The performance of Darren McFadden is a key for the Raiders in 2013.
Although it's an opinion, it’s totally reasonable to say that the Raiders still have one of the worst rosters in the league.
Do the Raiders have the worst roster? Perhaps they do, but that doesn’t mean their record will reflect it. Even bad teams can win seven or eight games.
Every team in the NFL makes offseason changes to try to get better—some will get better and others will get worse. Some analysts believe the Raiders got worse and will therefore remain one of the worst teams in the league.
Some analysts also equate roster talent with team record, but that’s a big mistake. Regression and progression toward the mean is the norm in the NFL because that’s what history shows.
Since 2008, only one NFL team that finished with four or fewer wins failed to improve their record the following year. Believe it or not, 95 percent of the teams improved by at least one win, 80 percent by two wins and 60 percent by three wins or more.
The average improvement of teams that finished with four or fewer wins was 3.8 wins the following season. Teams that won exactly four games improved by 3.1 wins the following year on average.
In the last three years, teams have improved by an average of 4.6 wins the year after winning four or fewer games. That’s pretty amazing when you consider the sample was 14 teams. Also interesting is that 11 of the 14 teams improved by three or more wins the following year.
To suggest the Raiders will be worse is a much bolder statement than it looks by just analyzing past performance of the players on the roster or a quarterback situation. If the Raiders are going to be an exception to recent history, a lot is going to have to go wrong.
There is a reason that teams tend to get better after having a bad year, even if they don’t look good on paper. Just based on recent history, the Raiders should improve. Of course, historical stats are meaningless unless they are supported by something more current and tangible.
Rebuilding a Roster
The Raiders lost six of their most talented players this offseason, which is probably the basis for most of the negative analysis.
It’s not bad analysis, it’s just incomplete.
It’s true that quarterback Carson Palmer was traded, defensive tackle Tommy Kelly and defensive back Michael Huff were released and defensive tackle Richard Seymour’s contract voided. Also, linebacker Philip Wheeler and defensive tackle Desmond Bryant left in free agency.
It’s also true that the Raiders replaced the departures with quarterback Matt Flynn, defensive tackles Pat Sims and Vance Walker, defensive back Charles Woodson and rookie linebacker Sio Moore.
According to ProFootballFocus (subscription required), the combined grades of the players lost was plus-34.5 and the combined grades of the replacement players was plus-6.9 last season. On paper, the Raiders downgraded at every spot.
If these moves are viewed through a simple lens using simple math, it’s easy to be pessimistic. If you stop there, it looks like a bad defense got worse, but the Raiders didn’t just replace those six players.
Part of the reason bad teams tend to improve the following year is that they purge underperforming players and rely on free agents, draft picks and the development of younger players already on the roster.
General manager Reggie McKenzie also added linebackers Nick Roach, Kevin Burnett and Kaluka Maiava and defensive backs D.J. Hayden, Tracy Porter, Mike Jenkins and Usama Young on defense.
McKenzie let tight end Brandon Myers walk which means there will be a four-way competition during training camp for the starting job. Wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey was also allowed to leave as a free agent and will be replaced by Juron Criner or another young receiver.
ProFootballFocus grades indicate that the Raiders actually improved the roster by a collective grade of plus-12.1, while bumping last year’s most poorly graded defensive player—linebacker Miles Burris with a minus-16.1 grade—to the bench.
The Raiders also return several other players (who graded out collectively to plus-0.1) who are expected to play expanded roles in 2013. Many of these players are young, so they have a chance to develop and play a bigger role going forward.
Sprinkle in a few impact rookies and there is legitimate reason to be optimistic about the Raiders improving in 2013.
Despite the many overlooked positives, the Raiders exchange of Palmer for Flynn has the potential for the greatest negative impact on the team. Palmer might not have been great, but he was competent.
It appears the Raiders are banking on a solid running game with the hope that Flynn can successfully use play action. Palmer wasn’t significantly (if any) better than Jason Campbell at turning production into wins, so how the move will affect the team is still unclear.
The biggest difference between the Raiders moderate success in 2010 and 2011 was Darren McFadden and the running scheme, not the quarterback or defense. The talent gap in the NFL is so thin that small tweaks to scheme, coaching and personnel can make big differences in team performance.
Talent in the NFL is also only part of the equation and in most cases the difference between the best and worst teams is not significant. There are dozens of examples each year of teams with less talent beating teams with more talent. Depth, scheme, execution and coaching also play significant roles in team record.
The San Francisco 49ers won 13 games with virtually the same roster in 2011 as they had in 2010 when they won just six games in a historically weak division. Players like NoVorro Bowman developed, Jim Harbaugh put players like Alex Smith in position to be successful, and the 49ers became one of the NFL’s elite teams.
The fact that the Baltimore Ravens won the last Super Bowl is also evidence that talent isn’t everything. The Ravens won 10 regular season games, three playoff games and the Super Bowl with an aging defense and a quarterback who most people think isn’t elite.
The Ravens didn’t have a top-10 offense or defense in points, and their defense also didn’t force a lot of turnovers. The only thing the Ravens did exceptionally well was hold onto the ball, which doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the talent level of the roster.
No one should be expecting the Raiders to be a great team in 2013, but they added enough talent in the offseason to win more than four games. If the Raiders get good production from the running game and Flynn can use play action to his advantage, they could easily surprise.
On paper, the Raiders might be the favorites for the top pick in next year’s draft, but the game is not played on paper and the most talented team doesn’t always win. Every year, there are disappointing teams and there are surprise teams, which is part of what makes the NFL great.
Analysts were also picking the Kansas City Chiefs to win the AFC West last year and they ended up with the No. 1 overall pick in last April’s draft.
Analysts get it wrong all the time.
Every team has hope—even the Raiders—because the NFL is widely unpredictable from one year to the next. Temper your expectations, but it’s okay to think the Raiders will improve in 2013.