Where Exactly Did It Go Wrong for the Oakland Raiders?

Christopher Hansen@ChrisHansenNFLNFL AnalystJanuary 2, 2013

Darren McFadden wasn't a fit in the zone-blocking scheme.
Darren McFadden wasn't a fit in the zone-blocking scheme.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Oakland Raiders won four games in 2012 after winning twice that many in 2011. There was still widespread hope that the Raiders could improve on that record by getting Carson Palmer and Darren McFadden on the field at the same time in 2012.

Playoffs were in the conversation before the season, but any hope of being a playoff team quickly evaporated along with the production of the offense. The offense carried the defense in 2011, but both sides were equally to blame for a poor 2012.

Head coach Dennis Allen has talked on multiple occasions about players not making repeat mistakes. Allen and McKenzie will be trying to avoid making repeat mistakes of their own. Great players, coaches and executives learn from their mistakes.

Where did the Raiders go wrong? How much did they go wrong? Where do the Raiders go from here?

A Bad Situation

The Oakland Raiders were in a terrible salary cap situation headed into 2012 and were without their top three draft picks in the 2012 NFL draft. The failures of 2012 were rooted in decisions made in 2011 by the late Al Davis and then-head coach Hue Jackson. Some of the decisions go even further back.

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Many people have said that the salary cap was not a problem for Davis because he always managed to get under, but that’s missing the point. Davis would pay a handful of players handsomely and that left the team without much depth. Davis would also mortgage the future to win now, leaving the Raiders with aging stars that were past their prime.

Perhaps the best example of Davis’ mismanagement started in 2009. The Raiders traded a 2011 first-round pick for Richard Seymour just prior to the start of the 2009 season. The Raiders were mortgaging the future for an aging star that had only one year left on his contract.

The Raiders had to give Seymour the franchise tag in 2010 to retain him at the cost of $12.4 million for one season, according to the Associated Press. Davis insisted on using the exclusive version of the franchise tag, which cost the Raiders even more money.

To retain Seymour in 2011, the Raiders gave Seymour a two-year, $30 million contract with $22.5 million guaranteed, according to ESPN. McKenzie had to restructure the deal to get under the salary cap in 2012.

The Raiders were without a first-round pick in 2011 that would have been entering his second season in 2012 for a 33-year-old defensive tackle that played in eight games and recorded three sacks. Seymour was also the second-highest paid player on the team.

The Raiders also traded for Kamerion Wimbley in 2010, which ended up being a great move until they gave him a five-year, $48 million contract prior to the start of the 2011 season. McKenzie would have loved to keep Wimbley for his pass rush in 2012, but keeping him meant paying him $11 million in 2012 and allowing $13 million more in guarantees to trigger, according to ESPN.com.

The Raiders also signed Michael Huff prior to the start of the 2011 season to a four-year, $32 million contract that McKenzie restructured to get under the salary cap in 2012, according to Brian McIntyre’s blog (McIntyre now works for NFL.com). Huff has proven versatile, but he’s being paid like one of the top defensive backs in the NFL.

Instead of paying Nnamdi Asomugha (good move), the Raiders gave Stanford Routt a three-year, $31.5 million contract. McKenzie cut Routt prior to the 2012 season at the cost of $2.2 million against the 2012 cap, according to ESPN. $10 million in guarantees was scheduled to kick in if Routt made the team in 2012.

In the 2011 NFL draft, the Raiders gave up a second-round pick for the rights to draft Joseph Barksdale and Taiwan Jones. Barksdale was released in the middle of the season and Jones wasn’t used even after both McFadden and Mike Goodson went down with injuries at the same time. Davis also gave up a third-round pick for the rights to select quarterback Terrelle Pryor in the supplemental draft.

The situation was bad enough, but Jackson’s shortsighted and selfish trade for Palmer added insult to injury. The Raiders gave up a first-round pick in 2012 and a second-round pick in 2013 for Palmer. It’s not just the picks that hurt the Raiders but also the cap hit they took by absorbing Palmer’s contract. Palmer’s cap hit was scheduled to be $12.5 million in 2012 before he restructured to spread out the cap hit.

McKenzie inherited one of the worst situations imaginable for a new general manager. The Raiders had salary cap issues and a lack of draft picks. The best McKenzie could do in free agency was to bring in veteran players believed to be flawed in some way on cheap one-year deals.

McKenzie hit on Philip Wheeler, but missed on several others. A few misses was understandable considering the circumstances.

Misfits and Missteps

One of McKenzie’s biggest missteps as general manager and one of Allen’s biggest mistakes was changing the offensive scheme. Greg Knapp was brought in by Allen to run the zone-blocking scheme and the West Coast offense.

McKenzie allowed Allen to hire his own staff and run the schemes he wanted to run, but that was not best for the team’s most dynamic player. McKenzie should have advised against changing what had previously worked for McFadden, but he bought into the change just as much as Allen.

McFadden was a misfit in the zone scheme from the very start, but the Raiders had made a big commitment to the scheme. Not only did the team hire Knapp, but they also hired assistant offensive line coach Frank Pollack from the Houston Texans to teach the scheme to the linemen.

McKenzie signed free agent guard Mike Brisiel, who was well-versed in the zone scheme from his time in Houston. Brisiel was the only free agent McKenzie signed to a three-year deal. McKenzie also committed further to the scheme by drafting Tony Bergstrom with his very first pick at the end of the third round in the 2012 NFL draft.

Allen wanted to run the zone scheme and McKenzie went all-in to help it be a success. Brisiel ended up being one of the biggest disappointments and Bergstrom didn’t see the field much until Week 17. McFadden was at least partially to blame for the failures as Goodson, fullback Marcel Reece and even Jeremy Stewart had some success.

Oakland’s offense depended heavily on the running game in 2011, and without an effective ground game it struggled even more in 2012. Knapp’s play-calling (with few exceptions) left a lot to be desired and fans longing for Jackson. The offense might have been a lot better if the running game was more effective.

By the time the Raiders realized their mistake it was really too late to go back. The Raiders had spent all offseason working on the scheme. The Raiders eventually did try to incorporate more man-blocking, but the entire offense was designed around the zone scheme and couldn’t just be changed overnight. The Raiders also had three offensive linemen that weren’t exactly great at knocking defenders off the ball.

McKenzie and Allen obviously believed the scheme could be successful and made the mistake of thinking it would only amplify McFadden’s abilities. Changing the offense ended up being a big mistake that was significantly amplified because the rest of the team lacked talent.

Oakland’s mistakes really came down to having a talent-depleted roster, very little salary cap space, few draft picks and installing an offensive scheme that is an ill fit for the best offensive player. McKenzie and Allen are directly responsible for one of the four reasons the Raiders weren’t successful in 2012.

Allen and McKenzie have certainly realized their mistakes and that’s why Knapp and Pollack were fired. The salary cap situation will ease only slightly in 2013 and the Raiders will be without their second-round pick this April. For the Raiders to turn things around they need to find an offensive coordinator that can maximize the talent the Raiders have, draft extremely well and find bargain free agents that can contribute.

This is an extended rebuilding project for the Raiders and one that will not fully turn around until 2014 and beyond. With some luck the Raiders can be competitive in 2013 with an eye toward making the playoffs in 2014. The Raiders have far too many roster spots to try to fill with quality players and not enough cap space or draft picks to do it…yet.


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