Sparano In As Raiders Interim Head Coach

As you’ve no doubt heard by now, offensive line coach Tony Sparano has been made the Raiders’ interim head coach for the rest of the season, after Dennis Allen’s dismissal yesterday. Offensive coordinator Greg Olson and offensive consultant Al Saunders had also been mentioned as possible candidates for the interim job, but Sparano has the most recent head coaching experience. No word yet on who will replace Sparao as position coach for the o-line.

It has to be said that Allen was not only just part of the problem, but not even the largest part of the problem. Reggie McKenzie has to know that if the team doesn’t somehow become more competitive over the next 12 games, he is gone at the end of the season as well. Probably the only reason he wasn’t fired along with Allen is that it’s just too much housecleaning at one time with the season already well under way.

This also buys Mark Davis several months to recruit and interview potential general managers and head coaches for the next rebuilding project. A lot of people are blaming Davis for interviewing only McKenzie, but remember that McKenzie also had the endorsement of John Madden and Ron Wolf, two men who have loomed large throughout Davis’ life, and played critical roles in the Raiders’ most successful years. Davis has acknowledged that he does not possess anywhere near the football knowledge his father did, so it makes sense that he would trust the judgment of Madden and Wolf.

What it really comes down to is whether Mark Davis, unlike his father, is willing to spend what it takes to get elite coaching and managing talent in his front office, or if he continues to pretend that you don’t get exactly what you pay for, and gets that his team simply has too many issues and holes to fill to be resolved by bargain-hunting coaches. Even experienced, top-shelf managers and coaches are going to have their hands full rebuilding this roster. Again. Aside from possibly the linebackers, if they can get and remain healthy, there is not a single area of this team that won’t need either a serious rebuild next season (running backs, defensive secondary, defensive line) or a lot of attention and work (wide receivers, offensive line).

Dennis Allen Fired

According to Jay Glazer just a few minutes ago, Dennis Allen has been handed his walking papers. Offensive line coach (and assistant head coach) Tony Sparano has been assumed by most observers to be the likely replacement for Allen for the rest of the season, though over the past week Greg Olson has been the subject of much speculation. Given that Sparano is the only member of the coaching staff signed through next season, and the offense has been dismal, Sparano makes more sense.

The team still has Reggie McKenzie and a ridonkulously bad roster for the rest of the season, however.

Game Grades: Raiders vs. Dolphins

Pass Offense:  On the opening drive, Carr spread the ball around with precision and purpose, capping it off with a nice 3-yard TD to TE Brian Leonhardt. That was pretty much it — the rest of the passing offense, whether with Carr or McGloin, consisted of tipped passes, poor throws, interceptions, and indifferent route-running. At least there’s some consistency in that. Depending on whether McGloin or Schaub starts the next game in Week 6, we’ll see if that continues. Grade:  D+

Rush Offense:  Is there a rush offense? If so, it was hidden well today, a grand total of 18 running plays for 53 yards, including 2 runs each by Carr and McGloin for a total of 12 yards. Jones-Drew had 2 runs for 1 yard total. Murray and Reece weren’t used at all. With predictable formations and mediocre run blocking, McFadden was lucky to get 40 yards on 11 carries. Grade:  D-

Pass Defense:  Watching Ryan Tannehill have his way with the defense, you wouldn’t know he was on the verge of being benched for poor performance in the last two games. At one point Tannehill had 14 consecutive pass completions. The defensive line continues to get no pressure or penetration. LaMarr Woodley, who has a 2-year, $12M contract, had zero tackles today, and in fact has a grand total of one tackle and two assists for the season so far. Grade:  F

Rush Defense:  Turns out Tannehill is a threat with his feet as well. Who knew? The Dolphins racked up 158 total rushing yards, including 35 for Tannehill, who made like Terrelle Pryor on a couple of bootlegs and misdirections. (In case you’re wondering, that 35 yards brings Tannehill’s total for the season so far to 53 yards. He is not, it doesn’t need to be pointed out, known as a scrambler or running threat.) While the Dolphins didn’t have break any huge plays, they didn’t need to, content to gash an impotent front seven at will. Grade:  D-

