Oakland Raiders: Best-/Worst-Case Scenario in Dennis Allen's First Season
The Raiders' season can go in a variety of different ways depending on a variety of different scenarios—some anticipated and others unanticipated.
Expectations are high, but all the change in Oakland leaves a lot of unknowns that could significantly impact the outcome of the season.
As many fans believe, the Raiders are going to be a surprise team. The defense is going to improve to average and the offense is going to explode.
As many more fans around the league believe, the Raiders are going to struggle. The team lacks depth and the new schemes don't fit the personnel.
Both could be true, depending on the result of these best- and worst-case scenarios.
Best Case: Palmer Returns to Elite Status
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In the rush to judge the trade that brought Carson Palmer to Oakland, this fact escaped many: Palmer is a good quarterback.
The question isn't if Palmer is a good quarterback, it's if Palmer is still a great quarterback. He was considered to be a top-five quarterback at one time, but is probably no longer considered in the top half.
It could be a mistake to count Palmer out. Palmer may have more offensive weapons now than at any point in his entire career. Darren McFadden, Marcel Reece and an abundance of unselfish receivers should help Palmer return to pre-injury form.
In 2010, Palmer posted impressive numbers by throwing for nearly 4000 yards with 26 touchdowns and 20 interceptions. In 2011, Palmer averaged more passing yardage per game that at any other point in his career, but 16 interceptions in 10 games doomed him and the Raiders.
It's the pesky interceptions that are limiting how good Palmer can be. If Palmer can limit the poor decisions and throws that result in turnovers, he could return to an elite status we haven't seen since the 2005 season.
Worst Case: Palmer Struggles with New Offensive Scheme
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Carson Palmer hasn't played in a west coast offense since he was a 18-year-old freshman at USC (H/T Bill Williamson, ESPN.com). That was over a decade ago.
You can't teach an old dog new tricks, and even if you can, is that trick something the old dog can perform, or did your dog thrive with the old tricks for a reason?
There is a very real possibility that Palmer will not be a fit for the offense. Palmer will be asked to move the pocket more than he ever has, and for the first time in his career, everything is new according to Palmer.
Palmer has said and done everything right since the regime change in Oakland, but the scheme change may or may not fit what Palmer does best.
A struggling Palmer is worse than an injured Palmer, because the Raiders will resist benching him for poor play.
Best Case: Darren McFadden Stays Healthy
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Everyone knows the Raiders need Darren McFadden to stay healthy to push for the playoffs. The zone-blocking scheme is more than capable of producing a 1000-yard rusher without McFadden's presence, but McFadden brings big-play ability and physicality to the running game.
The NFL is a violent game and the punishment takes a toll on the bodies of running backs. If a running back can stay healthy for 12 games, he shouldn't be at risk of being labeled "injury-prone."
McFadden has played in more than 12 games in every season of his career, except 2011.
If McFadden finally gets a few breaks and manages to stay healthy for 16 games, he would have the opportunity to break the 2000 total yards threshold.
Worst Case: Darren McFadden Misses More Than 8 Games
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Injuries are part of football; it's a a violent game. Fans want to label players "injury-prone" so they have an explanation, but injuries are also just bad luck.
What's more concerning is not the injury, but how long it takes the player to recover from the injury. McFadden has grown a reputation as a slow healer, and if a minor injury puts McFadden out of service for any significant period of time, that will not change.
Dennis Allen cannot afford to lose Darren McFadden for any significant length of time. Anything more than eight games would be a nightmare scenario for the Raiders.
Best Case: Modern Raiders' Defense Holds Its Own
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Al Davis was the legendary owner of the Raiders for decades and, according to Raiders free safety Michael Huff, he was deeply involved in the defensive scheme and game plan. That's all going to change under defensive-minded head coach Dennis Allen and defensive coordinator Jason Tarver.
The blitz is no longer going to be such a rare tool used by the defense. Allen's Broncos defense was known for their abundance of blitzes, and he'll bring that to the Raiders. The Raiders will have to manufacture pressure on the quarterback, and utilizing the blitz is one way to do it.
The other area of weakness for the Raiders has been run defense. The coaching staff hopes to solve that issue by utilizing multiple fronts.
