or other podcast clients: http://raidersblog.com/feed/podcast
Three-hundred-and-sixty-three days have passed since the Raiders opened the 2011 season against the Denver Broncos on Monday Night Football, and at the time many believed the Raiders were finally back on track. Penalties were going to be a thing of the past, bullies were being built, and the only injury known to man was a “nic.” Just one year ago the Raiders were about to usher in the Hue Jackson era, and fans were hyped to see this newly created “bully” in action. Everything seemed to be falling into place for the Silver and Black and the team was poised to make a serious run at the playoffs for the first time since 2002, except the season began unfolding as if it were being scripted by the writers of Lost.
After managing to stumble to a 2-2 record to start the season, shock waves rippled through the franchise as news broke that legend and Raiders owner Al Davis had passed away. With plenty of mixed emotions, the Raiders had a game to play the next day against the Houston Texans. They went on to win that game in the final seconds, honoring the man who had led them for the nearly 50 years.
As the dust began to settle the Raiders still had a season to finish and the hits didn’t quit coming. In the very next game, starting quarterback Jason Campbell broke his collarbone leaving the Raiders with only Kyle Boller at quarterback. Without Davis to call the shots as he had done for so long, no one was quite sure what was going to happen. The answer came two days later, when Hue Jackson was given the authority to pull off a stunner of a trade that sent a first and second-round draft pick to the Bengals for retired quarterback Carson Palmer.
As everyone tried to digest what had just taken place, there were only a few days left to prepare before the Raiders faced the division rival Kansas City Chiefs. Trying to forget what they had to give up to get him, the Raiders now had a quarterback who they thought could lead the team to the playoffs. It was just a matter of getting Carson Palmer up to speed with the offense while leaning heavily on one of the best rushing attacks in the NFL, right?
While that plan seemed to make sense at the time, Kyle Boller was quickly proving to everyone why he has not been able to hold a job in the NFL and the Raiders were hit with even worse news: Darren McFadden suffered a Lisfranc injury against the Chiefs that would cause him to miss the rest of the season. Hue Jackson contended that McFadden was “close” to returning on a weekly basis, but he never did.
Carson Palmer was left trying to pick up the pieces of a season that started out with so much hope. Unable to stay true to his word, Jackson did not fix the penalty issue and his team set a record for the most penalties in a single season. Still, the Raiders managed to be in position to win a very weak AFC West, but failed to beat San Diego in their final game, and once again fell short of the playoffs for a ninth-straight season.
Fast forward to January 2012. Mark Davis took over for his dad as the team’s owner and he hired Reggie McKenzie to be the next general manager. The situation seems equal to that of Aaron Rodgers replacing Brett Favre. McKenzie is replacing a legend, but he is not trying to become the next Davis. He will have to make his own name and do things his own way. Change is a process and takes time and patience which is something Raiders fans are starting to run out of after nine-straight seasons without making playoffs.
Many moves made by McKenzie and some moves he will make in the near future will be met with skepticism. That is not uncommon according to Saul Alinsky, “Change means movement. Movement means friction. Only in the frictionless vacuum of a nonexistent abstract world can movement or change occur without that abrasive friction of conflict.”
McKenzie’s road to success will not be easy, but that will not temper any existing expectations. At this point in time it’s anyone’s guess how much or how little success he will have in Oakland. However, in order to more clearly understand what is being judged, its important to be aware of the obstacles and decisions McKenzie faced upon becoming the new general manager of the Raiders.
Like most new general managers, the first order of business for McKenzie was deciding who he wanted to have coach his team. That is not a choice you want to take likely and could ultimately decide his success early on. He was well aware of the rotating door Oakland has had with their head coaches and he needed to find a guy he trusted to help bring the Raiders back to excellence, even if immediate success was impossible. Unfortunately for Hue Jackson, he was not that man. Could the argument be made that Jackson didn’t get a fair shot? Sure, but the NFL is a business and business is not about fair.
After 18 days of searching and countless interviews, McKenzie found his guy in Dennis Allen. “When I talk about the guy I was looking for, I’m looking for a guy that could lead these men, that was passionate about the game, that was passionate about teaching, passionate about the Oakland Raiders.” McKenzie said when introducing Allen at his press conference. “Guys, not only did coach Dennis Allen do that for me, he exceeded those expectations.”
One of the reasons this decision was so important was because McKenzie believes in giving his head coach full power over hiring his staff. That is something past head coaches in Oakland did not have, they may have had input, but it was Al Davis who made the final decisions on hiring or firing. McKenzie also noted that he and Allen will always have open communication, but it was up to the head coach what schemes would be run. That is certainly a change of pace in Oakland.
