6 yard per carry average, but we didn’t see the gain breaking ability he’s said to posses yet.
Wide Reciever is a perennial area of concern for the Raiders. The Raiders have not been solid at Wideout since the last time they were winners, the early 00’s. Davis made several attempts to fix the position in trades or free agency but none really took off. The Raiders finally ended the Darius Heyward-Bey era, and look to rely on Denarius Moore and Rod Streater. Moore is a wide reciever who always impressed me more so than other wide recievers on the roster, but last year he was rapped for his inconsistency. I believe the Raiders may be playing him out of position, expecting him to be a “#1 reciever”. I don’t know if he has the type of frame you want to throw 100 balls to like Sterling Sharpe. I think he’d be more effective on go routes, fades, deep posts, smoke routes and reverses. Rod Streater, who is much bigger, seems to have much more potential to do the dirty work of catching slants, crossing patterns over the middle, and being the type of receiver who can move the chains.
The Raiders also have several other recievers in camp they brought in who they are hoping to get production out of. Brice Butler, a 7th round draft pick in this years draft, looked particularly nice last Friday, catching a touchdown pass from Matt McGloin. I’m also excited to see a player named Conner Vernon the Raiders signed out of Duke, who is said to have potential as a Wes Welker type slot reciever. The tight end position is unsettled with the loss of Brandon Myers, but it features two players who were drafted under Al Davis the Raiders have been trying to develop the last couple of years, Richard Gordon and David Ausberry, and two Tight Ends drafted this year, Nick Casa and Mychael Rivera. It will be interesting to see who makes it.
The Defensive side of the ball is where McKenzie was the most active and the greatest cause for optimism heading into this year. The Raiders defense was like an open doorway to a mansion last year, ranking near the bottom in almost all statistical measurements. McKenzie did his best work in assembling the linebacking corp and the defensive backfield. He signed several good linebackers, Nick Roach, Kevin Burnett and Kaluka Maiava. He also drafted spark plug OLB Sio Moore out of UConn.
Nick Roach is already getting props as the leader of the defense. Sio Moore for his part, has taken to the Bay Area and the Bay to him like no other player in quite some time. I’m especially proud of Sio because he’s another Liberian in the NFL, joining players such as Tamba Hali, Visanthe Shiancoe and Blidi Wreh-Wilson. Sio had a sack last Friday night, and the fans in the Black Hole seemed to take special delight in the fact that he was making the big play. Sio brings an energy, and a flexibility as a speedy, versatile outside linebacker. Linebacker was a weakness on last years team that figures to be strong this season.
The defensive backfield has been a problem since Nnamdi Asomaugh left the Bay Area for fools gold in Philadelphia, but the Raiders made some major moves here this season. They signed two starting caliber DB’s, Tracy Porter and Mike Jenkins, to one year ‘prove it” contracts. Not resting on that, they drafted a corner with immmense potential, DJ Hayden, with the 12th pick of the draft. They also signed two free safteys to replace Michael Huff, Usama Young, and future Hall of Famer Charles Woodson. The Charles Woodson signing is another signing that invigorated the Raider Nation, bringing back one of Al’s better draft picks of the last twenty years, possibly the last Hall of Fame caliber player he selected, and a proven NFL talent. Woodson should do immense good both as a mentor and as a center fielder.
All in all, McKenzie has set this team up well to be a competitive team this season, and to be a good to great team in the future, with over $50 million in cap room projected for next season. Enjoy this season Raider Nation, becasue it represents a rebirth for the ‘team of the decades.’