'The NFL Beat': Raiders in Long Form
Al Davis is watching
By Alex Dunlap, 3:47PM, Sat. Dec. 29, 2012
Al Davis is turning over in his grave, and to be honest, I would be, too.
It's tough to know where to start. Any lover of the NFL as a product should be a shameless admirer of the late Oakland Raiders owner and GM.
Davis was commissioner of the AFL during its growth period that led to the 1970 NFL/AFL merger. Davis opposed the merger, so much so that he quit. If his Raiders and the rest of the AFL teams were going to give into the NFL in a "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" manner, it wasn't happening on his watch.
How ironic that it was Davis' constant needling litigation and outrageous demands that provided a key counterpoint in negotiations with the NFL. Whether it was by design or not, he became the common enemy, the most uniting factor there is.
Davis was a contrarian and an innovator.
He was the first GM to draft a black quarterback, the first to hire a black head coach, the first to hire a hispanic coach, and Raiders CEO Amy Trask (appointed by Davis), is the league's first and only female CEO.
He would fire coaches and call them "liars" in press conferences. He would file suits against the NFL in federal court. He would abstain from owner voting on important issues like the appointment of a new commissioner for odd reasons.
He moved the Raiders to Los Angeles, and then back to Oakland, suing the cities of Oakland, Los Angeles, and Irwindale along the way. He refused to give anyone control over player personnel other than himself: the owner, the GM, the boss.
Just win, baby.
A recent history of the zone-blocking scheme in Oakland
Davis' last year of life was also his last in the role that defined it, and his coach at the time of his death in 2011 was Hue Jackson.
Prior to becoming head coach of the Raiders in 2011, Jackson was offensive coordinator under Tom Cable in 2010. If the Raiders are indeed thinking about firing first-year head coach Dennis Allen on "Black Monday" as is being reported by various outlets, then they never should have fired Hue Jackson in the first place, but we'll get to that.
This issue starts with Cable, because like all issues in football, this issue is rooted in football. This issue is rooted in a scheme and a personnel disconnect.
Cable started the 2008 season as offensive line coach for the Raiders, but four games into the season Al Davis fired then-head coach Lane Kiffin and appointed Cable as interim head coach. Cable finished out the 2008 season and Davis was happy enough with the team's direction despite its 4-8 record under Cable to name him head coach for the 2009 season.
The organization brought in Hue Jackson as offensive coordinator from Baltimore following a 2009 season that most remember more for Cable punching assistant coaches than anything that happened on the actual football field. Despite sweeping the AFC West, the Raiders still missed the playoffs.
Jackson immediately noticed something upon his arrival. The Raiders had a running back in Darren McFadden that was a truly elite athlete and potential weapon that wasn't being used correctly.
Jackson went to McFadden and asked him a simple question. He wanted to know what his favorite plays were from college. He wanted to know what made McFadden tick the way he did on all of those highlight-reel displays we are all so familiar with from his college days at Arkansas.
The answers he got were eye-opening in that none of the plays McFadden mentioned were conducive to being run out of a zone scheme. The plays McFadden could own were plays in which the offensive line and blocking unit assigned "a body to a body" to allow McFadden to get sprung by a key block.
So the Raiders switched things up. Cable was an offensive-line mind first, and was comfortable with it. The results were instant and amazing. Following the 2010 season, Cable was shoved out of the NFL's perennially hottest coaching seat, and Jackson strapped himself in for 2011.
Many will not remember how dominating McFadden looked to start the 2011 season, a season cut 10 games short due to a Week 7 lisfranc injury versus Kansas City. Talking heads were pondering whether McFadden was the best in the league, and so was I. He was operating on a new level, and during this time, Al Davis, a living NFL legend passed away; finally happy with his run game.
A new era: "gutting the place."
In Denver, Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen was rounding a burgeoning juggernaut into form on the defensive side of the ball. In fact, spending many a night pondering how to stop McFadden.
Little did he know he would be coaching McFadden next season. And completely misusing him. Completely misusing the player he told me personally at the NFL Combine was the "most dangerous weapon [he] has ever had to game plan for."
