"Well I ain't superstitious but black cat just done crossed my trail"
Words by Willie Dixon (I Ain't Superstitious)
Conventional wisdom dictates that the past seven years of Raiders history is the story of a megalomania gone wild. This notion has seeped into the minds of even those who call themselves fans of the Silver and Black.
After looking at the last seven years, I'm more inclined to attribute the losses to Barrett Robbins breaking a hotel mirror during the week of the Super Bowl than I am to the crazy Al Davis theory. I will agree that Al Davis had a hand in things, but not to the extent the mediots would have us believe. Let's take a look at some of the myths and misses.
The Jon Gruden Myth
Jon Gruden is a source of fond memories for Raider fans. He turned a 4-12 Raider team into a championship team through tireless dedication. Some might reasonably argue that Joe Bugel is not a hard act to follow. In addition, Gruden picked up Gannon his second year and he was the best quarterback the Raiders have had since Jim Plunkett.
Indeed, the common denominator for the success of the Raiders during the Gruden era seems to be Callahan calling plays and Gannon quarterbacking. The success continued after Gruden left and took us to the Super Bowl. That we managed to play the only team in the NFL whose coach was familiar with our playcalling is somewhat alarming. But not as alarming as Callahan's refusal to change the playcalling or the audibles. We all know how that ended up.
Just as Callahan inherited a Gruden-developed team, Gruden inherited a Tony Dungy-developed team. The Bucs struggled offensively (supposedly Gruden's forte) during their Super Bowl run. They were ranked 25th in offense that year. However, the Dungy defense held and it was enough to get them through the Super Bowl.
It should be noted that Gruden was unable to match his success after the Super Bowl win. In the subsequent six seasons as a coach for the Bucs, Gruden reached the playoffs only twice, both times as a wild card.
Al and Gruden battled throughout Gruden's tenure. The trade to Tampa Bay gave the Raiders two first round picks and $8 million dollars. Considering Gruden's contract would have expired the next year, it's questionable that he would have stayed beyond his contract term.
The Bill Callahan Miss
A common practice for teams when replacing a head coach is to look at the offensive coordinator. The timeline for hiring a coach was pretty tight as Gruden was traded in February and the coaching pool was small that year. In some ways, the most sensible thing would be to promote the offensive coordinator.
The problem was, Bill Callahan was not a good coach; he's a good offensive coordinator but not a good coach. The Super Bowl fiasco was a hint of things to come with Callahan. The week leading up to the Super Bowl found open rebellion against Callahan among the players.
This rebellion continued into the next season. With Gannon no longer productive, Callahan managed a 4-12 record in 2003. His "dumbest team in America" remark did nothing to solidify the players and everything to lead to more losses.
Callahan's subsequent failure at Nebraska demonstrated his inability to coach at a high level.
The Medicare Miss
Callahan's problems were rooted in a Raider's problem that Gruden luckily escaped before it blew up in his face. The Raiders were getting old. Gannon was 38, Romo was 35, Rice was 41, Woodson was 38. We had built a Super Bowl caliber team on the backs of veterans, but it was now time to pay the piper.
It was clear that rebuilding was necessary and the Raiders would need to draft/trade for younger players. It was also clear that we would have to rebuild slowly. We compromised and decided to go for slightly younger veterans like Kerry Collins and Warren Sapp who would be replaced in three to four years rather than immediately.
The failure to adequately address the aging team continued to haunt the Raiders throughout the past seven years. Older players were constantly being replaced by slightly younger players or ineffective players.
The Kerry Collins/Norv Turner Miss
In many ways, this was actually a good attempt to improve the offense. Turner is a decent playcaller, but not a good coach. Collins was an erratic quarterback capable of good numbers. While not ideal, this was not a bad move on Al's part.
It was a good idea to try to inject some offense in the team after the dismal 2003 season. But with half the defense in Depends and the other half in diapers, there was trouble brewing on the other side of the trenches.
2004 saw the Raiders give up more points than they had since 1961 (442) and 5,934 yards. In 2005, we gave up less points, but it was still the fifth-worst season for points since 1960. We were clearly being dominated defensively. The changes in offense were not enough to overcome the defensive challenges caused by......
The Rob Ryan myth
Rob Ryan looks the part of a Raider coach. Long flowing hair and very colorful language. Many have attributed Ryan's blitzless defense to Al's dislike of the blitz. Ryan, himself, has maintained that he makes the calls on the field.
Whoever is responsible for the bad calling, it's clear that Ryan's tenure here has been a defensive nightmare. With the exception (anomaly?) of 2006, Ryan's defense gave up an average of 5,500 yards and 375 points per season. We've fielded some bad defenses over the years but Ryan is the only coach to score a double-double, earning a ranking in the 30's for both yards and points.
For those who question whether Al or personnel was responsible for his failures, just look at the 2009 Browns. In the first year, Ryan managed to eclipse the record for most yards given up by the defense by 200 yards. The Browns gave up 6,229 yards. Sounds like he's making the same entrance he made for us when he gave up 442 points in his first year and came with 64 yards of a 6,000 yard season.
The tragedy of the Ryan era is that his best season came after we ended the Collins/Turner experiment. The only decent year for the defense was 2006 and we suffered through the most anemic (168 point season) Raiders offense ever placed on the field.
The Art Shell/Tom Walsh II Miss
Al Davis has admitted that the second hiring of Art Shell was "the biggest mistake" he's made. Few understand the significance of that remark (especially considering Joe Bugel and Lane Kiffin).
