- The Raiders were viewed as a team on the rise, but since January they’ve made baffling coaching and personnel decisions that set them up for this season’s failures
- Desperation, mismanagement and poor leadership played out in the Crabtree-Talib fight and its aftermath
This season in Oakland was not about the Raiders winning the Super Bowl.
It should have been. The 2016 season was a banner year for a franchise and a fan base thirsting for good news. Derek Carr led the Raiders to a 12-4 record and might have gone further if not for a season-ending injury. He came back ready to win in 2017. But the Raiders went in a different direction.
First they got rid of Bill Musgrave, the offensive coordinator who developed Carr, beginning in 2015, into the kind of producer you build a franchise around. Todd Downing was a rising star—a quarterbacks coach whom many teams were putting on short lists for the best available coordinator candidate. And rather than continue with a proven entity in 50-year-old Musgrave, the franchise rolled the dice with a 37-year-old offensive coordinator allied with Raiders offensive line coach and former Vikings head coach Mike Tice, who gave Downing his start in Minnesota. That was January.
Head coach Jack Del Rio, apparently unhappy with the performance of a defense that finished 2016 at 20th in points allowed and 26th in yards allowed, brought in John Pagano to play the role of “assistant head coach–defense.” Rather than move on from defensive coordinator Ken Norton after two seasons, they brought in a supervisor. Effectively, Norton was placed on the hot seat, with yet another cook in the kitchen. Still January.
Two months later the Raiders worked out a deal with the Seahawks to bring Marshawn Lynch back to his hometown of Oakland, after a year on the shelf and two years from an injury-slogged season in which he played in seven games and averaged 3.8 yards per carry. The signing of Lynch, who made a number of enemies among the Seahawks brass during his productive tenure in Seattle, was widely understood as a business ploy by team owner Mark Davis, who was and remains eager to fill up his aging stadium while a new one is being built in Las Vegas. The move to jettison the 27-year-old Latavius Murray—who over the last five games with Minnesota is averaging 4.48 yards per carry and has scored five touchdowns—in favor of a 31-year-old fading star was as loud a message to players as any: This season is not about winning a Super Bowl. April.
The players, of course, understand this. And when the team began to struggle on the field with a drastically modified coaching tree calling the shots, the cracks began to show. Oakland lost four straight in Weeks 3 through 6, and Lynch, who managed 3.6 yards per carry and a pair of scores in the first six games, got himself thrown out of an Oct. 19 game against the Chiefs (which the Raiders would go on to win) by shoving an official. It was part and parcel of a larger trend: The Raiders have led the league in the sort of discipline penalties that give coaches migraines. Their 12 unnecessary roughness and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties for 172 yards through 11 games lead the league, reminding fans of ego-tripping 2-14 teams of yesteryear.
And when the decision-makers inevitably chose between Norton and Pagano (going with Pagano after Norton’s defense gave up more than 330 yards of offense in six consecutive games), defensive leaders Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin sat the next practice out for undisclosed non-injury reasons. Irvin’s reason was apparent enough; after Del Rio fired Norton, Irvin’s former position coach in Seattle, Irvin tweeted an expletive, and Del Rio told reporters he was giving Irvin “a little space.” Never mind that Irvin had notched 17 pressures in 11 starts better described as disappearing acts. On a workday in the week of a rivalry game that would mean the difference between 5-6 and 4-7, Irvin needed “space.”
And then there’s Michael Crabtree. The receiver, who has 42 catches after 11 games, took the bait and blew off some built-up steam, slugging it out with Broncos cornerback/troll king Aqib Talib, who had absolutely nothing to lose when he snatched Crabtree’s gold chain off his neck for the second time in two seasons. Talib’s Broncos were 3-7 at the time, far out of AFC West contention while searching for a franchise signal-caller. The Raiders, on the other hand, have Carr, and at 4-6 in a lagging division at the time of the fight, a chance to earn a wild-card bid or an outright division title. But Crabtree was just following the example set by management.
Del Rio, as if on cue, lashed out at the decision to suspend Crabtree (and Talib) for two games this week, tweeting, “Hard to understand the reasoning for this judgement based on most recent ruling w/ altercation see WR Cin and DB Jax = 0 games suspended.” (Crabtree’s and Talib’s suspensions were subsequently reduced to one game.)
Here’s what I have trouble understanding: Why is the head coach of a football team that is clawing for a playoff spot making excuses for his player’s bad behavior, rather than holding that player accountable for putting himself at the mercy of the league? Why is the leader of the most disappointing team in football in 2017 playing the victim?
Answer: Oakland’s season didn’t matter, apparently. Hasn’t since April.
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