Oakland Raiders' problems aren't solved by Ken Norton firing
1. Raiders firing Norton a sign of bigger issues? I wouldn’t dismiss Jack Del Rio ousting Raiders defensive coordinator Ken Norton as some sort of move to create a spark. My sense is there are bigger issues that Del Rio has to work through. And they could well determine where Oakland, more than just this singular team, goes from here. Remember, this is the second coordinator Del Rio has fired this calendar year, and that’s all coming off a 12-4 season in 2016.
It starts with the inner workings of the staff, and the way the pieces fit that Del Rio put together. Last year, Bill Musgrave commanded the NFL’s sixth-ranked offense, but his quarterbacks coach, Todd Downing, was in demand after the season, as he had been after the 2015 season. Downing, it so happens, was brought into the NFL over a decade ago by ex-Vikings coach Mike Tice, who’s now the Raiders offensive line coach and a close confidant of Del Rio’s. So the decision was made in January that in order to keep Downing, they’d need to move on from Musgrave. Around the same time, ex-Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano was hired after Mike McCoy’s staff was fired in San Diego, giving Del Rio the rip cord if he wanted to pull the plug on his incumbent third-year coordinator, Norton. Those things can linger over a staff, and a team, so as questions have festered over whether the team should’ve stuck with Musgrave (the Raiders are now 21st in total offense), they boiled over on Norton’s job security.
Now, that isn’t to say Del Rio’s in trouble. He signed a four-year deal in March, so he’s locked in through the team’s first season in Las Vegas. And he did take the team from horrendous to mediocre, and then from mediocre to really good over his first two years. Chances are Davis won’t want to eat that money, and if this season ends like it looks like it might, Del Rio deserves the mulligan. Assuming he gets one, Del Rio has some issues he’ll have to work through in order to get everyone back on the same page.
2. Saints pull the Brees’ lever, and it’s still in working shape. The Saints rank Top 10 in the NFL in rush offense and total defense, and if they stay there, it’ll be the first time they’ve finished Top 10 in both in Sean Payton’s 11 years in charge. So Drew Brees no longer has to throw for 300 yards every week for New Orleans to have a chance, which is a great development for a quarterback who turns 39 in January. Even better news? On Sunday, the Saints needed to summon their old high-flying ways, and they showed they can still play that way if they need.
New Orleans was down 31-16 to the Redskins with 5:58 left. On the Saints’ next two possessions, Brees was 11-of-11 for 164 yards and two touchdowns, tying the game and doing it so efficiently that they didn’t need an onside kick, or to even attempt one, after the first of the two scores. Seeing a legend step up like that, of course, isn’t a bad thing for a young team to witness. But as Sean Payton sees it, that old legend is getting plenty out of his relationship with those young guys too.
“They’re good for him too,” Payton told me. “You start counting the receivers that (Tom) Brady and (Peyton) Manning and those guys have worked with, and the running backs, you’re talking about 50, 60 guys. So a new player comes in and it starts again.”
The box score from Sunday will tell you that’s happening again here. Three guys tied for the team lead with six catches—one is a second-year guy (Michael Thomas), another is a rookie (Alvin Kamara) and the third is new to New Orleans (Ted Ginn). And then, New Orleans turned to the ground game again in overtime, with 20- and 31-yard runs from Mark Ingram setting up the game-winning field goal. So the old and new passing game both worked in closing out the Redskins. And as a result, it looks now like the Saints can win every which way, which is a fantastic sign for January.
3. Charging back into the playoff picture. When I got ahold of Anthony Lynn on Thursday, the Chargers coach was already aboard the team charter, leaving his old home for his new one with a convincing 28-6 thumping of the Cowboys in tow. And so by then, the native North Texan had time to process this trip, which was a unique one for him for all the reasons that Peter King chronicled on The MMQB.
“This game wasn’t about me,” Lynn told me. “It’s about our organization. We needed this victory and we needed it in a bad way. But because we did it in Dallas, in front of all of my relatives, I had hundreds of people there, it was special to come home, and go full circle, growing up here, working for the Cowboys organization, loving this organization as a kid, that was sweet.” Hundreds? Lynn estimated that he had around 200 friends and family in attendance. And, he says, “Most of them were wearing Charger gear, that was nice to see.”
Even better, that plane took off with a team that has miraculously climbed off the canvas, carrying the cuts of an 0-4 start, and back into the playoff race. Friday morning, they’ll wake up a game-and-a-half back of Kansas City in the AFC West. Lynn says the slow start was a matter of a coaching staff having to learn each other and the players, and players who had to learn to win. Close wins over the Giants and Raiders accelerated a process that was coming slower than Lynn figured it would, and the coaches’ “no excuses” rallying cry that carried them through a nomadic offseason proved useful, too.
Part of it really came down to a talented roster just needing to let it rip, something you can see now happening with budding young stars like Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, Keenan Allen and Hunter Henry, and even an old warhorse like Philip Rivers, who posted a near perfect passer rating and 434 yards through the air against Dallas.
“Man, you start 0-4, it’s almost like you’ve got nothing to lose now, you’re playing with house money,” Lynn said. “You can just turn it loose. I feel like we were at that point. I mean, good lord, we were in every single game. And that’s what impressed me so much about this staff, the coaching staff and the players. I’ve been around teams where it would crumble at that point, it would’ve fallen apart. We didn’t let it. The guys didn’t want that to happen. It’s a very good group.”
4. Analytics pay off for the Jags while the Browns wait. Cleveland’s gotten a lot of attention for investing in analytics, highlighted by the ascension of Sashi Brown to the top of the football operation and the hiring of ex-MLB GM Paul DePodesta. And the Browns have gone 4-43 since Thanksgiving 2014, and 1-25 since the current regime was put in place. But last week, those Browns played another team, Jacksonville, that’s also very analytical, and finally seems to be breaking through with it.
Now the numbers group led by senior vice president for football research and technology Tony Khan isn’t driving decisions the way that Brown has in Cleveland, but that’s kind of the point. The group the owner’s son heads, as well as the Khan-owned TruMedia, is used as a supplement to the traditional scouting and coaching done by the Jaguar departments led by Tom Coughlin and Doug Marrone. One area in which the benefits have shown up are in Marrone’s increased aggression on fourth down; they’re top 10 in attempts. Another is in the productivity of undrafted free agents that Khan’s group has been empowered to sign. It’s one area where the Jags have moved to gamble on players that the data find to be undervalued.
One such player was ex-Auburn running back Corey Grant, who burned up the 40 in 2015, posted an outsized speed score (measure of a player’s mass vs. his 40), and had a higher percentage of carries go for 5-plus yards than any player in his class. The Jags gave him a $5,000 bonus. He’s since become a core special-teamer and interesting offensive prospect. He broke off a 56-yard touchdown run on one of those aforementioned fourth-and-shorts against the Chargers in Week 10. Another such player: Second-year safety Jarrod Wilson, who was signed in part because he played almost every snap for a bullish Michigan in the fall of 2015. Like Grant, Wilson quickly won work as a key special teamer in Jacksonville. And interestingly enough, Wilson recovered a punt last week muffed by his more ballyhooed Michigan teammate Jabrill Peppers.
So what does this all mean? Well, it’s another example that a wide range of teams are using analytics to differing degrees. This isn’t a yes or no proposition. We’ll see what becomes of the Browns’ setup, but certainly Jacksonville provides an example of how this sort of information can help.