Are the Oakland Raiders Poised for the NFL's Biggest Turnaround in 2014?

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Are the Oakland Raiders Poised for the NFL's Biggest Turnaround in 2014?
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The Oakland Raiders have been an NFL doormat for a long time. Nefarious fans of other teams around the league like to remind Raider Nation of this fact every chance they get. 

It’s true; the Raiders haven’t been to the playoffs or had a winning season since 2002. They have been a perennial bottom-dweller in the AFC for over a decade and are averaging an astonishing 4.8 wins per season over the last 11 years. In far too many losses, the Raiders haven’t even been competitive.

The question every member of Oakland’s loyal fanbase asks now isn’t if this is the year the team wins it all, but if this is the year that it finally turns around its misfortunes. Some fans will always say yes, but there’s actually reason to believe things are different this year.

It sounds like an offseason cliche, but it just feels different this year. Fourth-year special teams ace Taiwan Jones concurred, via the team’s official website: "I truly believe that it’s different here," Jones said.

He continued: "When you have veterans that have been in the game a long time and that have been able to accomplish the goals that we’re trying to accomplish this year, it definitely feels good because you get to see and hear advice from those guys and hear them say that we’re close and that it’s possible."

Things have changed so much in Oakland this offseason that Jones isn’t wrong in his assessment. General manager Reggie McKenzie finally had a full deck of draft picks and the cap space to add much-needed talent to the Raiders after two years on the job. The Raiders were previously light on young talent and lacked the necessary draft choices or salary-cap space to restock the shelves.

 

The Art of the Rebound

Over the last five seasons, the average improvement for a team coming off a four-win season or worse was 4.5 wins. For teams with exactly four wins, the average improvement was about three wins, with no team getting worse the following season—although the 2013 Raiders were the closest to doing so, as they matched 2012's four wins.

In theory, every team should progress or regress toward the mean, but we know that it doesn’t always work that way. Conditions have to be right for a big turnaround, which we’ll define as a five-win improvement or better.

Average turnarounds are much more likely, as 60 percent of four-win teams improved by three wins or more, and 40 percent by four or more. The biggest turnarounds in the league, although slightly less common, typically follow a similar pattern.

4-12 or Worse Win Improvements (2009-2013)
Prior Record Avg. Win Improvement Following Year # of Instances Best Improvement Worst Improvement
1-15 6 1 6 6
2-14 5.5 6 9 2
3-13 7 2 7 7
4-12 3.2 10 6 0
4-12 or worse 4.5 19 9 0

Pro-Football-Reference.com

The first step is to get a new quarterback. Of the seven instances in which a team improved by more than five wins over the last five years, six of the situations included a quarterback in their first or second year with the team. The other was in his third year with his team.

Of those six quarterbacks (one did it twice), five were drafted and one was acquired via trade. The Raiders covered both bases by acquiring Matt Schaub via trade and drafting Derek Carr in the second round of the 2014 NFL draft. If the Raiders are going to turn things around in a big way, their quarterback will likely be a huge factor.

There are a few reasons to believe in Schaub and Carr. One reason is that there isn't just one option, but each player also brings something to the table that the Raiders like. Those qualities will help the team rebound in 2014 from back-to-back four-win seasons because they don't have to put all their eggs in one basket.

The Raiders are hoping that a new offensive scheme and giving Schaub more authority to change plays will get him away from the calls that caused him to throw so many interceptions in 2013 (14 INTs). They obviously like his veteran leadership, which should help Oakland's young receivers develop. 

Carr is already impressing Oakland's coaching staff and will enter training camp as the No. 2 quarterback ahead of Matt McGloin. Despite tough circumstances, McGloin did OK when he became the starter for six of the final seven games (1-5 record, 1,547 pass yds, 8 TDs, 8 INTs), so this is a good sign that Carr is already improving.

Schaub may well be done like many seem to think, but it's worth letting him try before making him hand over the offense to Carr. There's little doubt the Raiders now have two quarterbacks who are superior to their options last year. Better quarterback play should yield more wins during the season. 