Special Teams:  Good thing Marquette King continues to be consistently excellent in his punting. Coverage was solid, with no particularly large punt or kickoff returns for the Dolphins. T.J. Carrie had a nice punt return, while Latavius Murray needs to learn to just take a knee in the end zone, as he shows no real speed or burst on his returns. Grade:  C+

Coaching:  What can anyone say? The song remains the same — injured linebackers, old and slow defensive line, rookie quarterback, no line push for a running game, etc. Certainly some of it comes down to not making the most of a record amount of cap money to spend in free agency. In the end it comes down to coaching up players and developing schemes that utilize the strengths of the players you have, not the players you wish you had. Time and again, Dennis Allen, Greg Olson, and Jason Tarver fail to do those things with any consistency or effectiveness. Of the first four teams the Raiders faced this season, probably only the Patriots will make the playoffs (and maybe not even them). Yet the Raiders continue to regress, and make second-rate teams and quarterbacks look elite. Grade:  F

Week 4 Final: Dolphins 38, Raiders 14

 

The Raiders continue to generously cure whatever ails mediocre opponents, putting in their worst performance yet this season. In a “home” game at Wembley Stadium in London, Oakland got whipped in all phases of the game by the Miami Dolphins, who were coming off two games that they had lost by 19 points each.defbunch

Whatever “moral” victory last week’s close contest in New England held for the Raiders was completely engulfed in the London fog, before a sellout crowd of 90,000 and an international broadcast audience. In other words, this time the embarrassment went global.

As with the home opener against the Texans two weeks ago, the game was even less close than the score indicates. The offense looked sharp and poised on the opening drive, Derek Carr spreading the ball around at will as the Raiders marched right into the end zone for a 7-0 lead. Finally a corner had been turned, and maybe the team, winless since November 17th of last season, could finally put one in the “W” column.

That optimism would prove to be short-lived, as the Raiders offense sputtered, and Miami rolled up 38 unanswered points, passing and running effortlessly through a confused, over-matched defense. Carr was injured (high ankle sprain) in the 3rd quarter, and Matt McGloin finished the game, passing for one touchdown to Andre Holmes long after the game was out of reach. McGloin also threw an interception, and bobbled a faulty snap that was recovered by Cortland Finnegan for a 50-yard fumble return.

The Raiders looked awful enough today that whatever “progress” that took place against the Patriots might also be attributed to Bill Belichick knowing that he could beat them anyway, and so chose to run a very basic game plan, preferring not to tip his hand to the Patriots’ opponents in future weeks. It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not; what matters is that the Raiders have been bad enough that it could be true.

If this was what the players and coaches look like fighting for the coaches to keep their jobs, then the Raiders are in even worse shape than most people assumed. The team is so lacking in talent and direction right now that it’s hard to see what different or better coaching is going to produce, but it’s just as hard to look at the remaining 12 games this season and see the Raiders winning any of them. They have the bye week to figure out where to go from here.

Game Preview: Raiders vs. Dolphins (in London)

Miami has had Oakland’s number in the past several matchups, regardless of location. This might finally change, in what is being billed as a “home” game for the Raiders, but is of course being played in Wembley Stadium in England. Aside from the more-or-less neutral ground, the real advantage for the Raiders is that they arrived in London yesterday morning, while the Dolphins will not land until Friday.

Statistically, the teams are evenly matched in a few areas, notably passing yards per game. The big differences offensively, of course, are that Miami has a solid running game and is averaging a full 7 points more per game than the Raiders.

Obviously, this game is considered a must-win for Dennis Allen, and possibly some of the assistant coaches as well. After two listless showings against the Jets and Texans, the Raiders showed some signs of life last week at New England. But they need to get the running game going, and they need to get into the end zone. Hopefully the return of Maurice Jones-Drew gives them the 1-2 punch they envisioned with MoJo and DMac.

It all begins with the offensive line, which of course has several new pieces and is in the process of gelling. Pass protection has actually been pretty good — Carr hasn’t been sacked since Week 1 — but they have yet to open up any game-breaking holes for the running backs to burst through. And Greg Olson isn’t doing McFadden, a one-cut-and-go runner if there ever was one, any favors by slamming him straight up the middle 90% of the time.

