The Collapse of the Oakland Raiders

In 2016, the Oakland Raiders were finally back. After 14 years without a winning record, the Silver and Black went 12-4 and returned to the playoffs for the first time since losing to Tampa Bay in the Super Bowl. This was a team on the rise. They had a young stud at quarterback. They had a defensive player of the year. They had a brash coach who was unafraid to gamble with the game on the line. It seemed like the Raiders were once again in the mix to compete for a championship.

DeAndre Washington, Derek Carr
Carr is already fourth in franchise history for passing yardage and touchdowns in just his fifth season. (Wikimedia Commons)

That 2016 season ended in bitter disappointment. Third-year quarterback Derek Carr suffered a season-ending injury in week 16. The Raiders lost their final regular season game with rookie Connor Cook under center. That loss cost Oakland the division and a first-round bye in the playoffs. Instead, the Raiders had to travel to Houston to play against the vaunted Texans defense in the Wild Card round. Cook struggled mightily in the game and the Raiders lost 27-14, ending their season.

Many felt that had Carr stayed healthy, that team could have made a deep run in the postseason. After all, Oakland had seven Pro Bowlers and three players named to the AP All-Pro team. Still, despite the abrupt end to the season, it seemed like the Raiders were poised for another great season in 2017.

That great season never came. Oakland struggled through the 2017 season, facing a much tougher schedule. The 2016 Raiders had the 15th hardest schedule in the league. The 2017 Raiders had the fourth. Injuries limited the team as offensive tackle Donald Penn finished the season on IR. So did Oakland’s first two picks in the 2017 draft. Oakland still had bright spots. Khalil Mack dominated, becoming the first player ever to be named first-team All-Pro at two different positions in the same season.

However, in addition to the tougher schedule, there are some easy things to point to as the reason for regression. The offense fell off a cliff. The Raiders gained 50 fewer yards of offense per game and scored eight fewer points per contest. Not exactly a recipe for success. Oakland also went from the top team in turnover ratio in 2016 to tied for 29th in 2017. That was a swing over 30 possessions, roughly two per game. That could help explain some of the scoring and yardage difference.

After a 6-6 start, the Raiders finished the season on a four-game losing streak. That cost Jack Del Rio his job as the head coach. Little did we know, he would be the first of many crucial pieces to leave Oakland.

jon_gruden2
Gruden is 101-88 in his career as a head coach, including the playoffs. (Wikimedia Commons)

It ended up being a tumultuous offseason for the Raiders. During the 2017 season, the team announced it would be moving to Las Vegas for the 2020 season. The fan base was already unsettled as a result. Then the Raiders signed Jon Gruden to a massive deal, reportedly worth about $100 million over 10 years.

Here’s the thing, Gruden hasn’t coached a football team in 10 years. His last gig was as the Buccaneers coach from 2002 to 2008. He did win a Super Bowl during that first season, beating none other than the Oakland Raiders.

The move made a lot of sense from the story perspective. Gruden had been the head coach of the Raiders 1998 to 2001, only to be forced out by former Raiders owner Al Davis. Gruden has said he feels like there is a lot that he would like to do to finish his legacy in Oakland.

When you pay a coach that much money though, it makes it really difficult to explain to your players that you can’t pay them. The team elected to extend Derek Carr’s contract with a lucrative deal that was the richest in NFL history for a short period of time. It seemed like the logical move, until the consequences quickly followed.

khalil_mack
Mack signed a six-year $141-million contract, the richest for a defense player in NFL history, after joining the Bears. (Wikimedia Commons) 

Khalil Mack is one of the best defensive players in NFL history, yet the Raiders did not pay him. Mack held out all summer long in hopes of landing a new contract. It never came, at least not from Oakland. Just before the start of the season, Gruden shipped Mack to Chicago for a package of draft picks. Mack has been a beast through the first four weeks of the NFL season. He is tied for second in the league with five sacks. He also leads the league with four forced fumbles alongside J.J. Watt, and has an interception.