Allen proceeded to hire Jason Tarver to run the defense, who comes with a very aggressive and multiple look defensive style which is very different from the base 4-3 man defense that had been a Raiders staple for as long as anyone can remember. Greg Knapp is back to run the offense under Allen, which means Jackson’s power blocking scheme and trickery are out and the West Coast Offense and zone-blocking scheme are in. Learning completely different schemes on both sides of the ball in one offseason is much harder than most people realize.
The hard part for McKenzie was just beginning . Now that he had a head coach, he next had to figure out a way to get the roster under control, which would be no easy task. Starring him in the face was $145 million dollars in salary for 2012 ($25 million over the salary cap) and $16 million more than the Carolina Panthers who had the next highest salary total. It was no secret that in the latter years of Al Davis’ life he was operating in a “win now” mode, which often times meant the only thing that mattered was getting who he felt was the best players he could at whatever cost was necessary. That meant a lot of traded draft picks and back-loaded contracts, many of which were well over market value.
McKenzie was left to sort it all out, trying to find a way to cut at least $25 million in salary for 2012 as well as give himself a little breathing room for free agency and signing draft picks. McKenzie had to do this while trying to maintain a competitive roster and preventing the same situation from happening next offseason. Easier said than done, especially when you are without your first, second and third-round draft picks due to roster moves made before you took over.
During that process, McKenzie was faced with difficult roster decisions on some of his core players. He wasted no time in weeding out the “out of whack” contracts and cut ties with Stanford Routt on February 9th, just over a month after he was hired. This sent a message to everyone inside and outside the organization, nothing would be handed to anyone anymore.
The year before Routt was released he was given a five-year, $54.5 million contract. No matter his opinion of Routt’s skill as a player, McKenzie knew he was not worth $10 million per year. Another major decision was how to proceed with Kamerion Wimbley, who was the Raiders best outside pass rusher. WImbley carried a contract of five years, $48 million. If Wimbley was on the roster by the start of the new league year (March 17th), he would have been owed $17.5 million in guaranteed money (including $11 million in 2012). If cut, the Raiders were only on the hook for $6.5 million, but would also lose their best edge rusher and would be in a tough spot to try to replace him.
After refusing to take a pay cut, Wimbley would eventually be released. This left the Raiders having to pay $6.5 million in dead money for 2012, but relieved them of Wimbley’s remaining contract. Kevin Boss and Cooper Carlisle were also later released, but McKenzie was able to re-work the contracts of Carson Palmer, Michael Huff, Richard Seymour and Aaron Curry to keep them on the roster. Carlisle later resigned with the Raiders at a much lower rate.
McKenzie mentioned shortly after he was hired that each position would be evaluated from front office personnel to players on the field. He said that at the right time, the appropriate changes would be made. Holding true to his word, on February 16th it was announced that long-time Senior Executive John Herrera would no longer work for the new Raiders front office. Known in many circles as Al Davis’ “yes man”, John Herrera—mostly known for denying every media report regardless of truth—represented the exact image that McKenzie wanted to change. Zak Gilbert was later hired as director of Media Relations and Mike Taylor was hired as Director of Pubic Affairs going forward. As many have noted, the Raiders have since become much more open and media friendly.
McKenzie’s next major moves came in the form of re-vamping the football operations personnel. Shaun Herock (son on Ken Herock) who worked with McKenzie in Green Bay was hired as the director of college scouting and Reggie’s twin brother Raleigh was also hired to help in the scouting department. McKenzie also brought Joey Clinkscales from the New York Jets to work as director of personnel. Clinkscales served as the V.P. of college scouting with the Jets and was a college teammate and childhood friend of McKenzie.
Tonight, the Raiders will open the 2013 season against the San Diego Chargers with a new general manager, new front office personnel, new media relations, new scouting department, new coaching staff, new offensive and defensive schemes and 23 new players on the 53-man roster. The Raiders are truly starting fresh is 2012. It’s almost mind-blowing how much change has taken place in such a short amount of time.
Only time will tell how successful year one will be for the new-era Raiders. Most fans seem to agree that this team is just as good, if not better than a year ago which is a pretty incredible feat considering the circumstances.
Terrelle Pryor was drafted by the Oakland Raiders in the third round of the 2011 supplemental draft. It was the late Al Davis’ last draft pick for a franchise that he ran for half a century. His last pick was the perfect story book ending to his great career. Selecting Pryor with a 3rd round pick not only fit Davis’ mold of targeting the biggest and fastest players, but by selecting him so high he proved once again that he only cared about one opinion and one opinion only, his. That was last year though, and this year the Raiders find themselves with new management and a new agenda for building this team. Where Pryor fits into those plans, will likely be determined by his development over the next couple of seasons.
