Following the 2008 season, James Loften was demoted from the Oakland Raiders receivers coaching position. At the time, the media thought Loften was fired and it was theorized the reason for the termination was because he did not get the most out of the Oakland receivers.
It was a tough year for the Raiders, as usual in this day and age. Though looking at things realistically, the Raiders had gone through two head coaches and three play callers (Lane Kiffin, Greg Knapp and Tom Cable). Keeping a consistent passing game is a tough chore, no matter the talent level. Loften could hardly be blamed.
If you recall, Loften had been previously interviewed for the Raiders head coaching position that ultimately went to Lane Kiffin. This was not to satisfy the Rooney rule so minority candidates got a shot. Loften is fully qualified to be head coach of an NFL team. His reputation has him painted as demanding and he works his players hard.
Not only was Loften’s removal a surprise, no one was quite sure what to make of Loften’s presence still hanging around the Raiders facility in 2009. In what capacity, we still don’t know. He is not listed on the team’s web site or media guide.
My guess is he is simply being allowed to serve out his contract in some administrative capacity.
At the beginning of the 2009 season the question was posed if Sanjay Lal was going to make a bigger impact as the Oakland Raiders receivers coach than Loften did.
Let’s look at the statistics for the receivers and tight ends. We’ll leave the receiving stats for the running backs out of the mix for clarity's sake.
Zach Miller 56/778
Johnnie Lee Higgins 22/366
Chaz Schilens 15/226
Ashley Lelie 11/197
Javon Walker 15/196
Ronald Curry 19/181
Tony Stewart 11/91
Zach Miller 66/805
Louis Murphy 34/521
Chaz Schilens 29/365
Johnnie Lee Higgins 19/263
Darrius Heyward-Bey 9/124
Todd Watkins 8/90
Tony Stewart 10/78
Not a lot of difference with the exception of the emergence of rookie Louis Murphy and Schilens stepping it up, coming back from a foot injury to collect more yards in eight games than he did all of last season. New passing game coordinator Ted Tollner also played a significant role in designing plays.
As far as coaching the receivers, it is obvious where the strong points are (Miller, Schilens, Murphy), where the mid-range is (Higgins) and where the weak spot is (Heyward-Bey).
So a good question is, would Loften have made a difference in helping DHB grow as a professional receiver? Maybe, but in all probability, what we are dealing with is a very raw talent in DHB. He came into the league unprepared to deliver anything but sub-par numbers.
Even though to the rest of us, it seems clear DHB's consistent playing time has amounted to very little growth as a professional receiver, Sanjay Lal would probably argue against that notion and insist DHB has made tremendous strides.
That would be the company line, but considering all DHB has to show for his efforts is nine total catches on the season, it is hard to make a case for his development.
The explanation that DHB "clears space" as the X receiver is ridiculous.
Bottom line is Lal doesn't really have much leverage so he just does what the boss (Al Davis) expects. That would be to nominate his first round draft pick to get the most playing time available regardless of where he truly is in terms of the pecking order of roster talent available.
This is why James Loften was demoted. He did the right thing to do in '08, which was play the best talent he had available. If he was receivers coach in '09, my bet is he would recommend to the head coach that DHB not start.
If starting and playing DHB so much was really what Lal wanted, who knows. We can fault him for being a company man to preserve his job. Ultimately, the decision to play him so much did not help our bad QB in Jamarcus Russell, nor did it help the team in the majority of cases.
No Oakland Raiders fan lacks an opinion on the weak performance of rookie DHB. The fact is the Raiders really lacked depth at receiver in ’09, opting to start two rookies (DHB and Louis Murphy). Veteran speedster Jonnie Lee Higgins played intermittently and Javon Walker played so sparingly he had barely noticeable stats. Journeyman Todd Watkins filled in admirably for the few random plays he was utilized.
Top threat, Chaz Schillens, took a while to get going after recovering from injury most of the season but came on strong to finish on a good note. Training camp favorite Nick Miller was injured all season and never got to show what he can do.
Javon Walker, while not the talent he once was, would have at least given the team more options had he been allowed to play. The reason Walker was not allowed to play was because he upset Al’s applecart by getting off-season surgery without informing the team.
So Al’s version of punishment was to simply bench Walker. His two-million in ’09 salary went unearned.
Rookie Louis Murphy, a bargain in the $300,000 range, was the most productive receiver on the team all season to compliment tight end Zach Miller.
Still, we have to ask if starting rookies over veterans at the receiver spots was a good strategy. Typically, rookie receivers in the NFL need to ease into the role and benefit from mentorship.
From the looks of things, no mentorship emerged and of the two rookie receivers, only Murphy was able to handle the adjustment to the pro game.
With Walker a candidate not to stick for another season and Higgins not a fully bona fide threat to defenses at this point, the most obvious course of action would be to bring in some new blood to challenge for playing time in 2010.
It would not be surprising if Al drafted another receiver or two, brought in a few free agents to challenge in camp but come next season, we can expect DHB (2.4 million in '09) to once again resume his starting role. There is no way Al will give up on him after one lackluster season.
If Sanjay Lal is still the receivers coach we can expect his "yes sir" recommendation for starting DHB yet again.