The loss of Mack leaves the Raiders seemingly in a rebuild mode. Oakland has started the season 1-3 and shows no signs of turning it around. It needed overtime and a bit of assistance from the officials to pull off the victory and avoid what would have been a truly terrible start to 2018. The Raiders have scored the fifth fewest points this season. Apparently, Gruden does not really know how to rebuild either.

Thinking about it, it’s not too shocking considering this is a franchise known for the mantra “Just Win Baby.” The Raiders were never good at rebuilding. They struggled to do so for the aforementioned 14 years without a winning record. Oakland failed to draft well or attract free agents to help turn the franchise around. The environment for this Raiders franchise has been toxic for years. Even when it did bring in top-tier talent, like Randy Moss or Charles Woodson for the second time, it couldn’t convert that into true success. Looking at this Raiders team now, one that is going to require a ton of roster turnover and a general talent overhaul, Gruden has not positioned himself to rebuild in the coming years.

Oakland has the oldest roster in the NFL. The Raiders on average are 27.32 years old, according to Spotrac. The next youngest team is the Atlanta Falcons at 27. Oakland is more than a full year older than the league average. It also has the most players signed over the age of 30. Gruden has built a team ready to win this season, but it will come nowhere close to even making it to the playoffs. Gruden is also burying Marquel Lee and Karl Joseph, young players with bright futures, on the depth chart.

At this point just two years ago. The Raiders were 3-1 and seemed like a team destined to compete for the next several years. Today, this team is years away from competing. Gruden has one hell of a task ahead of him and this organization has some explaining to do as to how quickly it let the team fall into turmoil.

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Packing their bags for more than just money

After a 21-year vacation, it looks like the Rams are heading back to Los Angeles. NFL owners voted 30-2 in favor of the former St. Louis franchise setting up shop in Inglewood. The plan is in place now and the team is set to move in 2017, once the new stadium is built. They will play their home games at the LA Memorial Collesium this year, home of the USC Trojans, for the time being.

While the Rams are celebrating, the Chargers still have a lot of work to do if they want to move. There is an option for the Chargers to join the Rams in Inglewood in 2017 and there are still some rumblings about a new stadium in Carson as well. It is still looking good for the Bolts to be LA bound too, which is important because their stadium lease is up.

On the other hand, the Raiders seem to be screwed. Their proposal to move back to Los Angeles was rejected by the owners and the team seems like it will have to stay in Oakland. However, Raider czar Mark Davis indicated that the team will do everything it can to leave. Rumor has it that a San Antonio site could be pursued. As of right now, the Raiders do not have a place to play their home games. Their lease for their current stadium is up and Davis seems determined not to renew it. Apparently they are next in line for LA if the Chargers pass, but that doesn’t seem too likely.

Todd_Gurley
Todd Gurley is the face of this new Rams franchise.

So why all of the push to move? Well part of it is because money talks. Teams think that they can turn a big profit in Los Angeles with all of the fans that are hungry for football. To me though, this isn’t just about money.

All of these franchises are in the midst of average or below average seasons. None of them have won a Super Bowl since back in 1999, when the Rams took home the Lombardi Trophy thanks to the Greatest Show on Turf. It seems like these teams just want a fresh start. A chance to start over and see what they can build.

For the Rams, it means moving to a big market from a small market. Not many players want to settle down in quiet old St. Louis, Missouri. It is not glamorous by any means, even if it is a great place to live. The Rams suddenly have an opportunity to draw attention of players seeking the spotlight. St. Louis also tends to be a smaller market dominated by baseball. With the Rams failing to make the postseason during the last 11 seasons, it is not easy to command respect in the fan base.

Philip Rivers
Rivers is the aging face of this seemingly average team.