What the Raiders don’t necessarily have going for them is the coaching situation. Four coaches of the teams with the biggest turnarounds were in their first year with that team, one was in his second, and one was in his third, as Dennis Allen will be for the Raiders. One was in his ninth year with his team. Three of the six coaches also had nine or more years of head coaching experience.

Six of the seven teams that improved by more than five wins had a trait in common. They all improved drastically on defense with the exception of the 2012 Indianapolis Colts. In fact, the worst defensive improvement other than the Cotls was 12 spots in points allowed, with an average improvement of 15 spots.

Team QB Starting Experience (Experience With Team) HC Experience (Experience With Team) Offense Rank Improvement Defensive Rank Improvement
2014 Chiefs 8 (1) 15 (1) 26 20
2012 Rams 3 (3) 18 (1) 7 12
2011 Bengals 1 (1) 9 (9) 4 15
2012 Vikings 2 (2) 3 (3) 5 17
2014 Eagles 2 (2) 1 (1) 25 12
2010 Rams 1 (1) 2 (2) 6 19
2012 Colts 1 (1) 1 (1) 10 7
2014 Raiders 8 (1) 3 (3) ? ?

Pro-Football-Reference.com

The Raiders were 29th in scoring defense last season, meaning they would need to improve to 14th or better to give themselves a shot. Oakland’s biggest upgrades of the offseason came on defense, so it has a chance.

The additions of veteran defensive ends Justin Tuck and LaMarr Woodley will help the whole defense. The Raiders also drafted Khalil Mack to play linebacker. The No. 5 overall pick should have an immediate impact on the Raiders in 2014.

Mack helps the Raiders in many areas because of the way the the team will now be able to use its personnel. Tuck can now slide inside on passing downs, and linebacker Sio Moore can flip sides and play weak-side linebacker, which is a position that seems like more of natural fit for his skill set.

All the offenses improved as well, but four of the six didn’t improve by more than seven spots in the rankings. Both of the teams that did last year—the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles—improved by more than 20 spots in the rankings, but both teams also had very weak schedules, strength-wise.

Oddly enough, strength of schedule varied from easy to hard among all the teams, so the fact that the Raiders are projected to have a tough schedule in 2014 will play a role, but how much of one remains unclear. The strength of a schedule has a tendency to change as well, so it’s not a forgone conclusion that it will be as tough as it seems right now, as they are slated to play the NFC West and AFC East.

 

Talent Improvement

Part of the reason the Raiders have been struggling over the past two years has been the lack of talent on the team. Oakland’s cap situation was so bad in recent seasons that McKenzie couldn’t afford much more than cheap veterans to fill out his roster.

Thanks to a record amount of cap space in 2014, Oakland’s roster is massively more talented now than it was just a few months ago. The Raiders replaced three of their four worst players on defense as graded by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) and the other will become a backup.

How many games will the Raiders win in 2014?

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The Raiders also replaced or added competition for their four lowest-graded offensive players. Last season’s starting left guard Lucas Nix will likely be fighting for a roster spot. Veteran offensive lineman Khalif Barnes will move inside to left guard and will compete with rookie Gabe Jackson for the starting job.

The Raiders also upgraded at right guard with the addition of Austin Howard and took a chance that Donald Penn can still be a solid left tackle. Since the Raiders didn’t really have any stable play at left tackle last season, Penn doesn’t have to be great for the Raiders to improve in that area.

In the secondary, the Raiders added Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers. Again, the Raiders got players who are probably nearly at the end of their best years, but have certainly played at a high level before and are upgrades over what they had last season.

The Raiders will also get strong safety Tyvon Branch back from injury and with some luck, second-year cornerback and 2013 first-round pick D.J. Hayden.  Hayden has much to prove, but losing Branch was a huge loss in 2013.

Every team says it got better in the offseason, but the Raiders actually did. Not only did they get better, they made drastic improvements at virtually every position.  The Raiders now have experienced, quality players dotted throughout the roster and plenty of young talents to fill in the gaps.

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