No one is expecting the defense in Oakland to be great, but an average defense might be enough to get the Raiders to the playoffs with a healthy and productive offense.
Worst Case: New Defensive Scheme Doesn't Improve Run/Pass Defense
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It's easy to assume that a change in defensive scheme will solve all the Raiders' problems on defense. That's a dangerous assumption because the players, mostly the same from 2011, will still have to execute in 2012.
Are Ron Bartell and Shawntae Spencer significantly better than Stanford Routt and Chris Johnson, or are they just cheaper, better fits for the new defensive scheme? That's a question still waiting for an answer.
From a personnel standpoint, the Raiders appear more ill-equipped to stop the run than last season. Veteran defensive tackle John Henderson was the only defensive tackle on the roster in 2011, and he was released.
The Raiders will turn to a group of pass-rushers at defensive tackle to stop the run, unless nose tackle Travis Ivey makes the 53-man roster.
Execution is still going to be key. Al Davis wasn't dictating the defensive scheme after he passed away last season, and the Raiders still had defensive issues.
Best Case: Raiders Stay Healthy
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One of the greatest challenges for the new regime is addressing the lack of depth on the roster. Not many starting jobs are open to competition, despite what Dennis Allen and general manager Reggie McKenzie want fans to believe. Mostly, situational and reserve roles remain open for competition.
One of the issues for the Raiders is quality depth behind the projected starters. If a starter goes down, the Raiders may or may not have a backup that can step in and play at a sufficiently high level.
The expanded roster will give the Raiders a long look at young players to see how they can help the team, but the starters staying healthy is going to help the Raiders achieve their goals.
Worst Case: Depth Becomes an Issue
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McKenzie has done a good job finding players to support the starters in a reserve role, but two or three key injuries could still significantly hamper the team's ability to get to the playoffs.
In 2011, Jason Campbell, Darren McFadden, Denarius Moore and Jacoby Ford all went down with an injuries. Those injuries significantly impacted the playoff race. The Raiders had to trade for a competent quarterback and still faltered down the stretch without McFadden.
While the depth on the roster may be improved from 2011, it's not improved enough to get the Raiders to the playoffs if the injury bug bites again.
Best Case: Penalty Issue Solved
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No team wants to be known as the team that holds the record for penalties and penalty yards in a season. Dennis Allen has the job of solving a deep-rooted penalty culture in Oakland and might not admit it, but part of solving the penalty issue is killing the "Raiders versus the world" mentality.
Allen will preach personal accountability for penalties and hope the team buys what he is selling on the topic. Part of selling the players will be to reduce the reputation penalties and demonstrate how the mental penalties are hurting the team.
The only way to reduce reputation penalties is to have a better relationship with the league office. Communications with the league about officiating no doubt get filtered and passed along to the officials. Scathing and detailed game reports detailing every mistake by an official isn't likely to help the team.
If Allen can successfully reduce the number of mental penalties the Raiders commit and develop a positive relationship with the league office regarding all uncontrollable penalties, the Raiders might actually be able to solve the penalty issue.
Penalty Issue Unsolved
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It's easier said than done. How many coaches have said they would solve the Raiders' penalty issues? Even Jon Gruden was only moderately successful in reducing penalties in Oakland.
Reducing mental mistakes can take time. Composure and focus are learned, and until or unless the Raiders replace all the players the worst offenders, this isn't going to happen overnight.
Patching up the relationship with the league and the officials will take time. Some officials have long memories.
The NFL is also in a labor dispute with the officials, and replacement officials may be more likely to attach their personal biases. It's not a simple issue.
Allen realizes solving the Raiders' penalty issue is a process. The first step is admitting you have a problem; the second is taking real steps to solve that problem.
Unfortunately, Allen might not be able to solve the penalty issue in one season, but even a significant improvement might be a win for the franchise.
Best/Worst Case: Final Record
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Best-case scenario: Palmer returns to form, McFadden stays healthy, the defense is average and the penalties go down and the Raiders win 10 or more games and go to the playoffs.
Worst-case scenario: Palmer isn't a fit for the new offense, McFadden gets hurt again, the defense is still terrible, the penalty issue remains a problem and the Raiders will lose 10 or more games and have a top draft pick in the 2013 NFL draft.