Even if the Oakland Raiders give Dennis Allen another year at the helm, the final three games of the 2013 season will tell us a lot about his ability to be an effective head coach. It should tell Oakland’s decision-makers something, too.
If Allen can’t get the players to play for him now, there’s not much hope that he will be able to rally his teams in the future. The results so far for Allen have been mixed; the talent-poor Raiders are 4-9 after being 4-12 last year.
Owner Mark Davis made it clear he wanted to see progress in 2013, but the Raiders are in danger of finishing with four wins for the second consecutive season. Davis and general manager Reggie McKenzie may choose to see progress apart from the team’s record, but at least one more win would certainly make their decision a lot easier.
The revamped defense has gone from 28th to 23rd in points allowed, but two of the final three games are against top-five offenses. Oakland’s offensive ranking in points scored also remains unchanged from last season. If the Raiders don’t get at least one more win, it may be tough to make a case that the Raiders have improved at all.
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"That's the thing about this season—at times we've shown that there's something there, and at times we've shown that maybe there's not," Davis said via Tim Kawakami of the Contra Costa Times. "There's progress, if you look at it that way, but it makes the disappointment that much harder.
"When you've made some progress, patience is a harder thing to have."
Considering the lack of talent on the roster, Davis and McKenzie are wise to be patient, but losing eight of the final nine games would still be a tough pill to swallow. How a collapse over the final three games would be viewed by the organization is very much an unknown.
Oakland’s roster is also full of players on one-year deals playing for their next contract or a roster spot. In theory, they should be motivated to perform for Allen in hopes of cashing in this offseason.
"It's a two-way street," said McKenzie, via Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle. "Any real player would see that as a motivation."
Considering how much Allen and McKenzie have praised the players they brought in, it would be a giant red flag if the Raiders aren’t competitive in the final three games. Although McKenzie may be inclined to blame the poor performances on the players, it would also reflect poorly on Allen.
Another performance like last Sunday’s against the New York Jets would pretty much confirm that talent isn’t the team’s only problem. If there is any doubt that Allen is the right coach, it makes sense to make the change now because the Raiders are about to embark on a major rebuilding project.
It doesn’t make sense to start rebuilding around Allen’s preferred schemes only to make a change next year when it’s determined that he isn’t the right guy for the job. Before the game against the Jets, McKenzie said he was feeling pretty good about the direction of the team.
"The key is we want these guys to be around and get a feel for these coaches, and what we're trying to do," McKenzie said via Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle. "What's it like being a Raider. I think that's a selling point, especially when you're heading in the right direction and feel good about it."
If Allen can get below-average talent to compete at a high level, he probably deserves two more years—not one. If Allen can’t, the decision is a lot less clear. Is the problem a lack of talent, poor leadership or both? Do you keep Allen around for one more year to find out, at the risk of setting the rebuilding process back?
The ability to lead may be the most important aspect of a head coach’s job. For this reason, great coordinators don’t necessarily make great head coaches. Allen is a bright defensive mind, but that alone is not enough.
The last two years have been somewhat similar to when Norv Turner was the head coach in Oakland. Turner was fired after going 9-23 over two seasons despite having a talent-poor roster. The players liked Turner and he was obviously a bright offensive mind, but Al Davis didn’t stick with him.
Turner went to San Diego a year later and had trouble getting one of the league’s most-talented teams to perform. It became perfectly clear over time that Turner wasn’t a great leader and therefore wasn’t a good head coach.
In hindsight, firing Turner was both a good and bad thing for the Raiders. The Raiders went 2-14 the following year under Art Shell but earned the rights to the No. 1 overall pick in a draft class with multiple great players at the top.
The Raiders had a talent-poor roster with no proven quarterback—just as they do now. It’s a shame the Raiders failed to improve the roster at that time, setting the team up for six more years of losing.
That’s precisely what’s at stake if the Raiders don’t make smart moves this offseason. The Raiders don’t want a guy like Turner running the show, but they also desperately need to upgrade the roster.
With the cap set at approximately $126.3 million in 2014, the Raiders will have between $60-70 million in salary-cap space next year according to overthecap.com figures. The Raiders should be able to make several roster upgrades with that amount of cap space.
Allen, like Turner, might also be a lot better than an alternative. Not many coaches who are guaranteed to be better than Allen are available, if any.
Successful college coaches almost always have talented rosters to mold, leaving questions about how they would maximize the talent at the NFL level. The other thing college coaches often struggle with is the lack of control over the roster.
Top assistants at the NFL level may be just like Allen—also unknown commodities. A lateral move doesn’t really accomplish anything for the Raiders, either. Stability is far more important for a team that hasn’t had a head coach make it through year three since Jon Gruden.
There is also a growing list of former NFL head coaches, but it is rare to find one who wasn’t fired for lack of team performance. Former Chicago Bears’ head coach Lovie Smith is about the only one available, and he could be highly coveted this offseason.
As the Raiders inch closer to a very important offseason, they need to find out if Allen has the leadership skills to lead the team into their next chapter. At the same time, the Raiders need to find out which players really want to be a part of what they are building.
Three games is more than enough time to leave a lasting impression on the Raiders’ decision-makers—both favorable and unfavorable. The Raiders are probably leaning toward keeping Allen and re-signing several players who are playing on one-year deals, but the final three games could change that.
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