Halloween is weeks away and Jon Gruden, returning from a trip to London that he didn’t want to take, has just one more win than he would have had if he’d stayed in the Monday Night Football broadcast booth. It’s been a tough go for the deity of Raiders owner Mark Davis, and the criticism is mounting. Some of the doozies: Gruden lost the locker room when he traded superstar Khalil Mack; publicly he has been too hard on QB Derek Carr; his roster is old. All the normal hiccups that come during an NFL season are now presented as evidence of managerial incompetence.
As trees, the criticisms of Gruden are fair. Mack has been great in Chicago; those who know Carr think there’s little upside to dousing him in public pressure; Oakland’s roster is the NFL’s oldest—that’s just fact. But as a forest, these and the ancillary criticisms of Gruden are not what’s behind the Raiders’ poor season. A 1-5 start may have been inevitable.
Part of what Gruden has tried to convey in his many candid public comments is that the Raiders roster he inherited stinks. And he’s not wrong. The roster had two glaring flaws. The one everyone could see was the general lack of talent on defense. The one that only careful football observers saw was the offense’s deficiency at tackle. Entering the offseason, left tackle Donald Penn was injured, aging and had never been quite as good as outsiders believed. Opposite him, the Raiders for years had been searching for answers at right tackle. Jack Del Rio’s offensive staffs had shrewdly hidden their middling tackles in their scheme. They asked Carr to throw quick strikes from spread sets, where the ball is out before a tackle can get beat; or they kept six and sometimes seven bodies in to block if Carr dropped back deep. The approach worked great in 2016 but led to an uneven offense in ’17.
Knowing that in today’s NFL, a successful offense needs enough front line aptitude to intertwine its passing game and running game, Gruden addressed the offensive tackle situation aggressively, at the expense of the defense. He used his first-round pick on Kolton Miller and a third-rounder on Brandon Parker. Unfortunately, neither has played well. Miller, in fact, has gotten worse each week, getting humiliated in a variety of ways Sunday by dynamic Seahawks defensive end Frank Clark (2.5 sacks and two forced fumbles). Parker is only on the field because the injury bug that had gotten Penn late last year bit again, sending him to injured reserve with a groin injury after four games.
And so the oldest roster in the NFL is being dragged down, ironically, by rookies. Miller’s and Parker’s struggles against Seattle prevented the Raiders from getting into their offensive scheme. Carr, pressured early and often, was forced to repeatedly check down against Seattle’s zones. Gruden might as well not have even taken his playbook through customs.
What’s too bad is that his playbook has been shrewdly crafted. Gruden’s scheme is not that of an antiquated coach hoping to take the game back to 1998. It’s a sharp, modern offense that features some of the cutting-edge concepts you see from the Rams (who are coached by a Gruden protégé, Sean McVay). Gruden seems to gradually be warming to the shotgun designs he once loathed, and though it’s at times obscured by inconsistent execution, every week the scheme creates unique opportunities for receivers Amari Cooper, Jordy Nelson and Jared Cook.
But the scheme doesn’t matter if your blocking can’t hold up. When Carr gets uncomfortable, he tends to get jittery in the pocket and hasty in his progression reads. It was an issue at times earlier this season and, given what happened Sunday, it threatens to become an issue again. Unfortunately, the Raiders probably need Carr and the offense to post at least 25 points each week to overcome this team’s defensive woes. Coaches tell you how they really feel by the men they play and the calls they make. Lately, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther has played one—just one—player more than 80% of the snaps: Tahir Whitehead, a dynamic but up-and-down linebacker. At the other 10 positions, men are rotating. Think about that: Ten of 11 defensive positions are not fully settled.
Yes, Guenther believes in playing a variety of guys—that’s what he did as the defensive coordinator in Cincinnati—but not to this extent. Plus, schematically, Guenther has scaled down. Early in the year we saw many of the diverse pressure packages and coverage disguises that Marvin Lewis didn’t always encourage him to call. But in recent weeks, it’s been mostly straight four-man rushes and two-deep zone coverages. The Raiders aren’t talented enough to simply line up and just play like that, but they don’t trust their corners in one-on-one coverage enough to exoticize things.
Khalil Mack alone would not have fixed this problem. We know for certain because the problem has persisted for years; the Raiders, in Mack’s four seasons, ranked 32nd, 22nd, 20th and 20th in points allowed. (This year they ranked 30th.) You can expect at least one of the two first-round picks acquired in the Mack trade to be spent on defense next April. We can assume the coaches will like those high-drafted players, but they don’t appear to like GM Reggie McKenzie’s. 2017 first-round corner Gareon Conley gave up a vertical route in Quarters coverage last week and lost his job to Daryl Worley, who had been a disappointing fringe starter for the Panthers.
In 2016, Oakland’s first-round pick was safety Karl Joseph. He showed intriguing flashes in Years 1 and 2 but is riding the bench this year, with the new staff instead playing Reggie Nelson, an experienced but 35-year-old veteran who now barely runs better than you or me.
We can debate the merits of these playing time decisions. Argument: Coaches know their players better than we do; they’re playing the guys who present the best chance to win. Counter-argument: Anyone can see that guys like Conley and Joseph are more talented than the men playing ahead of them; isn’t it a coach’s job to groom his most talented players so they can play? The answer to these questions are theoretical and grey, but it becomes easier to live with a young player’s growing pains when you’re forced to take a big-picture view.
At 1-5, with nine more years on the head coach’s contract and a new Las Vegas home with an inherently invigorated fan base awaiting, the Raiders can soon afford to start looking at the multiyear big picture. That is, if they aren't already.
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