Reggie McKenzie was appointed as GM by Al Davis' son and current Raiders owner Mark Davis in the early spring of 2012. McKenzie was highly thought of from his time as an executive with the Green Bay Packers during their recent success. McKenzie is an intense, fast-moving, large man with all the presence of an overcharged St. Bernard in a small room. A bull in a china cabinet.
Hue Jackson told sources at the end of the 2011 season that "they're gonna gut this place" after initial conversations with McKenzie and other members of the new regime. And gut the place they did. Firing everyone from coaches to staff to even scouts.
Some of the best scouts in the league, too. To blame the Raiders scouting department for any Al Davis bust-picks is silly. The Rolando McClain pick was not the first, or the last, that made the entire department sick to their stomachs.
Still, all gone, everybody. A new time, a new era, and most importantly, a new culture. A young, energetic, and fundamentally sound defensive head coach. A GM with big-picture vision, an above-average (if aging) QB in Carson Palmer and a stable of young weapons, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
The Raiders started 2012 with a clean slate. The first clean slate in Raiders history.
History repeating itself
Black Monday is coming, and soon.
We are entering Week 17, the final week of the NFL regular season. Every year a number of NFL coaches who will not be making the playoffs begin to dread a call into the office on Monday morning.
These are the kind of meetings where you are best off just taking a box with you to save a second trip back to clean out your desk.
Allen will be getting called into the office, we know that much for sure. Whether he will be getting canned following the Raiders 2012 campaign which has seen just four wins heading into the final week, opinions are all over the place.
The scapegoat is Greg Knapp. The offensive coordinator was appointed by Dennis Allen and quickly decided that everyone else had it wrong. McFadden could be a one-cut runner. He could operate in a zone scheme. The offense was going to click the way he knew how to coach it.
Despite remaining healthy for a relatively large portion of the 2012 season, McFadden has, predictably, looked fairly awful.
He managed a few good games based on volume alone, but herein lies the problem. McFadden is not a volume back. He has tiny lower legs and he is fragile. He is not a one-cut workhorse, he is a weapon. Thirty carries, 35 carries – it's too much.
I was actually able to call the week McFadden was going to get injured. His wearing down was that obvious to me, as was his injury history.
Raiders fans surely noticed some wrinkles following the bye week, but it wasn't enough. You can't just toss in part of one ideology into another. The most head-scratching implementation of packages and plays that actually suited McFadden best were run with the ball in backup Mike Goodson's hands.
I can't count the number of great, Darren McFadden-looking delay draws and old Hue Jackson "Flip-90"-type sweeps that the team used a backup running back to deploy while letting McFadden fruitlessly search for zone seams and get pounded.
The definition of insanity
You can't repeat the same thing over and over hoping for different results. We know what that is, and it's insanity.
Firing coaches every year, not letting cultures develop, not letting schemes develop. It's the constant limbo that Raider Nation have found themselves in for decades.
I like Coach Allen. I don't think he should be fired. I think he made a tremendous judgment error in overlooking the obvious disconnect the zone-blocking scheme represented given the personnel he had to work with. The offense that should have worked harder to properly integrate a piece in McFadden who Allen told me was the best he ever faced.
I think Al Davis would be the first to tell you that if you fire Dennis Allen, you ruin that "clean slate" that seemed so promising and optimistic in the preseason. Forever.
You smash it to pieces. By repeating history, you're dooming yourself to what we know those actions create. Raider Nation deserves better.
Unless you do one thing.
McKenzie could have one trick up his sleeve that would give Al Davis a grin previously reserved for events like sticking a good lawsuit to the commissioner.
McKenzie could channel his inner-Al Davis and work a deal bringing Andy Reid to a low-stress, low-initial-expectation head-coaching gig on the West Coast to round out his career. Think about Reid's offense and then think about the Raiders' current offensive personnel.
Now, that would be exciting.
[Alex Dunlap is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and founder of RosterWatch.]