Is Talent or Coaching to Blame for the Poor Performance of the Oakland Raiders?

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Is Talent or Coaching to Blame for the Poor Performance of the Oakland Raiders?
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The Oakland Raiders are 4-10. That’s not a surprise considering many expected the Raiders to be one of the worst teams in the league this season, but it’s a departure from the performance of the team over the first seven games.

Just two weeks ago, head coach Dennis Allen’s job was thought to be safe. For all intents and purposes the Raiders were out of the playoffs at that time, but he had done enough with a talent-impoverished team.

After allowing 93 points to the Kansas City Chiefs and New York Jets, Allen’s job may now be in jeopardy as it’s become apparent that talent isn’t the only reason the Raiders are 4-10.

According to NFL.com’s Michael Silver, the final few games will be crucial toward determining if Allen is brought back in 2014. Per the report, Allen will be back if the team is competitive but will be fired if the team gets embarrassed.

Through the first eight weeks of the season, the Raiders were 3-4. The Raiders also had wins over the San Diego Chargers and Pittsburgh Steelers in the first half of the season.

While the first seven games were better than anyone expected, the last seven games have been what everyone expected. The Raiders have gone 1-6 with the lone victory over the Houston Texans—the worst team in the NFL.

The central question owner Mark Davis and general manager Reggie McKenzie must answer when deciding Allen’s fate is if the poor performance of the team is due to talent or coaching. Getting embarrassed clearly indicates both are to blame, but that’s also not the entire body of Allen’s work.

 

The Talent

Oakland’s apparent lack of talent is well-documented. According to spotrac.com, the Raiders have an amazing $55.6 million in dead money against the cap in 2013. With less money to spread around and a bunch of missing draft picks from previous seasons, it’s understandable that the Raiders have a bit of a talent issue.

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
Starting quarterback Matt McGloin was an undrafted free agent.

When asked if talent is an issue Monday, Allen’s response was telling.

“I think you’re always trying to be better from a talent standpoint, but these are our football players, and they’ve given us everything that they have this year,” Allen said. “We have to continue to try to put them in the best positions so that they can have success.”

That’s about as close to an unequivocal answer as you are ever going to get from a head coach in a press conference. Allen clearly thinks he needs more talent to compete, but is that simply a lame excuse for the team’s poor performance?

Simply pointing to the salary cap and stopping there doesn’t tell the whole story. That would be like saying Mark Sanchez is a better quarterback than Russell Wilson because he makes more money.

Despite what the Raider Nation has been led to believe, the Raiders have some talented players—especially on the defensive side of the ball. Those players simply haven’t produced, leaving the team left wondering after two years if Allen has done enough to lead Oakland into the next chapter of a multiyear rebuild.

 

Defensive Progress

Working against Allen is the fact that the Raiders brought in eight starters on defense who have been starters or played significant snaps for other NFL teams. These aren’t great players, but they are quality NFL players.

On average, the eight defensive starters had 57 games of starting experience when they were signed last offseason.  Take away safety Charles Woodson’s 192 starts and each of the other seven players still had about 38 games of starting experience coming into this season.

Allen’s defense was supposed to be improved, but through 14 games, progress is a lot harder to find than it should be.

Defensive Points/Yards Allowed
Year Points Per Game Yards Per Game Yards Per Play
2012 27.7 354.5 5.7
Rank 28 18 24
2013 28.1 358.4 5.6
Rank 29 18 22
Progress No No Yes

Pro-Football-Reference.com

Oakland’s defense is allowing 28.1 points and 358.4 yards per game this season. Last season, the Raiders allowed 27.7 points and 354.5 yards per game. On a per-play basis, the Raiders allowed 5.7 yards last year compared with 5.6 so far in 2013.

The Raiders have improved slightly in the ability to force turnovers. Last year, the Raiders forced a turnover on just 9.1 percent of their drives, but that’s up to 9.6 percent this season.

In terms of defensive efficiency, the Raiders have also improved—slightly. The Raiders allowed 2.20 points per drive last year, but they are only allowing 2.10 points per drive this season.

Last season, opponents scored on 41.2 percent of their drives against the Raiders—a league high. In 2013, that percentage is down to 36.5 percent. That’s still not good, but it is an improvement.

Per Drive Defensive Progress
Year Scoring % Turnover % Points
2012 41.2 9.1 2.20
Rank 32 26 32
2013 36.5 9.6 2.10
Rank 20 29 25
Progress Yes Yes and No No

Pro-Football-Reference.com

The Raiders are seeing minimal returns on their minimal investment. Part of the problem is that none of the free agents the Raiders have signed are great players who can change the outcome of games.