It's not what happened during the tenure of Shell/Walsh, which saw the most anemic offense ever placed on a football field in Silver and Black. The repercussions of the Shell/Walsh era were felt even after their departure. It caused a significant shift in philosophy for Davis and resulted in other mistakes.
Part of the problem was the sudden appearance of a defense during the Shell year. This contributed to the myth that the Raiders had solved their defensive problems and were ready to address the offense. When your offense averages about 10 points-per-game over 16 games, it's hard to overlook. Especially when your defense has cracked the top 10 for the first time in a long while.
But the biggest contribution Shell/Walsh II made to the Raiders continued suffering is that they stunk so bad, Al had to get rid of them. They forced Al's hand with regard to his next moves: Offense and coaching.
The JaMarcus Russell Miss and Myth
The biggest myth about Al and JaMarcus Russell is that Al was in love with Russell. Al made it clear during his discussions about Kiffin that he was not in love with Russell. At the time of the draft, Al was considering Brady Quinn, Calvin Johnson, or Russell. He is on record as saying Tee Martin persuaded him to go with Russell.
That Al would even consider Quinn an option speaks volumes about his perception of Russell. I'm more inclined to see the Russell pick as Al showing Kiffin who's boss than an enamored Al pick. Kiffin was a new hire and he made it clear to Al that he didn't want Russell. Shades of John Gruden. Al rebelled against the idea of being told who to draft.
So the JaMarcus Russell era emerges as a battle between egos rather than an owner's infatuation with a star QB. Because Al was obsessed with the debate over Russell with Kiffin, he overlooked the one startling fact that counseled against a Russell pick: the Raiders were not a good fit for Russell.
The Raiders have never done well with drafting quarterbacks. Al already had Walter languishing on the bench as evidence of this fact. Given the problems with the offensive line and the receivers, picking a quarterback who had not demonstrated an ability to come in and lead was risky at best.
Al chose to pick Robert Gallery in 2004 when there were quarterbacks available and we had a need at quarterback. He chose, instead to pick up Kerry Collins after the draft. We passed on Rivers and Roethlisberger for Gallery. Does this sound like an owner who believes in drafting quarterbacks?
I go back to the anemic 2006 season as the reason for this move. Without such a bad showing, Davis most likely would have demonstrated restraint and followed a more sensible plan such as picking Calvin Johnson.
The Al is Locked In A Closet Myth
There's a huge difference between reacting to a problem and responding to a problem. For years, Al has been forced to react to problems in the organization. Some of his own making (hiring Shell), others because of the course of things (hiring Callahan).
A response begins with an acceptance of responsibility for the way things are. Unlike the past seven years, Al has accepted responsibility for the way the Raiders organization is.
It began with the dismissal of Rob Ryan from the Raiders. Ryan's legacy with the Raiders was addressed above. It was clear that changes needed to be made to the defense if the Raiders were to be successful. A proper evaluation was impossible under Ryan's regime due to it's inconsistency.
A reaction would have been to cling to the 2006 season as signs we were turning things around and keep Ryan. A response was to treat the 2006 season as an anomaly and go by his entire record.
The response continued with the sign-off on the benching of Russell. A reaction would have been to let Russell continue to play. The responsible thing was to take a look at the offense without Russell. If you're going to rebuild a team, you need to evaluate where you really are. Russell was distorting the offensive metrics. The numbers were so bad, you couldn't possibly form a conclusion about the offense.
The offense's improvement during Russell's benching further solidified Al's decisions moving forward. Recognizing the need for an offensive coordinator, Al hired Hue Jackson. Recognizing the need for continuity in the coach position, Al kept Tom Cable. Recognizing that an offensive coordinator needs a quarterback, Al traded for Jason Campbell.
Al then turned to the draft and picked according to team needs. Al addressed the defensive woes first in the draft by picking Rolando McClain and Lamarr Houston. He then addressed the offensive line with Jared Veldheer and Bruce Campbell. Subsequent picks addressed both sides.
The dismissal of JaMarcus Russell was Al's way of bidding farewell to the last seven years. The last vestiges of improper reactions have been removed from the team. In its place, we find a team ready to contend in the AFC West Division. For the first time in seven years, we will present a team that has improved on both sides of the ball.
Finally, the Myth of Great Improvement Required for Contention
As I read the many articles regarding the Raiders contending in the AFC West and playoffs, I keep going back to a simple question. How much improvement is required and how much improvement have we really made?
The genesis of the this question resides in the 2003 season. We went to the Super Bowl in 2002 and yet we were 4-12 the next year with basically the same cast. Granted, Gannon was injured and we didn't have a suitable backup but it's obvious that records are sometimes misleading.
I prefer to divide the 2009 season into Russell and post-Russell for clues. Russell went 2-7 in the first 9 games. He averaged 118 yards passing per game and averaged 9.7 points per game. Had he played 16 games with this average, we would have supplanted 2006 as the worst offensive year for the Raiders.
Post-Russell starts averaged 212 yards passing and 15 points per game. Not great, but definitely an improvement. It is this figure that should be used as a basis for improvement and not the entire season, I believe. Again we were 2-7 and then 3-4. Definitely, closer to a .500 team than we are lead to believe by the season record.
The defense needs to improve and I am confident the changes will result in significant improvement there. Remember that 2009 was the fir st year under John Marshall. I'm convinced that the schedule does not require a top five defense this year. I'm more than confident we can meet the challenges.