The Oakland Raiders aren’t dancing around the issue. After the team traded for quarterback Matt Flynn and shipped Carson Palmer to the desert, head coach Dennis Allen said the Raiders absolutely felt like they got better.
The only way that’s possible is if a quarterback with two career starts is better than the one with 121 career starts. That seems totally crazy at face value, because Palmer isn’t a bad quarterback and Flynn is unproven. You could find many people arguing that the Raiders actually got worse with the quarterback change. Of course, there’s a lot more here than meets the eye.
Flynn can make the Raiders better in three very different ways. If he turns into a franchise quarterback, the Raiders will be better off than having the average Palmer. If Flynn himself is an average starter, then he will buy the Raiders time to find a franchise quarterback at a fraction of the cost of Palmer. If Flynn is a total disaster, the Raiders will likely have their choice of a quarterback in the 2014 NFL draft.
The nice thing about Flynn is that he can be anywhere from amazing to terrible and he still makes the Raiders better in the long term. In the short term, Flynn can also be better than Palmer based on a couple of key factors.
Flynn will be 28 and Palmer will be 33 next season. The latter’s skills are already declining by this point, but Flynn is hitting his prime. Sometimes it’s that simple.
Mike Klis of the Denver Post did some research back in 2010 and found the prime age of quarterbacks to be between 29 and 30.
"I've always felt it was right around 29 or 30," said Ron Jaworski of ESPN (via Klis). "It just seems that there's a maturity level that a quarterback reaches where that cerebral capacity now matches the physical capacity.
"It's that perfect storm where your physical talent meets your mental talent and it all comes together."
However, not everyone agrees that age is the determining factor. As Jon Gruden explained it to Klis, it’s not about age as much as it is repetitions in the same system.
"I've always believed it's the third or fourth year in the same system, if you have a guy that has a really good system," Gruden said (via Klis).
Palmer has one year of experience in the West Coast Offense, but Flynn has been studying it in the quarterback room for the last five years. Palmer may be vastly more talented physically, but Flynn should have a better understanding of the intricacies of the system. The Raiders will be improved simply because Flynn’s understanding of the offense should be better from the beginning.
Oakland general manager Reggie McKenzie rose through the ranks with the Green Bay Packers, starting in 1994 as a scout. The Packers have been running some form of the West Coast Offense since Mike Holmgren became the head coach in 1992. What this means is that McKenzie’s entire education as a talent evaluator is predicated upon finding players that fit that offensive philosophy.
The Raiders switched to a West Coast Offense in 2012 to go with the zone blocking system. The blocking scheme is out, but a form of West Coast Offense is likely to remain under new offensive coordinator Greg Olson, who learned under the likes of Jon Gruden, Steve Mariucci and Dennis Erickson.
“To me it’s a version of the West Coast [offense],” Olson said when he was the offensive coordinator in Tampa Bay (via PewterReport.com). “I’ve taken a couple of principles that I’ve worked for in the past, primarily in the West Coast offense, but we’ve also sprinkled in some of the Mike Martz-St. Louis Rams vertical stretch. You’ll see a little of both.”
Flynn was hand-picked for the West Coast Offense having been drafted by the Packers in the seventh round in 2008. Green Bay drafted Matt Hasselbeck in the sixth round in 1998 and he turned into a solid starter. Olson developed Drew Brees at Purdue University early in his coaching career, now one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL after moving to Sean Payton’s version of the West Coast Offense.
Calling any offense a West Coast Offense is overly simplistic because coaches are always borrowing ideas from each other, but the point is that the Raiders will run a version of it in 2013.
Olson’s hiring could have been seen as an olive branch from the Raiders to Palmer because he worked under Bob Bratkowski— Palmer’s offensive coordinator with the Bengals—in Jacksonville last season. Apparently that wasn’t enough for the veteran QB however.
Palmer’s track record with the West Coast Offense is checkered. He didn’t show up in Cincinnati after the team hired Jay Gruden—who runs a West Coast Offense—to be the offensive coordinator. Palmer also threw for over 4000 yards in Greg Knapp’s West Coast Offense, but the Raiders still weren’t any good.
Flynn has the knowledge and the mobility to move around the pocket and buy extra time with his feet. Palmer did a decent job rolling out of the pocket in 2012, but he’s never going to have true pocket mobility. Flynn’s feet will enable him to turn sacks into short gains and incomplete passes into complete ones to keep the chains moving and give the Raiders more manageable third downs.
Oakland converted on just 35 percent of their third downs in 2012 according to TeamRankings.com, good for just 26th in the NFL. If the Raiders want to score more points, they need to keep the chains moving and get more red-zone scoring opportunities.
In 2013, the Raiders will pay about $500,000 more in salary cap dollars for Flynn than they would have had they just kept Palmer. That could be a statement by the organization that they really believe Flynn will be better than Palmer, but there’s more to it than that.
Palmer’s deal included a $13 million base salary in 2013 and the cap hit was derived from accelerated bonus money. By trading Palmer, the Raiders didn’t actually have to pay Palmer anything more than he had already been paid. Flynn has a cap figure of $4.875 million, which is cash savings of over $8 million for the Raiders.
Looking at 2014, though, tells the real story from a cap perspective. Flynn’s cap number will be $6.625 million if the Raiders stick with him, while Palmer’s cap number would have been north of $17 million. By releasing Palmer in 2013, the Raiders created $15 million in cap space in 2014.
That’s about $8 million in cash saved at the quarterback position in 2013, about $8 million in cash saved in 2014 and roughly $8 million in salary cap savings in 2014 assuming Palmer would have been released next year. The Raiders are in much better shape going forward with Flynn’s contract and without Palmer’s deal on the books.
All salary cap and contract data via OverTheCap.com
Flynn impacts the Raiders’ draft plans in two ways. The first and most obvious thing Flynn gives the Raiders is an excuse not to draft a quarterback at No. 3. That doesn’t mean the Raiders won’t draft a new signal-caller at all, but it allows the Raiders to use the top pick on the best player available.
The Raiders don’t have a second-round pick and using a first-round pick on a quarterback would have made it very hard for them to improve in other areas. It’s not fair to bring a non-elite quarterback prospect into a messy situation and expect instant success.
Flynn himself might not be successful, which would likely means the Raiders are drafting near the top of the 2014 NFL draft. Bleacher Report's very own Matt Miller has drawn up his preliminary 2014 NFL draft big board, which includes seven quarterbacks in the top 50.
Palmer was a quarterback that could bridge the gap for the Raiders, but he wasn’t the long-term solution. Flynn is also seen as a stop-gap quarterback, but he’s going to have a chance to be the future of the position that Palmer didn’t. Flynn is better than Palmer in the sense that he can still turn into something more than he is today.
By adding Flynn, the Raiders were able to get their financial house in order by trading Palmer and can now focus on taking the best player available at No. 3. The only way this can go wrong now is for the team to get a dud with the pick.
If Flynn only becomes an average quarterback, the Raiders can look into drafting a quarterback next year or the year after, but they would have a solid option until that time. The Raiders could load the roster with quality players and put a rookie in the best possible situation to be successful.
If Flynn flops, the Raiders are likely drafting high in a deep quarterback draft in 2014. The team obviously needs to draft well for these scenarios to be a good thing, but that’s really a separate issue.
Flynn may not be great, but he’s better than the alternatives.