It’s rare for a truly great player to be available in free agency, so the fact that the Raiders didn’t sign one isn’t that surprising. You actually might say McKenzie got a lot of bang for his buck by shopping in the bargain bin of free agency and offering players one-year deals.

Unfortunately, the Raiders also play two of the top offenses in the league over the final two weeks. The little progress the Raiders have made could easily be erased if they don’t perform against the San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos.

 

Offensive Progress

One of the reasons why the Raiders and a lot of other teams like to build through the draft is because that’s where great players can be found. More importantly, the draft is where a franchise quarterback can be found.

The Raiders shipped off Carson Palmer to Arizona in favor of Matt Flynn and ended up going with Terrelle Pryor at quarterback. Now, undrafted free agent Matt McGloin is the starter.

Despite the changes, Oakland’s offense is scoring 21.1 points per games this season compared with just 18.1 per games last season. However, the entire league is also scoring more. In terms of ranking, the Raiders are 25th this year after being 26th last year in points per game.

Offensive Progress?
Year Points/Game Points/Drive Scoring % Turnover %
2012 18.1 1.54 31.4 12.8
Rank 26 23 20 19
2013 21.1 1.54 28.3 15
Rank 25 24 26 28
Progress Yes No No No

Pro-Football-Reference.com

Oakland’s offensive numbers are pretty comparable to last year across the board. Oakland’s 2012 offense averaged 1.54 points per drive and Oakland’s 2013 offense is currently averaging the exact same amount.

Is that progress considering the talent McKenzie gave the coaches to work with? Perhaps it is. Offensive coordinator Greg Olsen does deserves credit for the work he has done with Pryor, McGloin, a below-average group of wide receivers and an offensive line that was in flux due to injuries for most of the season.   

It’s been mystifying the way the two quarterbacks have been rotated over the last two games, but that’s about the extent of the questionable coaching decisions on offense. Olsen likely doesn’t have much say over the rotation.

Play-calling can always be questioned, but given the situation, Olsen has done a great job. At one point, the Raiders were starting five undrafted players on offense, so clearly there was a more significant talent gap on the offensive side of the ball than the defensive side.

The Raiders aren’t exactly untalented on the offensive line, but injuries were a big problem. Losing Jared Veldheer for the first 12 weeks certainly hurt the whole offensive line and contributed to some of the offensive struggles.

 

Coaching Issues

Overall, the team lacks top-level talent more than it does talent in general.  The Raiders need a No. 1 wide receiver, a franchise quarterback and a pass-rushing defensive end—arguably the three most important positions in the NFL today.

When running back Jamaal Charles scored five touchdowns last week, it was a coaching and a talent issue. The coaches didn’t do a good job of putting their talent-deficient players in a position to be successful.

On 3rd-and-1, Charles ran a wheel route against Oakland’s base defense that ended up being a 71-yard touchdown reception. It was the biggest play in the game because the Raiders had just pulled within four points.

The Raiders were in their base defense anticipating a run, which left Charles one-on-one with linebacker Miles Burris in coverage—a talent mismatch. Burris is going to lose that battle every time, but the coaches really didn’t have another choice if they wanted to get a stop in short yardage.

Game Rewind

It was also a gutsy call by the Chiefs. If Charles doesn’t make the catch, the Raiders would have gotten the ball back in good field position. In this case, the Chiefs deserve credit for identifying Oakland’s weakness and attacking it.

Another example was a play on 3rd-and-19 earlier in the game. The Raiders rushed six and Charles took his second screen pass of the game in for a touchdown.

Only three defenders even had a chance to tackle Charles because of the blitz. That’s the coaches not doing a good job of putting their players in a position to make a play.

Game Rewind

The Raiders have been horrible on third down this season—especially in 3rd-and-long situations. Rushing six was an overreaction to the criticism that the Raiders haven’t been aggressive enough in 3rd-and-long situations. The Raiders have routinely rushed three this season with little success.

A combination of talent and coaching is to blame for Oakland’s last two blowout losses, but the talent has been an issue for all 14 games where the coaching has only been a factor in a few games this season. It’s important to remember that as we go into the final two games.

Talent may be an excuse for losing, but it’s not an excuse for getting embarrassed. The Raiders have proven they can play better football, which is what gives Allen hope for the final two games.

“At times we’ve played really well and been very competitive in games and had opportunities to win games,” Allen said. “What gives me confidence is because we have and I know that we have it in us.”

The more than $60 million in salary-cap space the Raiders have next season isn’t going to magically solve all of the Raiders’ talent issues. The team needs to get more out of what it has—it’s up to Allen to get it out of it over the final two weeks.

Unless otherwise specified, all statistics via Pro-Fooball-Reference.com.

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