The Chargers seem to be in a slightly different boat. San Diego wants to move into the more prominent light of California. For years, despite all of the Raiders struggles, San Diego has failed to win over the state. The 49ers commanded all of the respect and had most of the support of California fans. Between five Lombardi Trophies and all of the big names, think Rice, Montana, Young, Walsh and Lott, San Fran definitely has the better history. San Diego had Dan Fouts, but many view him as a poor man’s Dan Marino. They also had Kellen Winslow and Lance Alworth, but those guys don’t quite match the mystique of those famed Niners. Even now as the 49ers seem to be in rebuild mode, the Raiders look like a serious playoff contender for the first time in a decade. San Diego just can’t seem to catch a break. They will add another one soon (Tomlinson), but either way, this is about turning the page in the franchise’s history and making the team more popular. Not for the sake of attracting players, more for appealing to fans.

Derek Carr
The Raiders also have a player to build around and market in Derek Carr.

Meanwhile, the Raiders don’t seem to care where they move to, as long as they don’t stay in Oakland. I don’t know why but it seems like the Davis family just does not want to be there. Al Davis, Mark’s father, moved the team to Los Angeles during the 80s, leaving Oakland then too. This has nothing to do with money if you ask me. The Raiders just want to start over. They are building a good young team and they seem to want to leave their past behind them. This organization’s last 10 years was a joke. From drafting Jamarcus Russell to firing Hue Jackson after an 8-8 season, there are some bad memories. Relationships with the local government don’t seem to be great the Raiders would prefer to play in a football specific stadium, rather than share with the Athletics. San Antonio could be a likely spot; I’ve even heard some far-fetched rumors that the team could fill the Rams spot in St. Louis. This is all about escaping Oakland for the Raiders.

All of the cards have yet to completely shake out regarding relocation but for these three franchises, a move represents a lot more than just an increase in potential revenue and new fans in the seats. This is a chance to start fresh.

NFL coaching changes

Five head coaching positions opened up in the NFL on Monday. The New York Jets, Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco 49ers, Chicago Bears and Oakland Raiders all are searching for a new man to run the show. There are dozens of candidates available so I am going to take my guess at who will be the next hire each organization makes. My decisions will be based on personnel, strong points and weaknesses as well as financial flexibility.

Atlanta Falcons
Previous coach: Mike Smith (67-49)
Projected new coach: Rex Ryan (Previous with NYJ)
The Falcons over the last two years have gone from being a Super Bowl contender to a middling team that disappoints too often. In 2012, Atlanta came within one game of the Super Bowl. Since then, Mike Smith’s Falcons went 11-21, missing the playoffs two straight seasons. This team has all sorts of offensive weapons but desperately lacks an identity on defense. The offensive line needs work too but there is some young blood there. Enter Rex Ryan. The former Jets coach may have seen a steady decline in performance over the last three years with New York, but almost all of the struggles were on offense. Ryan would have a lot of improvements to make. The Falcons defense ranked last in yards allowed per game and 27th in scoring defense as well. Atlanta also tied for second to last in sacks. Ryan is one of the best defensive minds in the NFL. Tasking him with fixing Atlanta’s defense is the best solution Falcons’ owner Arthur Blank will find.

San Francisco 49ers
Previous coach: Jim Harbaugh (44-19)
Projected new coach: Adam Gase (Currently with DEN)
Unlike Atlanta, the defense was never the problem in San Francisco. It was the dysfunctional offense. Many witnessed the 49ers miserable up and down season. Through it all, the 49ers showed that its defense might be the deepest in the entire league. San Francisco lost several defensive starters to injuries and suspensions over the course of the season yet still ranked in the top 5 for yards allowed and the top 10 for points allowed. The offense however was anemic. The unit ranked 20th in yards per game and 25th in points per game. Colin Kaepernick looked lost at times and Frank Gore finally showed signs of aging. Michael Crabtree was not as reliable as he once was making Anquan Boldin the only true weapon. The offense needs a lot of help and that is where Adam Gase comes in. Gase has spent the last two years as Denver’s offensive coordinator helping Peyton Manning run his record setting attack. Gase has proven his versatility and understanding this year with his ability to change the Broncos gameplan as needed from week to week. He will have some molding to do with Kaepernick but the potential is there. Gase is also inventive enough to deploy Kaepernick’s running abilities in a way similar to Russell Wilson, truly utilizing the dual threat quarterback. Gase will garner a lot of attention from teams but I think he will ultimately choose San Francisco.