Because last years supplemental draft wasn’t until August 22nd, Pryor did not get much practice time with the team in training camp. He also faced a 5 game suspension to begin his first NFL season for his violations of NCAA policy in college. While this is technically Pryor’s second season with the Raiders, it is his first training camp and will be his first live game action in almost 2 full calendar years (20 months). Not to be forgotten though is Hue Jackson’s attempt at trickery when he lined Pryor up as a wide receiver in a game last season against the Kansas City Chiefs, and had him motion under center to take the snap and sneak the ball. However, the play was blown dead because Pryor did not get set for a full second before the snap.
Terrelle has had an up and down camp in 2012 to this point. He has certainly showed his arm strength and excellent athleticism at times, but he has been unable to maintain any type of consistency throwing from the pocket. Coach Allen has said that he is pleased with Pryor’s work and that he just has to continue to “get better each day”. With Pryor being the third quarterback on the depth chart, he should be able to relax and play without any added pressure at this point.
Come game time game time Pryor should see plenty of snaps as the 3rd quarterback. His first game action will be much-anticipated by fans and coaches alike, but expectations need to be tempered. Pryor needs to first focus on a few very important tools that all good quarterbacks need to possess which include footwork, pocket presence, and route progression. Pryor will need to first prove he can throw from the pocket effectively before he begins to put his athleticism to good use.
Look for Pryor’s first few passes to be quick reads and short routes to him try to establish a rhythm and get into the flow of the game. Knapp might dial-up a few bootlegs as well to get him outside the pocket where he is often times more comfortable right now. Stats should not be a concern in this game. The main thing is that Pryor begins to build his confidence by making smart decisions and avoiding turnovers. He has fumbled a few snaps in training camp, and will need to avoid those types of mistakes tonight.
There is no doubt Pryor has the talent that can electrify a stadium, but he will need to take the small steps necessary to become a better all around quarterback if he plans to remain at that position long-term. Don’t think he won’t turn it loose though if he is given a lane to run, according to Mike Mitchell, Pryor can “run like a deer”.
Training Camp. The time year when players have the chance to showcase their off-season hard work, coaches get the chance to put their visions into motion, and speculation begins flying around at an unprecedented rate. Some teams choose to stay the course from the previous season hoping to build on what they have accomplished while other teams turn to change and a fresh start to be their saving grace. Regardless of the route each team chooses to take, the target destination of Super Bowl XLVII remains the same.
The Raiders are no doubt introducing change across the board this season as they usher in the “New Era” of Raiders football under General Manager Reggie McKenzie. As part of this new era, much has been made of the obvious changes in philosophy on the field as the Raiders look to get away from their strict man to man base 4-3 defense of the past and look to be spontaneous and more “multiple” on defense in 2012. The change doesn’t stop there though as the Raiders also look to switch things up on the offensive side of the ball bringing back former offensive coordinator Greg Knapp and his strong belief in the Zone Blocking scheme and West Coast Offense.
While many are excited to see the end result of all the changes, few people actually understand the difficulty in changing so much in such a short amount of time. To the fans, what seems like an eternity of waiting for the next NFL season to arrive, is all but a blur to the coaches and players trying to figure out how they will ever cover everything in the little time they have together before the season starts. 10 days of organized team activities, 26 training camp practices, and 4 preseason games. Under the new CBA, that is all the time an NFL team has to implement their strategy and prepare for the upcoming NFL season.
In what seems like an impossible task to change almost every part of a teams philosophy in one off-season, the Raiders actually have a big asset working in their favor. That asset happens to come in the form of player versatility. The Raiders are unmatched when it comes to the ability of their players to play multiple roles on the field. It’s a weapon that has arguably been under utilized by previous coaching staffs, and its a weapon that coach Dennis Allen and the rest of his staff must take full advantage of if they plan to maximize their level of success while implementing their new schemes.
While the Raiders have had a good amount of versatility on their defense in recent years, their scheme has restricted how far it could take them. This year the restraints are gone and the versatility of these players will be very important to the multiple looks the Raiders want to use this season.
Tyvon Branch will play a key role in how successful the Raiders defense will be in 2012, and the amount of things this guy can do on the football field are almost endless. Branch came out of the University of Connecticut where he focused mostly on playing corner back and returning kicks. After joining the Raiders he began his transition from corner back to strong safety, a transition not many guys can claim to have effectively made. Tyvon was not only effective in his new role, but he is now a top five player in the league at that position. With the Raiders short on corner back depth, Branch was also asked to fill in there at times last season. Being able to make that switch mid game is impressive on many levels but his ability doesn’t stop there. Branch also has the range and instincts to play the free safety position, meaning he can be effective at any one of the 4 main defensive back positions. Having a player with that ability adds a tremendous amount flexibility to a defensive game plan, and the fact that he has 4.3 speed means he is never far from the ball regardless of where he begins the play.