We’ll get into this in more depth during the upcoming bye week, but the Raiders’ defensive problems are rooted in the offense’s inability to sustain drives, chew up clock time, and find the end zone regularly. No defense is going to look good being stuck on the field an average of 35 minutes per game.

All that said, this game is highly winnable for the Raiders. After their Week 1 upset over the Patriots, the Dolphins have dropped their last two games by 19 points each, including last week’s 34-15 smackdown at home by the Chiefs, during which Kansas City rolled up 175 rushing yards, and only had to punt twice.

Keys to victory

Offensive:

  1. Can’t say it enough — success for this team pretty much begins and ends with establishing a decent running game. McFadden is running hard, but the line has to help him, Jones-Drew, and Latavius Murray with better blocking. When one RB can’t find the hole, the RB is the problem; when none of them can find it, the line is the problem.
  2. Take some chances. There’s some value to the conservative approach Greg Olson has chosen to take in developing Derek Carr, and no one’s saying throw deep early and often. But they have to start playing more like there’s nothing to lose, because that’s really the case at this point, for the coaches and the players. Miami is actually giving up more passing yards than Oakland (198.7 to 183.3), and has no real threats in the defensive secondary. Take advantage of those matchups; put 6’4″ Andre Holmes up against any of Miami’s cornerbacks and safeties, all of whom are under 6′ tall.

Defensive:

  1. Stop Miami’s running game. The Dolphins are averaging 137.3 rushing yards per game, and gained 140 last week against a stout Chefs defense. The Raiders’ linebacking corps is decimated with injuries right now, but the front seven have to step up and shut down Lamar Miller. Knowshon Moreno is out with an injury.
  2. Third down conversions. Aside from being on the filed so much, this has been the biggest defensive woe by far. The Raiders are third-worst in the league, giving up 51.1% of 3rd-down conversions. (The league median is 42%, and Houston leads the league by far, allowing only 27% of 3rd-down plays to convert.) If they don’t find a way to resolve this issue, it will dog them the entire season, and lose them even more games.

 

Game Grades: Raiders vs. Patriots

Pass Offense: A little bit of everything — some nice grabs, some drops, and a game-killing bounce off of Denarius Moore’s hands into the waiting arms of Vince Wilfork. No sacks allowed, but also no touchdowns. With just 3 games under his belt, Derek Carr already looks like a keeper. How much better would Carr be with a true #1 receiver to work with? Grade: C

Rush Offense: Darren McFadden is running hard, but between the o-line’s inability to create holes for him, and Greg Olson’s insistence on running him straight up the middle every time, it’s just not enough to create balanced production in this offense. Latavius Murray had a few carries for no gain. The holding call on Gabe Jackson, which nullified McFadden’s touchdown run, was legit (barely), but we’ve all seen teams get away with far worse. Grade: D+

Pass Defense: Cornerback, like wide receiver, is a position for this team that continues to be inadequate, and as often as not a liability. Too much turnover, and not enough talent. It doesn’t help that linebackers are already depleted from injuries, but Edelman and Gronkowski found themselves open far too often, considering the whole world knew that those two were Brady’s best options. The defense did manage two sacks, but third-down conversions continue to be a problem, as the Patriots converted 50%. Grade: C-

Rush Defense: Only 74 rushing yards total for New England is a huge improvement over the first two efforts, and both Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen were held to less than 3 yards per carry, and nothing longer than 11 yards. It’s not a coincidence that the Raiders’ time of possession this time wasn’t nearly as lopsided as it was the first two games (28:25, versus 25:10 against the Jets and a miserable 21:24 against the Texans). Grade: B

Special Teams: Janikowski made all three field goal attempts, and King continues to punt well. Janikowski’s final, short kickoff was odd, and gave the Patriots better field position, but other than that, the special team performance was solid, if unspectacular. Grade: B-