New York Jets
Previous coach: Rex Ryan (46-50)
Projected new coach: Josh McDaniels (Currently with NE)
The Jets are in full rebuild. Owner Woody Johnson fired both his coach and GM making this hard to call right now as to the coach will be without a GM in place. New York looked poised to become an AFC power in 2011, but then the wheels fell off and the team has not fully recovered since. Part of that is due to Rex Ryan’s inability to coach the offensive side of the ball. The other is the obvious lack of talent that the Jets have on that same side of the ball. The Jets began building a better foundation this year with the additions of Percy Harvin and Eric Decker but neither has been enough to turn the offense around. That is where Josh McDaniels comes in. McDaniels has spent the last three years coaching division rival New England’s offense. The Patriots may have Tom Brady but McDaniels has played a large part in designing the offense he runs. McDaniels also has head coaching experience from his time in Denver. He would likely be assigned the task of trying to salvage Geno Smith’s career with likely a rookie developing behind the scenes as well as retooling the offense around him. New York’s defense is still in good shape following the Ryan era but needs some work in the secondary. McDaniels would have his work cut out for him. It would certainly take some time as well to turn the Jets around but McDaniels is the right man for the job.

Oakland Raiders
Previous coach: Dennis Allen/Tony Sporano (went 3-13 this season)
Projected new coach: Dan Quinn (Currently with SEA)
The Oakland Raiders seem to have more fresh starts than anyone else in the NFL, but this one is has a little bit of promise. The Raiders have two pieces, quarterback Derek Carr and linebacker Kahlil Mack, to build around for the 2015 season. This team needs a ton of help on both sides of the ball. It is going to be more than a one season project. Oakland would have a decent amount of money to play with in free agency and a high draft pick meaning Dan Quinn can go to work on the Oakland roster. Quinn, over the past two years, has coached one of the greatest defenses of all time in Seattle and that pedigree will be something GM Reggie McKenzie hopes he can carry over to the Bay Area. Oakland has a couple of other young players in D.J. Hayden and Latavius Murray who have shown some promise but the Raiders will need to get rid the aging veterans McKenzie and Dennis Allen brought in last year as stop gaps. They did not pay off and Quinn will want a fresh start. In a division where Phillip Rivers, Peyton Manning and Jamaal Charles rule, Quinn would have a tall task in making sure the Raiders’ defense is ready to compete.

Chicago Bears
Previous coach: Marc Trestman (13-19)
Projected new coach: Frank Reich (Currently with SD)
The Bears are another team that completely cleaned house this offseason. The Chicago brass decided to fire head coach Marc Trestman, general manager Phil Emory and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer. This team will be looking all to pretend the Trestman era never happened. The Bears, in many ways, are stuck with Jay Cutler as their quarterback so it is time to bring in a man who has worked with Phillip Rivers over the last two years and made him look like an MVP candidate at times, Frank Reich. Reich is a former NFL quarterback, which bodes well for helping Cutler. He managed to keep San Diego’s offense afloat despite losing this year, Ryan Mathews, Danny Woohead and Ronnie Brown at running back this season. Keenan Allen also fell into a deep sophomore slump. However, the Bears have a ton of offensive talent and need someone to generate some production out of them. The defense struggled as well but the return of Charles Tillman and Lamaar Houston as well as continual development of a young linebacking core could make the defense much better next season. This team has a lot of work to do if it wants to avoid being one of the most disappointing in recent NFL history. Reich should be ready to get the job done.