Analysis: Why the Oakland Raiders Should Run a Spread Offense in 2013 and Beyond
In designing an effective offense—something the Oakland Raiders failed to do in 2012-13—a fundamental principle is building around the strengths of your roster. Consider two examples from recent NFL seasons:
- Since drafting Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski in 2010, the New England Patriots have reaped great success exploiting linebackers with its two-tight end passing attack. In each season since, quarterback Tom Brady has averaged more than 4,600 passing yards and a 36-to-7 TD-to-INT ratio. Meanwhile, the Patriots have averaged 13 wins and made two AFC Championship Game appearances, including a Super Bowl berth.
- During the same span, the Green Bay Packers have lost top running back Ryan Grant and dynamic tight end Jermichael Finley to multiple injuries. In turn, the Packers have relied on three- and four-receiver sets that cater to quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ elite arm strength and accuracy. Despite a de-emphasis of the running game—Green Bay has ranked 20th, 26th, and 16th, respectively, in rushing attempts from 2010-11 to 2012-13—the Packers have won a Super Bowl title, making the playoffs in each of the last three seasons. Rodgers has averaged more than 4,300 passing yards a season while topping a 100.00 quarterback rating each year.
It might seem laughable that a team like the Raiders could emulate these successes anytime soon. Their follies in the draft and in managing the salary cap in recent years have left them with arguably one of the worst rosters in the league.
Last season, it showed: Oakland, running a woefully ill-fitting zone-blocking scheme, finished 26th in points scored, en route to a 4-12 season.
Yet on closer inspection, the Raiders—like the Patriots and the Packers—appear to be an ideal candidate to adopt some of the permutations of the spread offense that have sprouted all over the college and professional games during the past decade.
Consider some strengths of Oakland’s current roster:
Depth of Speedy Pass-Catchers
Late owner Al Davis and current general manager Reggie McKenzie have compiled a deep, potential-laden group of receivers and tight ends.
Any single player among wide receivers Denarius Moore, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Rod Streater, Jacoby Ford and Juron Criner, as well as tight ends Brandon Myers, David Ausberry and Richard Gordon, are capable of stretching the field for big gains downfield or after the catch.
Oakland is so deep with dynamic playmakers that it doesn’t make sense to keep them on the bench. The Raiders easily could—and should—put combinations of any four or five of the above players on the field for every play.
In fact, Oakland already is capable of running the same two-tight end sets as the Patriots and the same four-receiver sets as the Packers. (This latter possibility has to have gone through the mind of McKenzie, who has stayed loyal to his Packer roots with many of his free agency and front office signings.)
A Capable Veteran Quarterback
It's fair to question the propriety of the Raiders’ 2011 trade for Carson Palmer, which has resulted in an 8-16 record and increasing speculation about whether Oakland needs to spend a high draft pick this April on a franchise signal-caller.
These concerns ignore that the team has failed to exploit Palmer’s strengths as a passer since his arrival.
Palmer no longer can throw the deep ball as well as he could before elbow surgery a few years back, but he’s still effective on short and intermediate passes.
Moreover, he retains a quick release, which despite a patchwork offensive line, helped him take only 26 sacks last season—third fewest among quarterbacks who started at least 15 games last season, behind the Manning brothers.
Putting him in the shotgun full-time, with perhaps a few under-center plays that embrace what did work the last two seasons, should put him in the best position to avoid hits, spread the ball around and exploit defensive coverages.
Misused Running Backs
Possibly the most confounding aspect of the Raiders’ 2012 offensive performance (or lack thereof) was the apparent disappearance of running back Darren McFadden.
Hobbled by injuries for a fifth straight season, he averaged a career-low 3.3 yards per carry. (This seems like a generous figure, given how many times he got stopped at the line by a penetrating defender or, far too frequently, one of his own blockers.)
It should be clear that McFadden is a player who (a) can’t run the ball between the tackles 20 times a game and (b) is most effective when given space to run. The team’s transition to a power-running scheme should help him in the second respect, but more should be done to respect his talents.
In one-back shotgun looks, alternating with effective pass-catching back Mike Goodson, McFadden has the potential to be a game-breaker again while running sweeps, draws and screens.
The team also should consider incorporating multiple-tight end Wildcat-type schemes from shotgun formations. These would give McFadden the option of doing any of three legitimate plays: running a draw or sweep behind a wave of capable blockers; handing off to Goodson, speedy back Taiwan Jones, or a wide receiver or exploiting a tight end/linebacker mismatch with the pass along the seams.
Whatever the Raiders change on offense in 2013-14, they must better feature fullback Marcel Reece.
The team’s only Pro Bowl representative (albeit as an injury replacement), he is perhaps the team’s biggest X-factor. At 6'3" and 240 pounds, and possessing dependable hands and vision, he is a mismatch at running back, fullback or tight end.
In a spread offense, he easily could pair with Myers or Ausberry in a two- or three-tight end set, join one or two running backs in the backfield or act as an Antonio Gates-like threat running post routes in a five-receiver set.
A Chance to Build the Future Using the Present
While a two-quarterback system may be frowned upon in today’s NFL, the Raiders would stand to benefit by figuring out some way of using third-year player Terrelle Pryor’s talents on the field.
During his first NFL start in the final game of 2012-13, Pryor showed extreme rawness as a passer yet an undeniable ability to keep plays alive with elite speed for his position.
Imagine what he could do if he wasn’t stuck in a West Coast attack.
A sensible move for the Raiders would be to borrow from and expand on what Seattle, Washington and San Francisco did with their young quarterbacks, as each team made the postseason. A common thread in their success was making opponents respect their rookie quarterback’s running ability by using the read option out of spread and/or pistol formations.
Given Pryor’s existing abilities, and the talents of his teammates, the Raiders should experiment with plays similar to what Chip Kelly ran at Oregon (and which he may debut as head coach of the Eagles this season). Oakland should establish the run as diversely as possible, using many types of options and jet sweeps out of multiple-receiver or multiple-tight end sets.
In turn, the team should sprinkle in play action and screen passes that won’t put a lot of pressure on Pryor as he develops as a passer and that will put speed guys in space.
If Pryor is indeed the future at quarterback, the team should develop packages with the goal of giving him more and more snaps as the season progresses. In that sense, Oakland can play two quarterbacks and still succeed.
As during any offseason, the Raiders' actual roster come September is still in question. But notwithstanding the players the team intends to add through the draft—most of whom likely will benefit a ravaged defense—a few key figures' fates are worth noting at this junction.
ESPN has floated rumors that receiving stalwarts Heyward-Bey and Myers will leave the team this offseason for cap reasons. In addition, at least one Internet outlet has suggested that Palmer is a candidate to be cut soon based on his high salary next season.
Even without these players, the Raiders have enough depth to run an effective spread offense. If Pryor is asked to take on a larger role right off the bat next season, the team simply will have to adjust by putting greater emphasis on the running game, a strategy head coach Dennis Allen seems to prefer.
Given the Raiders' ineptitude in recent seasons, a wholesale offensive re-boot aligned with the logical demands of their roster is unlikely to occur as soon as 2013-14, if at all. NFL teams seem to rarely work that way in the absence of a new regime, and Oakland will enjoy rare stability by returning the majority of its decision-makers and game-planners.
Oakland will have new creative minds at work on offense, however, with the recent hiring of offensive coordinator Greg Olson and Wildcat aficionado Tony Sparano. Now is the time to ditch a pattern of staid, creative-less offenses that haven't capitalized on the stockpiled talent.
Developing an attack that prioritizes all of their strengths could put the Raiders back on the playoff track next season, while building a foundation for years to come.