Coaching: The coaching staff deserves some credit for getting players to show up playing ready and motivated. Unlike the previous two outings, at no point did this game feel like it was getting out of hand. While the conservative game-planning is understandable, as they don’t want to undermine or endanger Carr, and they really don’t have the talent to take too many risks, they have to find ways to take better advantage of McFadden’s skill set, and get him outside on some sweeps once in a while. Allowing Carr to take at least a few more downfield shots would also help. They might as well start coaching like they have nothing to lose, because that’s really the case at this point. Grade: C

Game Grades: Raiders vs. Jets

Pass Offense: About as good as one can expect from a rookie QB making his first start on the East Coast, where the Raiders always have trouble. The lack of downfield shots until the game was out of hand is more an issue with the conservative play-calling than with Carr’s ability. The Raiders have to balance their need to keep Carr upright with the need to take chances, and operate with more of a sense of urgency. Grade: D+

Rush Offense: Non-existent. Maurice Jones-Drew gained 11 yards on 9 carries, with a long of 12. That is not a typo. Darren McFadden fared little better, gaining 15 yards on 4 carries. The Jets’ front seven are stout, no doubt, but the Raiders will not win any games with only 35 yards rushing. Both McFadden and Jones-Drew do their best running on the outside, so it might be worth trying that once in a while, rather than plowing them straight up the middle into a brick wall. Just a thought. Grade: F

 

Pass Defense:  The lone highlight of the pass D was Charles Woodson’s diving interception in the first quarter. For the rest of the game, there were blown coverages and playing too far off the receiver, leaving the Raiders vulnerable to short passes being turned into larger run-after-catch receptions. Sio Moore had a nice sack late in the game, but for the most part, there was very little pass rush. Grade: D

 

Rush Defense: 212 yards given up, including a 71-yard backbreaker from Chris Ivory, says it all. Chris Johnson also averaged over 5 yards per carry on his 13 rushes. Even Geno Smith got in the act, converting a 3rd-and-13 with a 17-yard scramble. Supposedly the new defensive-line free agents (Tuck, Woodley, and Smith) were going to help with stuffing the run, a real sore spot in recent years. That was not the case today. Grade:  F

 

Special Teams:  Hey, that Marquette King can really punt, can’t he? King had about 400 yards on 9 punts, more than twice the Raiders’ offensive output. Coverage and returns were solid, nothing special. Latavius Murray had a decent 38-yard return, but field position didn’t help the offense much in the first place. Grade:  C+

 

Coaching:  Dennis Allen made a big deal about getting the team over to New York a day earlier than usual, to avoid jet lag and to get sufficient practice and preparation. needless to say, it didn’t pay off, as both offense and defense looked haphazard and unprepared at crucial moments. Grade:  D

Week 1 Final: Jets 19, Raiders 14

Well, another season opener in the tank — the Raiders have won only one opening game since 2002 (2011, in Denver). The game was not as close as the score would imply, but Derek Carr and James Jones made it respectable toward the end with an excellent pass and catch.

Full game stats here.

You can see that the Jets beat the Raiders pretty solidly in just about every single category. The only reason this wasn’t a blowout is because the Jets dropped two passes in the end zone, and Geno Smith fumbled and lost the ball on the Raiders’ 3-yard line. Hopefully the home opener against Houston next goes a little more according to plan, but Ryan Fitzpatrick is at least a competent game manager, and JJ Watt and Jadeveon Clowney may find themselves in the Raiders’ backfield all day if the o-line isn’t up to it.

Game Preview: Raiders at Jets

Keys to victory:

  1. Get the run game going early and often. This will be a tough one, as the Jets’ defensive front seven are stout. But it will be crucial to keeping Derek Carr from having to take too many shots, or getting too banged up.
  2. Defensive pressure on Geno Smith. The position group most upgraded in free agency was the defensive line, with Justin Tuck, Lamarr Woodley, and Antonio Smith. Like any young QB, Geno Smith tends to make mistakes and turn the ball over when pressured. Chris Johnson and Chris Ivory are both solid runners, but if the Raiders can contain them and force Smith to throw as much as possible, they have a better chance of producing turnovers.
  3. The offensive play-calling will be conservative, understandably so. But a few shots downfield here and there, picking on the Jets’ depleted secondary, is a must. Carr is certainly capable of this, and some of his receivers have potential to help break some big plays.