Philip Wheeler played his college ball at Georgia Tech where he thrived as an inside linebacker in an aggressive blitzing defense. As a matter of fact, Wheeler was considered by many as one of the nation’s best-blitzing linebackers. That is a skill Dennis Allen and Jason Tarver plan to take full advantage of as the transition to a more aggressive defense has been no secret to this point. Wheeler also possesses rare coverage abilities in the open field, not something a lot of linebackers can say. Having a linebacker who can both attack and cover is a tremendous asset.
Rolando McClain brings his versatility to the table in a different form. McClain was the center piece in Nick Saban’s famous 3-4 defense at Alabama. He excelled there and it’s a role that McClain began to really become comfortable in. However, when he was picked by the Raiders in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft, they felt he had what it took to make a the transition to a 4-3 middle linebacker. While he has not had instant success there, he has improved as a 2-gap linebacker and seems to be looking a lot better in training camp this year. That is very important as the Raiders want to use both 3-4 and 4-3 fronts this season. They will need their leader in the middle to be able to call the plays in the huddle and play as both a one and two gap linebacker depending on the formation.
Lamarr Houston played defensive tackle at the University of Texas, but was brought to Oakland to fill a hole at defensive end. Houston is a physical specimen who has proven he can play either position in the NFL with his rare combination of quickness and power. Maybe one of the most intriguing things about him though is where he fits into the 3-4 packages. He certainly has the power to hold his own as a 3-4 end, and does a great job at getting leverage on offensive lineman to be able to drive them back. It has also been noticed that Houston is looking like he’s in good shape this season and might trimmed down some weight to be closer to 280-290 instead of 300-310. Could we see him play some elephant backer (a combination 4-3 DE and 3-4 OLB) this season?
Richard Seymour and Desmond Bryant have also both played inside and outside on the defensive line in the 4-3, and Seymour has experience as a 3-4 defensive end from his time in New England where he won two super bowls. Those two being able to move around on the defensive line will help out tremendously as well.
Of course there are others players on the defense capable of doing multiple things, but i believe the six guys listed above bring a lot of value to what Dennis Allen and Jason Tarver are trying to accomplish on defense. Switching gears to the other side of the ball, the offense is not short on dynamic players either and most seem very excited about the system Greg Knapp is using this season.
Darren McFadden is a one of a kind running back. He has the speed and agility to score every time he touches the ball, but unlike most backs with those attributes, he can also use his power to effectively run between the tackles as well. He is not limited to his running ability though. McFadden has shown many times that he can line up in the slot, run routes, and catch like a wide receiver too. There is not another running back in the NFL that can do all of those things at a high level, and he shares a back field with none other than Marcel Reece. A converted wide receiver from the University of Washington, Reece has played wide receiver, tight end, fullback, and has even carried the ball a few times. He is an X-Factor for the offense, and is incredibly hard to game plan for because he can do so many things from the fullback position. How many times does a defense have to game plan for the fullback? McFadden and Reece are without a doubt the most dynamic backfield duo in the NFL and it’s not even close.
The offensive line is not normally thought about as being versatile, but in the Raiders case they are. Jared Veldheer, a 6’8″ left tackle also spent time playing center his rookie season. Stefan Wisneiwski played center at Penn State, but spent almost his entire rookie season at left guard and played very well there for the Raiders last season. He has now moved back to center. Cooper Carlisle has spent the majority of his career at right guard, but when the team brought Mike Brisel aboard via free agency Carlisle was moved to left guard where he will play this season. Khalif Barnes has started at left tackle and right tackle at certain points in his NFL career. He was also used a lot as an extra lineman in jumbo packages that Hue Jackson liked to use, one of which had Barnes running a route into the end zone where he caught a touchdown pass. Aside from all of that though, they are also making the switch from the power blocking scheme to the zone blocking scheme while returning all starters from last season with the exception of one. In most cases, there are major personnel changes a long the offensive line when you make that kind of switch. At face value it might not seem like a tall task, but any lineman who has played in both will tell you it’s a very tough thing to grasp.
Darrius Heyward-Bey is really starting to develop into a solid wide receiver, who possesses great speed and a big frame capable of breaking tackles. He is getting much better as route running which creates separation from the defensive back and timing with the quarterback. He also excels at running blocking as well though which does not get near enough credit. It is the job of the offensive line to get the running back to the second level, but it is often times a block by a wide receiver that springs the running back for a long gain or a touchdown. DHB’s hard work has made him into a dynamic player in the Raiders offense, and he should only continue to get better.
If the Raiders are able to successfully change so many parts in one season, the one thing that will allow them to do it is the flexibility that have with their roster. As you can see there is not another team in the league that matches the Raiders versatility in all facets of the game, and it will be up to the coaches to use that to their advantage to gain a competitive edge.