The Oakland Raiders are in the midst of one of the most exciting periods in the team's recent history. Hopes are high, but that’s true every offseason. The difference is that, this year, there’s good reason for it.
Much of this is excitement is due to the rebuilt and dangerous-on-paper offense. The Raiders have a running back on the verge of becoming a real impact player, a deep wide receiver corps that combines youth and experience, dangerous tight ends, a solid all-around offensive line and an exciting second-year quarterback to lead the way.
Of course, none of that will mean anything if the play-calling and overall offensive game plan aren’t good enough to make the most of this young and talented group. In 2015, the responsibility for leading the Oakland offense goes to new offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave.
Starting Lineup and Key Reserves
While there are some position battles that'll take place in training camp, such as at right guard, right tackle and running back, this is the unit we'll most likely see starting the upcoming season.
|2015 Projected Starting Offense|
|Running Back||Latavius Murray|
|Wide Receivers||Amari Cooper; Michael Crabtree|
|Tight End||Mychal Rivera|
|Offensive Line||Donald Penn; Gabe Jackson; Rodney Hudson; Khalif Barnes; Austin Howard|
Along with the starting 11, Musgrave will have three key reserves to work with.
|Key Offensive Reserves|
|Tight End||Clive Walford|
|Running Back||Roy Helu Jr.|
|Wide Receiver||Rod Streater|
With this core of players on offense, Musgrave has enough talent and versatility to implement his uptempo game and turn this into an exciting and efficient unit.
Key Offensive Players
The 2014 season was not a flattering one for the Oakland offense. The unit showed some flashes, but it was frustratingly ineffective overall.
There isn’t a track record of success for Musgrave to build off of. But what he does have is plenty of talent to work with. No matter where you look along the Raiders’ offense, the talent is there to be successful.
In 2015, Musgrave has to feature Derek Carr, Latavius Murray and Amari Cooper. They are the ones who will determine the success of the offense, so the game plan needs to revolve around constantly getting the ball into their hands in positions to make plays.
Derek Carr had an eventful rookie season filled with inspiring highs. However, there were also plenty of doubt-inducing lows. After 16 games as Oakland’s starter, the question remains: Is Carr really Oakland’s franchise quarterback?
The answer, simply, is yes.
Last season, the coaches logically made an attempt to protect the rookie quarterback by keeping the play-calling simple. However, this ultimately did him more harm than good, as it made him predictable and easy to defend against. It also turned him into an underachieving, 5.46-yard-per-attempt quarterback.
Some of this was Carr’s fault. He too often resorted to shorter route and checkdowns. Getting rid of the ball quickly limited his turnovers and kept him out of trouble, but it hurt the offense overall because deeper routes weren’t given time to develop. Even when those deeper routes did develop, Carr too often opted to play it safe.
Musgrave has to instill the confidence in Carr to regularly take those shots, and this will come with more opportunities to throw deeper. This has to occur through a combination of a wider variety of routes and letting Carr take control of audibles at the line. He has the arm strength and accuracy to make all the throws. Musgrave has to provide those opportunities, and Carr has to take them.
While the offense will ultimately go as far as Carr goes, the running game has to do its fair share of the heavy lifting. This coming season, the man primarily responsible for that will be Latavius Murray.
For most of last season, the Raiders didn't have a running back who could exploit the running lanes being provided by the offensive line. That changed once Murray was finally given the opportunity to play.
In Week 11 of last season, he came out of nowhere to pick up 43 yards on only four carries. That earned him extended playing time the following week against the Kansas City Chiefs, and he cashed in his opportunity in a big way. He turned four carries into 112 yards and two touchdowns, including a thrilling 90-yard dash to the end zone.
What Murray showed in limited opportunities last season is that each carry can be his next big run. He has a nose for the running lane, and he has a burst that can turn a small window into a big gain. Musgrave has to get Murray about 20 touches a game to take advantage of Murray's abilities.
Expecting a rookie to come in and save the offense is a big and possibly unreasonable expectation. That doesn't change the fact that's what is expected of Amari Cooper. Fortunately, the young receiver is up to the task.
Oakland's wide receiver corps overall is much improved. But the success of the unit as a whole is going to depend on how much of an impact Cooper can make.
Musgrave has a true No. 1 receiver to work with. Even though Cooper is a rookie, he should still be allowed to play his position, which means he should get plenty of looks and opportunities to excel.
This doesn't mean that he should be expected to single-handedly solve all of Oakland's wide receiver problems. Part of getting the most out of Cooper will require Musgrave to ensure the other receivers, primarily Michael Crabtree and Rod Streater, are respected by the defenses. This will draw defenders away from Cooper and make it easier for him to make plays.
Offensive Game Plan
While it was frustrating enough to watch the Oakland offense struggle last season, what made it even worse was that the unit showed signs of what it was truly capable of. It was a young unit, but it still should've done more than what it actually did.
In order to remedy this, Musgrave needs to make a concerted effort to implement the following principles into the offense.
Cut the Passing Game Loose
Last season, the decision to protect Carr rendered the quarterback and the entire passing game ineffective. This upcoming season, Musgrave has to let Carr be the quarterback the team drafted him to be. This means opening up the playbook and not being afraid to let Carr make mistakes.
A major reason for protecting Carr was the unreliable group of wide receivers, but that’s no longer the case. What was one of Oakland’s biggest weaknesses last season now looks like it could be one of the team’s strengths.
Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree and Rod Streater can all stretch the field, and they’re all sure-handed enough to bring in any pass. There isn’t a single area of the field this trio can’t attack. Musgrave has to take advantage of this.
Too much of the offensive game plan last season was built around the idea of protecting Carr and keeping him from making major mistakes. This hurt Carr, and it also hurt the receivers. It limited the routes they could run and the opportunities they had to make plays.
In 2015, Carr and the rebuilt receiving corps have to be cut loose. Musgrave has to let Carr make every throw and trust that the receivers will make plays.
Commit to Making the Running Game Work
The Raiders’ rushing attack was arguably the team’s single biggest problem last season. Fortunately, Musgrave is the right man to fix the problem. He has a track record of leading successful ground attacks, something he showed while coaching guys such as Duce Staley, Fred Taylor and Adrian Peterson. The Raiders need him to do it again.
He has plenty to work with in the form of Latavius Murray and Roy Helu. Between the two of them, Musgrave has the option of running the ball between the tackles and to the outside while also creating mismatches by sending them out to catch passes.
In 2014, the running game was a lost cause from the opening week. The running backs combined to crack 100 rushing yards just three times all season. The ground attack was non-existent. But rather than doing anything about, the coaches sometimes abandoned the ground game altogether, and no major adjustments were made to fix the issue.
The problem was twofold: the running backs were ineffective, and the play-calling was never adjusted. Musgrave can’t fall into this same cycle of complacency. He has to consistently get the ball into the hands of Murray and Helu. If the ground attack isn’t working, the play-calling has to adjust to make it work.
Murray showed the ability to find running lanes and burst through them, so he has to get about 20 touches a game. Helu is a proven receiving threat, so he needs to catch passes out of the backfield five to 10 times a game. Musgrave has to create an efficient combination of these two options and implement it consistently.
The Wild Cards
While Carr, Murray and Cooper will be asked to carry the bulk of the offensive responsibility, they can’t do it alone. In order for the Oakland offense to be successful, Marcel Reece, Clive Walford and the high-priced offensive line also have to have significant roles in the offensive game plan.
Perhaps the biggest mystery on offense heading into the season is what exactly Marcel Reece's role will be. With Musgrave's offense eliminating the fullback position, Reece is now a player without a position. That makes it even more difficult to guess what the three-time Pro Bowler's role will be.
Reece will most likely step in as the starting H-back. This move should benefit Reece and the offense as a whole. ESPN scout Matt Williamson had this to say about Reece’s change of position (via ESPN’s Bill Williamson):
Reece is perfect for such a role. I think he hasn't been utilized nearly enough as a move player/pass catcher of late and I have no doubt he can do it. He has great hands and is an accomplished route runner. I could see him developing into a similar player in this offense as Charles Clay in Miami.
As NBC Bay Area's Doug Williams points out, "In 2014, the Dolphins’ [Charles] Clay, a tight end/H-back, had 58 catches for 605 yards and three TDs." Given the touches, Reece could put up similar stats. It's up to Musgrave to ensure he gets them.
How good can rookie Clive Walford be? It's still early, but he already looks like he could be Oakland's future at tight end.
Walford is an all-around tight end capable of being a solid blocker and a dangerous receiver on any given play. Still, Musgrave shouldn't put too much on Walford's plate too soon. Easing him into the offense and gradually increasing what's expected of him would be a better approach.
While Walford shouldn't start as a rookie, he still needs to be a featured part of the offense. Last season, Mychal Rivera helped his own at tight end, but he had no help, especially in the pass-catching department.
To get the most out of both tight ends and the position as a whole, Musgrave must incorporate an effective rotation to get them their opportunities. Two-tight end formations should also be used frequently. Between Walford and Rivera, the Raiders have a tight end duo good enough to impose their will over the middle against any defense.
According to Over the Cap, the Raiders have the second-most expensive offensive line in 2015 at a total cost of over $33 million. For that big of an investment, the offensive line has to make a major impact.
The impact of this unit starts at center with prized free agent Rodney Hudson. To his left are left guard Gabe Jackson and right tackle Donald Penn. This trio should impose its will in run blocking and pass protection.
The right side of the line remains a question mark. But in Khalif Barnes and Austin Howard, the Raiders at least have experience at right guard and right tackle. They might not be too impressive, but they should be effective.
What this unit does have is size. As reported by Raiders Beat, the Oakland O-line is the second-biggest in the league, weighing it at an average of 320.6 pounds per lineman.
Musgrave needs to make use of this. These are some big boys, so let them play big and physically impose their will.
This will be especially important in the run game, which should have a major impact. The ground game, which was one of Oakland's biggest weaknesses last season, should be turned into a strength by taking advantage of this unit.
The Raiders have a lot of new parts on offense. Even key returning starters such as Carr, Rivera and Jackson are still young and learning the NFL game.
This relative youth and inexperience means some bumps should be expected on the road to success.
Still, there's too much talent on offense for this team to be anything less than efficient. It might take the entire season for this unit to become truly dangerous, but there's enough there for this offense to average at least 20 points per game in 2015, which would be a marked improvement from last year's paltry 15.8 points per game.
The players will depend on Musgrave's ability to put them in positions to succeed. This offense has the potential to surprise the entire NFL. Now, it's up to the new offensive coordinator to make it happen.
What do you think is the Oakland offense's key to success in 2015? Share your thoughts in the comments section below and on Twitter @BrianJ_Flores.