 

Jet(s) Lag

Looks like the Raiders will head for New York a day early, on Thursday, in order to better acclimate to an East Coast trip. Probably no team in the league — and certainly no West Coast team, as we’ll see — has been as snake-bit as the Raiders have, when it comes to traveling across the country. They’ve lost 13 straight in the Eastern Time Zone; their last one was that great 27-24 comeback win on 12/6/2009 in Pittsburgh, led by Bruce Gradkowski.

So what about the other three West Coast (Pacific Time Zone) teams — San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle? How well do those teams fare when they travel east? Let’s take a look at the Eastern Time Zone (including Wembley Stadium in England) records for each of those teams, going back to the 2010 season:

San Francisco (10-3) Seattle (6-6) San Diego (5-9)
12/15/2013 — 49ers 33, Bucs 14 12/15/2013 — Seahawks 23, Giants 0 11/17/2013 — Dolphins 20, Chargers 16
11/25/2013 — 49ers 27, Redskins 6 11/10/2013 — Seahawks 33, Falcons 10 11/3/2013 — Redskins 30, Chargers 24
10/27/2013 — 49ers 42, Jaguars 10 ** 10/6/2013 — Colts 34, Seahawks 28 10/20/2013 — Chargers 24, Jaguars 6
12/16/2012 — 49ers 41, Patriots 34 9/8/2013 – Seahawks 12, Panthers 7 9/15/2013 — Chargers 33, Eagles 30
9/30/2012 — 49ers 34, Jets 0 12/16/2012 — Seahawks 50, Bills 17 * 12/23/2012 — Chargers 27. Jets 17
11/24/2011 — Ravens 16, 49ers 6 11/25/2012 — Dolphins 24, Seahawks 21 12/9/2012 — Chargers 34. Steelers 24
11/6/2011 — 49ers 19, Redskins 11 10/28/2012 — Lions 28, Seahawks 24 11/11/2012 — Bucs 34, Chargers 24
10/16/2011 — 49ers 25, Lions 19 10/7/2012 — Seahawks 16, Panthers 12 10/28/2012 — Browns 7, Chargers 6
10/2/2011 — 49ers 24, Eagles 23 10/23/2011 — Browns 6, Seahawks 3 12/24/2011 — Lions 38, Chargers 10
9/25/2011 — 49ers 13, Bengals 8 10/9/2011 — Seahawks 36, Giants 25 12/5/2011 — Chargers 38, Jaguars 14
10/31/2010 — 49ers 24, Broncos 16 ** 9/18/2011 — Steelers 24, Seahawks 0 10/23/2011 — Jets 27, Chargers 21
10/24/2010 — Panthers 23, 49ers 20 12/26/2010 — Bucs 38, Seahawks 15 9/18/2011 — Patriots 35, Chargers 21
10/3/2010 — Falcons 16, 49ers 14 12/26/2010 — Bengals 34, Chargers 20
12/28/2010 — Chargers 36, Colts 14

* – Rogers Stadium in Toronto (Eastern Time Zone)
** – Wembley Stadium (London, England)

I’ve always been the sort of fan that believes that teams that focus on winning at home and winning their division have the best chance overall at success. (After all, just doing those two things puts you at least at 11-5.) So it’s easy to see where sometimes cross-country games (especially traveling from west to east, which is a longer flight) might be lower priority.

But I don’t think there’s any sort of “east coast jinx” here for the Raiders, since they haven’t been able to win at home or win division games consistently either. It’s just another symptom of all the things that have dogged them this past decade — lack of talent, depth, coaching, continuity, poor draft and free agent choices, etc. Good teams win games wherever they play.

It’s still something they need to overcome, whatever the cause. The Raiders have three Eastern Time Zone games (Jets, Patriots, Browns) plus the Dolphins game in Wembley (which is considered a home game for the Raiders). All of those games are in the first half of the season, and all but Cleveland take place in the first four weeks. That’s a lot of traveling in a short period of time.

So obviously it’s going to be critical that they get a strong start to this season, if they are going to show improvement. And the Jets are beatable, though they have many of the same questions as the Raiders, on offense and defense. Hopefully the extra day gives them a better shot at it.